Carry the fire

BEFORE GAME 3 of the World Series in Detroit, the fraternity of the sport bloomed. Opposing players, from Gerald Laird and Prince Fielder to Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum, exchanged embraces. Former pros who had moved on to their second acts, in the broadcast booth (Kevin Millar, David Wells, Dennis Eckersley) and the MLB Players Association (Bobby Bonilla, Tony Clark), caught up with the relatively recently retired (Frank Thomas, Pudge Rodriguez). Even the GM of the Tigers and the CEO of the Giants, Dave Dombrowski and Larry Baer, took time for the obligatory on-field bro hug.

By now, the hard-assed old-schoolers no longer bat an eye at the frothy camaraderie, the competitive line crossing, once verboten. Bob Gibson, Jack Morris, guys who would put you in the dirt before shaking your hand -- now they just let it go. There is disapproval on their faces but minimal protest. The fight was lost long ago.

In the money game, it all makes sense. The players are the gilded. They have the same agents. They live in the same exclusive gated communities. A few years ago, Gary Sheffield walked into the Yankees' clubhouse upset, not because of where he was hitting in the lineup but because his real estate agent told him that morning he had been wait-listed for, not guaranteed, a condo in the same Caribbean escape as Derek Jeter. Football players, brothers in the death sport, hold hands and pray at midfield after surviving another Sunday.

Those who subscribe to the old rules are the ones who cause a furor now. Witness opening night in the NBA, when Kevin Garnett froze out ex-comrade Ray Allen. KG's cold-shoulder act wasn't for show. It wasn't for the cameras. He'd been doing it all summer, ever since his teammate of five years left the Celtics to join the Heat. The message, in these times of jumping ship and teaming up, was undeniable. Garnett is a Boston Celtic, and the Heat are a true rival, a team that stands in the way of his ultimate goal. After all the brutal regular-season battles, after the consecutive playoff losses to Miami, after the revival of the Celtics name (of which Allen is a historical part), Allen chose the one team against which basketball in Boston could not be more personal -- and that could not be countenanced.

Although Garnett has taken his share of grief for his treatment of Allen, there was animus behind the guard's decision to sign with the Heat too. The fractures on the Celtics -- from Allen's rift with Rajon Rondo to his being benched during last season and the playoffs -- clearly left the veteran guard with a desire to leave. If there was symbolism in Garnett's snub, so too was it obvious that Allen, for all his diplomacy, was not choosing to join just another team. It was as if Robert Parish had signed with the Lakers; KG responded exactly as Larry Bird would have.

There aren't many like Garnett left. Kobe Bryant is another. This void comes at a cost, for the NBA takes on the personality of its best players. In the 1980s, storied franchises dominated as the two best players -- Magic Johnson and Bird -- not only were the ultimate team players but forged their reputations by beating the best, contributing to the legend of the Lakers and Celtics as much as to their own. Today, in the age of LeBron, the game is a musical chairs of texting and buddying up, where collaboration trumps rivalry. Boston, it's worth noting, started the trend in 2007, when Danny Ainge pulled off the deals that created the first Big Three and breathed air into the dormant Celtics. Now the players -- Dwight Howard, most recently -- have taken it upon themselves to forge superteams, dulling the NBA's competitive edge with each move.

But you can trust that Garnett will never be blunted. He is the anti-LeBron, the anti-Howard. He is not everyone's pal. The logos are not disposable to him.

The Celtics' captain, Paul Pierce, said he believed that he, Allen and Garnett were destined to retire together. Allen, obviously, had a change of heart. KG, though, is forever faithful to the code, his loyalty and competitiveness serving as a welcome reminder that even in the age of sneakered millionaires, the fury of competition still matters to some.

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