By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Back in September, I watched "Open Your Eyes," a raw, unsettling Spanish movie about the line between dreams and reality (you might remember Cameron Crowe eventually remaking it as "Vanilla Sky"). And the movie did something to me. I can't really explain it. Knots in my stomach, a sense of dread, the whole thing. I kept saying to my girlfriend, "I don't know what's wrong with me ... that movie really messed with my head." Finally, I just went to bed.

World Trade Center
Whenever we see an airplane or a tall building, we're reminded of the tragedies of 9/11.

The next morning? Sept. 11.

Now ...

I have no idea what this means. Believe me. For the past eight months, I found myself wondering about it, even while immersed in the rejuvenated Boston sports scene during this recent Memorial Day weekend. 9/11 never really seems to drift away. I remember that day every time I see a fireman, every time I head to the airport, every time I hear the national anthem, every time I say hello to the Mideastern-looking people working at my local Dunkin' Donuts, every time I hear a fire engine's siren growing louder, every time I check the front page of a newspaper, every time I enter a high-rise building ... it never ends.

Airplanes always get me. I live fairly close to Logan Airport, where airplanes soar through the air, motionless, just cruising forward, making me remember 9/11 every time. There used to be a time when you stared at airplanes and thought, "Hey, cool, an airplane!" Now they look like the angel of death. And I think about that every time. Every time.

Same thing with the John Hancock Tower, a gorgeous blue building adorned with glass windows on every floor, standing proudly alongside the Prudential Center in downtown Boston. Back in the day, you stared up at this baby and marveled at its majesty. Now you can't help but think about bad things. Imagine seeing an airplane ripple through it. Imagine fires burning, people jumping, fireman running, floors slowly collapsing. Imagine the sound it makes when it's coming down. Imagine the horror, imagine the hell. Imagine. You can't help it.

To paraphrase Max Mercy's words in "The Natural," maybe I never played the game, but I make it a little more fun to follow. Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I don't. Those are the breaks. But after 9/11, I just assumed it was all over. That was it. I didn't want to write about sports any more than you wanted to read about them.

These are the residue images from 9/11, the subtle nuances that documentaries can't capture, the stories that nobody ever tells, the emotions that everyone feels and few people mention. I didn't lose close friends that day, but I lost a few readers, so I feel like I did. The sense of community on that front was overwhelming. Three days after 9/11, I wrote a rambling column weaving my own text with e-mails from readers, a piece that generates mail even today.

(As weird as this sounds, that's the one thing I've written in my entire life that I never actually read in a finished form. On the night of Sept. 13, I finished the final draft, e-mailed it to my editors and never looked at it again. I'm just not up to it yet. Maybe some day.)

That was a surreal week for me. ESPN pays me to write three columns a week from the vantage point of the average sports fan, and I concentrate mostly on the light-hearted side of sports, the comedy, the absurdities, all that stuff. To paraphrase Max Mercy's words in "The Natural," maybe I never played the game, but I make it a little more fun to follow. Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I don't. Those are the breaks. But after 9/11, I just assumed it was all over. That was it. I didn't want to write about sports any more than you wanted to read about them. I didn't want to cheer for my teams, argue about games ... I didn't want any of it. I wanted to do something else with my life.

But something strange happened. More than a few readers sent e-mails urging me to keep writing -- how did they know I was even thinking about quitting? -- telling me how much they enjoyed my writing, that one of the things that kept them level-headed was looking forward to my column three times a week. Maybe they meant it, maybe they were just being nice. And maybe there were 100 other columnists getting those same e-mails from some of their die-hard readers. Whatever. Those thoughts meant the world to me. I could take people's minds off everything that happened, even if it was only for 10-15 minutes, three times a week. I felt like I had a purpose.

So I threw myself into my job. That weekend, I attended "Hardball" and wrote my review for the following Tuesday. In other words, it took me four days to move from 9/11 to Keanu Reeves. Somehow, everyone understood. We needed to move forward, we needed to continue our lives, and we couldn't allow those bastards to disrupt us anymore than they already did. Even if it meant reading a column about a Keanu Reeves movie.

And that has been my life ever since. I write about sports-related subjects, ESPN sends me a paycheck every two weeks, and that's that. Pretty neat way to make a living.

Paul Pierce
Paul Pierce would have really celebrated had the Lakers drafted him.

