A week ago, when it was announced the Celtics had traded Kendrick Perkins, reactions varied from “stunned and dismayed” to “shocked but pleased.” I mean, everyone was in agreement they didn’t see it coming, but the trade’s approval rating pretty much ran the gamut.
The night after the deal, I pulled a shift on WEEI with “Celtics Rewind” host John Ryder (thanks again, John) and the callers were all over the spectrum. They either saw Perkins as the C’s tough, physical, enforcer whose heart and work ethic will be tough to replace (good point) or a flawed, limited role player who had probably reached his potential and would be all downhill from here (also a good point). Perk love is in the eye of the beholder.
For my part — and at the risk of straddling fence — my reaction was this is one of those trades where there are reasonable points to be made on both sides. I liked Kendrick Perkins, but mostly it was for intangibles. Tenacity, attitude, chemistry and the like: Things that aren’t quantifiable.
But for the hardcore Perk fans, I’d watched his whole career and I have to admit I missed the part where he was Bill Russell. His numbers never jumped off the page. There were parts of his game that looked worse than James Franco in a tux reading from a teleprompter. He’s a terrible shooter from beyond arm’s reach, and has arguably the worst hands I’ve ever seen on an NBA player. Seriously, I don’t recall ever watching him catch a pass clean. There were times I watched him and thought to myself: “I’m glad he got into basketball. Because if Perkins was an obstetrician, he would’ve been handling every baby he ever delivered off the second bounce.”
But the point of this column (and I do have a point, and I’m getting to it), isn’t MY reaction to the Kendrick trade. It’s my reaction to everyone else’s reaction to the trade. Because as unexpected as the deal was (and from my severely limited exposure to Celtics insiders I know that NO ONE saw it coming), I’m amazed that at this point in Boston sports fans’ lives we’re capable of being as shocked as we were on this one.
It wouldn’t be a Celtics story without a Bill Simmons twist to it. And predictably, no one overreacted to it as much as The Sports Guy did. In his national column, Simmons confessed to “staring at an ‘FYI: Perk for Jeff Green’ e-mail for two solid minutes. What????????...” Then he explained how his father was crushed because “he would rather have lost the 2011 title with Perkins than have tried to win it without him.” With the inevitable “I don’t want to root for laundry” from The Sports Dad.
(Note: Just to clarify, I think we now can all use the expression “root for laundry” with the understanding that we’re not going for a laugh. It was funny when Jerry Seinfeld first said it. But that was in the '90s, and we can all agree it’s entered the lexicon, so if the elder Simmons or I use it, we’re not trying to be snarky or ironic, just making a point. Fair enough?)
Assuming that story is true (I have no reason to think otherwise), I find it astounding that any real Boston fan, given what we’ve witnessed over the last 10 years, would feel that way. That they’d have such a connection to one individual athlete that he’d rather lose with him than win without him. I honestly didn’t think anyone felt like that anymore.
I guess on some level I admire it. Loyalty can be a very good thing. It’s admirable that any grown adult would still harbor such a strong connection to the ballplayers they root for. But I don’t share the sentiment. Maybe this makes me cold, heartless and cynical, but I’m loyal to the teams I root for more than any single player. Athletes come and go. In a perfect world, the ones that are easy to root for stay and the jagoffs go. But either way I’ll still be here and so will “the laundry.” And ultimately, I prefer championships to losing with guys I consider sweethearts. As distasteful as “rooting for the laundry” might sound to the last remaining romantic idealists among us, there’s a saying I live by that’s much more relevant to the discussion. I didn’t make it up, I only wish I did. And that is: “The cemeteries are filled with indispensible people.”
Granted, Charlie Sheen might disagree if CBS ever tries to replace him with John Stamos. But for the New England fan, the decade of the 2000s was a time of unprecedented success. And did it teach us nothing if not the lesson that no one player is essential? How many ballplayers in the last 10 years did we think we couldn’t live without, and after they were traded, cut, hurt or benched, things got better without them? Here are just a few examples, in chronological order:
Guy we couldn’t live without: Drew Bledsoe
• Year: 2001
• What happened to him? Benched for an untested second-year backup.
• What happened after he was gone? The backup started a dynasty, on and off the field.
Guy we couldn’t live without: Lawyer Milloy
• Year: 2003
• What happened to him? Cut five days before the season began in a contract move.
• What happened after he was gone? The Patriots went 28-4 in the next two seasons and won two Super Bowls.
Guy we couldn’t live without: Nomar Garciaparra
• Year: 2004
• What happened to him? Moved at the trading deadline.
• What happened after he was gone: First championship in 86 years.
Guy we couldn’t live without: Pedro Martinez
• Year: Winter of ‘04
• What happened to him? Allowed to walk as a free agent.
• What happened after he was gone? He was eventually replaced by Josh Beckett, who led the Sox to another championship.
Guy we couldn’t live without: Randy Moss
• Year: Midseason 2010
• What happened to him? Shot his way out of town.
• What happened after he was gone? The Patriots morphed into the most prolific offense in the NFL and Moss faded into obscurity and possibly unemployment.
The point isn’t that I didn’t like these players and were glad to see them go. On the contrary. I loved rooting for every single one of them. It’s just that after seeing time and time again the team you care about win without the guy you care about, you start to realize that your ultimate loyalty rides with the team, not the athlete.
Does anything prove this theory more than what happened to the 1980s Celtics? No collection of players has ever been more beloved and appreciated in this town than they were. So much so that when it came time to break up the aging, injured Big Three of Bird, Parish and McHale, no one could do it. No one was willing to take Old Yeller out behind the barn and do what had to be done. We all understood why. We all knew how hard it was. But we paid the price of watching the Celtics franchise wander in the wilderness long after those guys were retired. That was the price we all paid for our loyalty.
So ultimately, my loyalty lies less with the players than with the people running the team, as cold as that sounds. In 2011, pro sports is a lot more like college sports than it ever was when we were kids. It’s an era of superstar coaches, owners and GMs. If you’re lucky, you can get a decade — maybe even a career — out of a great athlete. But for the most part, they come and go in four years or less and another class comes in. And I’m not going to quit rooting for the club any more than a Duke basketball fan or a 'Bama football fan does just because his favorite player graduates.
Getting back to the Perkins trade, Danny Ainge has the benefit of the doubt from me. He’s earned at least that, if not more. Like I said on air, I trust that he has a plan. If it doesn’t look like it makes complete sense right now, my Danny Ainge Infallibility Doctrine says it will in time. That he’s an artist and you can’t judge his work while it’s in progress. Remember on “Magic of Oil Painting” how Bob Ross would paint a nice little row of trees, then look like he ruined it by putting giant black blobs next to them? Then he’d add a couple of lighter streaks with that flat bladed thing, dab some blue on there, then blend it all into together with a dry brush, and in an instant those blobs were mountains with a lake in front of them? That’s how I see Ainge’s moves. We don’t know how they’ll all turn out in the end, but I’m trusting in him to paint another masterpiece like he’s done before.
Again, this is no knock on Kendrick Perkins. It’s just acknowledging that with or without him, it’s all about rooting for the Celtics to win. And if shipping him out of town makes that happen like moving so many other indispensable men has in the past, well missing him will be a small price to pay. That doesn’t mean I’m disloyal. It just means I’ve been paying attention all this time.
Follow Jerry on Twitter @jerrythornton1