Thursday, March 03, 2005

Celtic pride

This relentless friggin' cold has me at the point where I'm seriously considering freebasing Vicks Vapo-Rub. But the Bubonic Plague followed by a quick-strike locust attack couldn't have kept me from watching the triumphant return of my man 'Toine tonight.

In between hits on my Vicks pipe, I pecked out a few observations. Here yer go:

~ Well, that was some homecoming, huh? Jumaine Jones, Chris Mihm and Chucky Atkins - so great to see you again! I keed, I keed - of course I'm talking about Antoine Walker, whose first game at the FleetCenter upon being traded back to the Celtics last week went pretty much as I expected. Some good, some bad, some ugly, but in the end, he walked off the court with a victory and a smile. Short synopsis of the evening: 'Toine, wearing his old familiar No. 8, received a rousing ovation in pregame introductions (more on that in a sec), set-up the Celtics' first bucket with the ol' lob-to-Pierce-in-the-post play that was their trademark connection the last time around, came out a little too enthusiastic and committed some 'Toinesque turnovers (dribbling off his foot on the break, stumbling and losing the ball out of bounds), scored on a couple of his patented unorthodox post moves, planted his butt on the block and grabbed 13 boards, including 6 offensive, sacrificed his own shots because Paul Pierce and Ricky Davis were so hot (29 points each), bricked a stick-a-dagger-in-'em 3 up four with a minute left, hugged Davis and beamed after the final buzzer, and possibly even got a wet smooch from a love-struck Willie Maye as he floated to the locker room, arms raised, elated and victorious. All in all, a good night to be a Celtics fan, and a great night to be 'Toine. Yeah, you bet I loved it.

~ This was the most anticipated regular season Celtics game in years, the one Fox Sports New England has been praying for ever since - well, when, the beginning of the Rick Pitino era? CyberToine's homecoming was a guaranteed ratings bonanza compared to the puny fractions and decimal points Celtics telecasts are used to, and you can bet a hell of a lot of televisions were tuned into the network at precisely 7:30 p.m. to watch the pregame introductions. I know I wasn't the only one getting chills thinking about the ovation 'Toine would get. So what happens? Fox, as is the network policy, blows it. They cut to a commercial, then hurried through a replay of Walker's warm welcome a few minutes and about three Foxwoods commercials after it actually happened. The moment was totally diminished. I'm convinced that the only two qualifications you need to run a sports network is that you are a pompous ass and that you don't have a stinkin' clue about what a sports fan wants. At the least, FSNE qualifies on the latter count, I'm now certain.

~ It remains, however, a joy to hear FSNE's Mike Gorman call a game. Is there a more underrated play-by-play guy in the history of Boston sports? He's got great pipes, has a few clever but never cloying catch phrases ("Paul takes it . . . makes it!"), and he does it all while keeping Tommy Heinsohn from committing Murder One on a referee (reportedly with the help of elephant tranquilizers). I'd say Gorman is the best broadcaster we've got in Boston sports right now, with the possible exception of Gil Santos. That he isn't a relentless self-promoter like so many others in the business only makes me appreciate him more.

~ Gorman gave a shout-out tonight to Al Jefferson's mom, wishing the mother of the Next Great Celtic a happy birthday. No word as to whether or not her nickname is Weezie. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

~ This one's for the amateur psychologists out there: Is it possible that Kobe Bryant doesn't actually have a personality of his own? I watch him on the court - I said on, not in - and everything he does - and I mean everything - is straight out of the Be Like Mike handbook. The smirk/shrug combo when he hits a big shot. The lip-licking sticking-out-the-tongue thing (a habit also cribbed from LL Cool J.) Every last one of his moves, right down to the unstoppable fadeaway jumper. I'm thinking Jordan could someday have a Single White Female situation on his hands, especially since Kobe seems increasingly desperate by the week.

~ Justin Reed, the Celtics' second-round pick who has spent much of the season stashed on the injured list with a bad case of dust mites (or something equally improbable), saw 10 minutes of meaningful playing time tonight and was impressive. He knocked down a pair of pictureque jumpers - teeing them up without hesitation, a good sign - and hassled Bryant to the point that Kobe shook his head and smiled at the kid. (Like Mike . . . if I could be like Mike . . .) I'm jumping the gun, but is it possible Danny Ainge found four fantastic rookies this season? Red must be proud of ol' No. 44.

~ My wife, upon seeing Delonte West: "What a weird-looking guy. Is he the leprechaun?" Kinda makes me think maybe he was destined to be a Celtic.

