“I am what I am because of who we all are.”
Five men who bonded together over five years of success, failure, passion, emotion, strife, resilience, domination, comebacks, friendship, glory, blood, sweat and tears. Five men who led by example in today’s era of big egos and fragile minds, of a ‘me-first’ attitude and flash over substance. Five men who showed that they could overlook beyond everything that could pull them apart and focus on everything else that can keep them together.
Coach Doc Rivers, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett. The core of the 2007-12 ‘Ubuntu’ Boston Celtics. A team that was born out of instability, but immediately quashed it to become one of the most memorable squads in recent basketball history. A team that only one won championship together, but carry with them an aura of greatness rarely bestowed upon multiple champions.
With time finally catching up with this Celtics’ core, last week’s Game 7 loss to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals may have been the last time that fans got a chance to see Rondo, Allen, Pierce, and Garnett in Celtics Green and as coached by one of the most commanding leaders in the current NBA, Doc Rivers. There are rumours that Ray Allen’s time with the Celtics is most-certainly done. People wonder if Kevin Garnett will be back playing home games at the TD Garden next season.
As a fan of the game, I certainly hope that the Allen and Garnett (and later, Pierce, and much later, Rondo), remain with the team that gave them so much of their identity until they retire. But if that’s not to happen, then instead of lamenting on the future, let’s celebrate the past of what these five individuals forming the core of the Celtics franchise have achieved in the past five years.
Back in 2007, the Celtics were dwindling away into obscurity despite having a regular All Star (Paul Pierce), a few potential yet inconsistent pieces for the future (Rondo, Al Jefferson, Gerald Green), and a former Coach of the Year (Rivers) in their squad. They had finished with the worst record in the NBA and fallen out of the top two in the 2007 draft (which featured the cursed Greg Oden and the blessed Kevin Durant). So it was at this moment that Celtics GM Danny Ainge made two bold moves that sealed his legacy as an executive forever.
Ainge traded away his draft pick to Seattle for All Star Ray Allen. A couple of weeks later, the Celtics took part in one of the biggest trades in NBA history, giving away five players and two draft picks to Minnesota to bring in superstar Kevin Garnett. Armed with a core of Pierce, Allen, and Garnett, there was a lot of optimism in Boston; even though, even back in 2007, the three players were considered to be old and past their prime.
Pierce and Allen played their part, but Garnett changed everything. KG brought in a culture of strong defensive effort and a winning mentality that spread infectiously throughout the Boston locker room, from his co-stars to the assistant coaches. This was the first time in a long time that three great All Star players would have to share the same stage, putting their own superstar egos aside to win their first championships.
That’s where ‘Ubuntu’ kicked in.
Ubuntu is described as an African humanist philosophy ‘focusing on people’s allegiances and relations to each other’. It’s the philosophy that puts ‘We’ over ‘I’, it’s about interconnectedness, about understanding that human beings can’t exist in isolation and put the greater good of the collective over the self. From the moment that the 2007-08 Boston Celtics got together, they embraced this philosophy, chanting ‘Ubuntu’ in their huddles and playing with unselfishness on the court as the perfect basketball display of teamwork. No number of All Star appearances, MVPs, or million-dollar contracts could make up for the fact that none of the major players in that squad had won with a team.
That first season, the Celtics immediately kicked into full gear, playing as if they had been playing together forever. They went from the NBA’s worst record to its best (66-16) in that one season, and were immediately favourites to lift the crown. Kevin Garnett was named Defensive Player of the Year, Ray Allen accepted his role as mostly a grab-and-shoot player, and Paul Pierce saved his on-ball dominance for brief moments when it really mattered for him to take over. Running the show was a young, oft-criticised point guard named Rajon Rondo. Back then, there was pressure on Rondo as an unproven young player trying to run an offense with three future Hall-of-Famers. Rondo survived it, and so did the Celtics, as they won their only NBA title of the ‘Ubuntu’ generation 4-2 over the Lakers.
If the first year of these Celtics was all about brilliance and domination, the next four have been about their fighting spirit. The Celtics gained the world’s respect for being winners in 2008; in 2009-2012, they have gained respect for their resilience. Year after year, Boston took the worst kind of blows but the core of Rivers, Rondo, Allen, Pierce, and Garnett bounced back to fight till the very end.
An injury to Garnett ended his 2009 season early, and the Celtics failed to go far in the playoffs without him. A year later, in 2010, Boston were being overlooked for being past their prime after they finished a humbling 4th place in the East. But in the playoffs, now fully healthy, the Celtics went on a legendary run that saw them back in the Finals against the Lakers. While Garnett, Allen, and Pierce had slowed down a little from their 2008 run, Rondo had surprisingly emerged as the team’s most important player, especially in the big games. With Kendrick Perkins rounding up the starting five, the team came within one legendary game of winning another NBA Championship but failed to the Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
A year later, the Celtics added another future hall-of-fame personality – Shaquille O’Neal – to their core. While Shaq’s time in Boston won’t be remembered because of his injuries, ‘The Big Leprechaun’ did show cohesiveness with the Ubuntu system in his few healthy months with the team. Slowed further by the cruel hands of ‘Father Time’, the Celtics made their biggest move since 2007 – giving away their championship-winning Center Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder in return for Jeff Green. Green never meshed into the system and the Celtics never recovered from the emotional loss of Perkins. They lost in the 2011 Playoffs after a Rondo injury to the Miami Heat.
But if there’s one thing that this core is known for, it’s bouncing back up when they seem down and out. Boston responded with another memorable season in 2012. Holding on to a losing record halfway into the season, the Celtics improved drastically to find themselves boosted to fourth place in the East again. Now inching closer to the second half of their 30s, the Celtics were carried even more by the brilliant Rondo, who further morphed into the undisputed best player of the team and one of the best point guards in the NBA. Meanwhile, Kevin Garnett rediscovered a second life: hungry to make the most of every moment with his Boston teammates, Garnett played with a force and ferocity not seen for years, becoming the best big man in the 2012 Playoffs.
With Dwight Howard injured for the Magic and Derrick Rose for the Heat, the Celtics found a clearer route to the Conference Finals. But they had their own issues, too: Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox, and Jermaine O’Neal had been out for most of the season, while Avery Bradley injured himself in the second round. Despite everything, and despite facing a stacked Miami Heat squad in the Conference Finals, the Celtics came game one away from a third Finals appearance in five years.
By the 4th quarter of Game 7 in Miami, the brilliance of LeBron, Wade, and Bosh was finally too much for them. With the game seemingly settled in the last minute, Doc Rivers took out his four best players to an emotional ovation from the away crowd. Kevin Garnett was the last one to leave the court.
Somewhere in the back of their heads they felt that the future was uncertain, that they may never again recreate that kinship that they shared in Boston for these past five years. Their futures could take them into several different paths. Ray Allen could be signed to another contender to just come off the bench and score open threes. Kevin Garnett’s Boston future is uncertain, and even if he does return, these playoffs may have been the last time that we saw him at his best. Paul Pierce will continue to make the most of the least and will dream of retiring with the team that drafted him. Rondo has the potential of being one of the best top five players in the NBA. Doc Rivers has a few more years on his contract, but will any other group make him happy to coach again?
But wherever the future takes them, they will always have their past. They will always have those battles that they fought together, the comebacks they made, the troubles they overcame, and the championship they won. They will leave with the legacy of ‘Ubuntu’ basketball at its purest. The legacy of these Boston Celtics will always be above the legacy of the individuals who made this era – Rivers, Rondo, Allen, Pierce, and Garnett – put together. ‘We’ will always be above ‘I’.