There's a reason I'm telling you this. On Saturday afternoon, I attended Game 3 of the Celtics-Nets series in Boston. The game started off badly, partly because the Celtics came out flat, partly because many fans were delayed by metal detector problems at the front entrance (the 9/11 influence again). When everyone finally settled into their seats, we waited for the Celtics to start playing well ... and we waited ... and we waited ... with 13 minutes remaining in the game, we were still waiting. The Celtics were trailing by 25 points.

They finished the third quarter with two baskets (down by 21), then ripped off the first four points of the fourth quarter. Now the crowd was getting into it. When Paul Pierce flipped in a nifty reverse layup and drew the foul, the Fleet Center simply erupted. We had been itching to become involved all game; Pierce's play was the catalyst. Down by 14, 10 minutes remaining, the crowd going bonkers ... everyone seemed to be saying at the same time, "All right, we're not losing this @#$%&@ game."

So we threw ourselves into it. Maybe the beers helped, maybe we were just feeling rowdy, maybe we were just happy that the Celtics were good again. Whatever the reason, we made the collective decision that on May 25, 2002, the Boston Celtics weren't going to lose this game.

Once we took it to the next level, it lifted the Celtics to another gear. Pierce was slicing through the lane and repeatedly getting to the rim (he scored 19 points in the quarter, never shooting anything longer than a layup). The team was deflecting passes, hunting down loose balls, taking charges, grabbing rebounds ... it seemed like we had seven guys out there. The Nets started feeling the pressure, and we sensed them tensing up, which drove us to new heights.

Paul Pierce
If you look closely (at the guy in the white T-shirt on the far right), you'll see The Sports Guy soaking in the joy of the Celts' victory.

We kept going higher. And higher. When the Nets were on offense, we caused such a commotion that you couldn't even hear the person next to you. During timeouts, there were so many separate "Here we go Celtics, here we go (clap, clap)!" chants going, they all blended into one continuous, incoherent chant. When the Jumbotron attempted a video montage combining Celtics highlights with Al Pacino's locker room speech from "Any Given Sunday," we drowned it out. Whenever one of the Nets was shooting free throws, we sounded like the Coliseum in "Gladiator." Whenever something good happened for the Celtics, we reacted with full-scale pandemonium. Eventually, we were too much. We willed the Celtics to win the game. I really believe that.

And the boys pulled it off. Came back from 26 down, greatest playoff comeback of all-time, one for the ages, all that stuff. When the game ended, fans were leaping up and down, strangers were hugging one another, people had tears in their eyes, you name it. When was the last time you shared a room with 18,000 deliriously happy people? Does that happen anywhere else in life? Isn't that what sports is all about?

The players were feeling it, too. After the game ended, Antoine Walker collapsed on the floor, pounded the parquet with his hands, leaped to his feet, scaled the scorer's table and raised his arms to everyone in Section One. Meanwhile, Pierce was jumping up and down at midcourt, flanked by three of his teammates, all of them just jumping up and down like high school kids. Coach Jim O'Brien was pulling a Jim Valvano, wandering aimlessly around midcourt and pumping his fist, screaming pretty much incoherently. Unbridled joy. Eighteen thousand happy people, banding together for a common cause, accomplishing a goal, celebrating as one.

Remember that same crummy feeling I mentioned after seeing "Open Your Eyes," the feeling that something horrible was going to happen? This was the reverse. The Celtics were good again. Everyone was euphoric. Other than the metal detectors and the heartfelt national anthem, there wasn't a single reminder of 9/11 during the entire game. The entire night centered on two teams battling to make the NBA Finals, playing in front of a raucous crowd that wouldn't allow their team to lose. That was it. Sept. 11 never even entered the equation. On Memorial Day weekend, we weren't moving on, we were moving forward.

We stayed and cheered all the way through NBC's postgame interviews, if only to salute Walker and Pierce with one more barrage of heartfelt cheers. Then we skipped toward the exits, singing, "Let's go, Celtics!" in the runways, spilling joyously onto the streets, even loitering on Causeway Street while cars happily honked their horns. It almost felt like Mardi Gras, only without the beads and boobs. Nobody wanted to go home. Nobody wanted the night to end.

Of course, somewhere in the middle of this madness, my buddy J-Bug looked over at me, surveyed the wild scene on Causeway Street, glanced back at me and screamed, "Billy, you have to write a column about this!"

Absolutely. That's my job.

Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.