~ It's becoming common for the 'EEI nitwits to say that Ricky Davis is the Corey Dillon of the Celtics. I can see where they get that theory - both guys have cornrows, resulting in many frightened white people, and both have earned a reputation as a malcontent along the way. But there's one notable difference: Dillon, before buying into the Patriots program and rehabbing his reputation, often came across as dour and detached during his Cincinnati days, a point he drove home by chucking his pads into the stands after the final game of the 2003 season. Davis, on the other hand, was perceived as more of a goofy space cadet, a player who could be a severe detriment to his team - he couldn't play with LeBron, for heaven's sakes - but smiled through his screw-ups and never seemed to actually mean any harm. There is one other connection between them: obviously, both have thrived upon coming to New England. We know how much Dillon meant to the Pats; without him, this year's Lombardi Trophy probably resides in Philly. And Davis? He has matured to the point that he is the Celtics' most consistent player, a hard-working defender who can dunk with the best of the skywalkers. And he might be the best pure scorer on the ballclub, No. 34 included, although Pierce is sure to light it up now that his buddy and protector is back. Davis, more than any other player, may determine how far this team goes in the playoffs. He's the third scoring option they desperately lacked the last time around - and maybe even the first option.

~ If you are a regular visitor to my place in CyberSpace, you know I commandeered the wheel of the Gary Payton bandwagon some time ago. Well, after watching West (and to a lesser extent, Marcus Banks) sparkle against the Suns, I began thinking that it may not be the best idea to bring GP back. I mean, West looked so good, and GP was slumping, and he and Walker's strong personalities may clash and . . . maybe he just wasn't a good fit anymore. Well, I'm thinking rationally again after tonight, and I want him back today. West, hertofore known as the Leprechaun, struggled mightily trying to contain the usually mediocre Atkins (29 points), and Banks still doesn't know what to do other than put his head down and dribble really, really fast. Besides, a starting five of Payton, Tony Allen, Pierce, 'Toine and Raef LaFrentz, with Jefferson, Davis, and West coming off the bench, is very intriguing, wouldn't you say? I'd say.

~ Let the record show that I was opposed to giving Mark Blount anything more than a coupon for free chicken wings at Hooters when he became a free-agent last summer. He was a lifelong stiff who had a decent half-season on a dead-in-the-water team during his contract year. Is it any surprise that he's back to being a stiff, albeit one with a six-year, $42-million contract in his pocket? No surprise here. Blount has hands like trash-can covers and brings nothing to the table now that he's taken a I-got-my-cash-why-should-I-hustle? approach to rebounding. During Walker's previous tenure, he used to get on Blount something fierce if the big guy wasn't busting his dopey butt, to the point that Blount had a perpetual dog-that's-been-beat-too-much look on his face. Well, get out the beatin' stick, 'Toine. I want to see that look again, because it will at least be a signal that Blount is trying. We have no other evidence right now. Oh, and maybe you can get Jefferson to teach him some post moves while you're at it.

~ All Celtics loyalists have asked this question at some point this season, and dammit, we're going to keep asking it until we get a satisfactory answer: How in the heck did Jefferson slide all the way to 15th in last summer's draft? The kid has skills - readily apparent skills, skills that would cause the most jaded coach to slobber all over his free Nike sweatsuit, skills you just can't teach. Magnetic hands. An instinct for rebounding. The post game of a 10-year vet. (The baby hook is just plain gorgeous.) He seems to have a good head on his shoulders, just a nice, quiet kid who is both teased and mentored by the veterans. ('Toine already adores him.) So I don't think any off-the-court stuff was a factor. There's a lot to like about the Celtics right now, but nothing is more fun than watching Jefferson figure it out. It just makes no sense how he ended up here.

~ I'd like to write some heartfelt prose about Walker's return, for it makes me incredibly proud (and a little bit smug) that the vast majority of Celtics fans have finally realized how much this guy, a polarizing figure during his seven seasons, really did for the franchise. Through all the highs and lows, through the picturesque 25-14-9 stat lines as well as the gruesome 4-for-18 shooting nights, I was a steadfast and undeterred 'Toine guy, for this reason: 'Toine cared, passionately, always, every single night, whether it was a playoff game in East Rutherford, N.J., or a mid-January second-game-in-two-nights backbreaker in Toronto. Sure, sometimes he was misguided, but he never failed to give his all. How anyone could so easily dismiss that character trait in the man, I'll never know. Or maybe I just don't want to.

But I'll hold off on the heartfelt prose - any more of it, anyway - for my sentiments about Walker were captured perfectly by Bill Simmons of today. I recommend you check it out. After you read Sports Guy's piece, you'll understand better than I can articulate why I was so happy for Antoine Walker tonight.