Without a doubt, “tradition” is one of the most grossly overused words in the English language. We use it to describe everything from the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns to the mayor of Punxsutawny pulling a giant rat out of the ground every February 2nd. My own in-laws use it to justify their passive-aggressive displays of disapproval of me during every major holiday.
And in the world of sports, Boston is as guilty as just about any city when it comes to taking silly nonsense and turning it into “tradition.” Everything gets slapped with that status, from Gino at Celtics games to “Crazy Train” at Gillette to that National Anthem of Pink Hat Nation, “Sweet Caroline.” Nothing we do in this town is so obscure and pointless that we're not willing to turn it from simple habit into something sacred.
The flip side of that is that no town anywhere knows better how to keep and cherish the really important stuff better than we do. And there's no better example than the New England Sports Museum's “The Tradition,” held Tuesday night at the TD Garden to honor the achievements and legacies of six of Boston's greatest living sports legends. This was the 10th annual one of these, but my first, so I kept a running diary – which is to say I took as many notes as I could in between all the adult beverages, shrimp cocktails and gawking at celebrities like a giddy schoolgirl.
Pre-ceremony. The Tradition is held right at center ice/center court at the Garden. And hitting a buffet in the middle of the arena is, in a word, surreal. I mean how often does one get to stand there in the middle of the Garden looking up at the stands? Normally you'd have to be a pro athlete, circus performer or Rene Rancourt for that privilege, and none of those are happening in my lifetime.
This is a target-rich environment of celebrity sightings, not just this night's honorees but past inductees like Andre Tippett and Dave Cowens, shaking hands and posing for pictures with people twice their age and half their size.
And you can't swing shrimp cocktail tongs without hitting a media person. It's an awkward position for a full time blogger as you’re forced to wrack your brain trying to remember which of them you've exchanged Tweets with and which you've ripped on the 'net and debate whether it's worth introducing yourself. Instead, I just look out at the seats and imagined myself as Brad Marchand or Tyler Seguin, scanning the crowd for the next special lady in my life… all while resisting the urge to grab the Stanley Cup ice sculpture off the buffet and skate around with it.
The ceremony. The Tradition is hosted by Glenn Ordway and Michael Holley. And I think I speak for everyone in the room when I say they immediately reminded me of Anne Hathaway and James Franco hosting the Oscars last year: same glitz and glamor, same deft comedic timing, same unmistakable sexual chemistry.
If 20 years of working the Boston stand-up comedy circuit has taught me anything, it's that you need to read your audience, and they do. Holley opens with a dig at the Vancouver Canucks and Ordway begins by mocking Lebron James: “In the last 10 years, Boston has won... not one... not two... not three...”
Well played, because the only thing Massholes like as much as winning is watching other teams lose and this is red meat for us. I slip into the VIP seats and hope not only that no one notices, but that I'm not sitting close enough to Mr. Kraft to violate any court-issued stay away orders.
Then it hits me that the guy who just sat down in front of me is Mickey Ward's brother, Dickie Eklund. Again, surreal. How many people can say they've been portrayed by Christian Bale in a movie? One, that's how many. (Batman is not walking through that door, people.) Dickie is briefly joined by a woman who gives him a gesture I take to mean, “Stay focused and behave yourself.” I think. I assume she's a relative and make a note to ask if her character got her ass kicked by Amy Adams in the movie and if so what that was like. Because, believe me, this real lady would drop real Amy Adams like a Stanley Cup ice sculpture.
1st Honoree, Mike Lowell.
Lowell is presented by Rob Bradford, my boss at WEEI.com. Bradford's intro was almost exactly like Colin Firth's address at the beginning of “The King's Speech.” Just painfully awkward for all involved.
Wait. I wrote that before he spoke. In reality, all the introductions are brief and to the point. The video board shows a highlight reel of Lowell's Sox career and the format is that Lowell joins Bradford, Ordway and Holley for a panel discussion.
To the surprise of no one, he's charming, articulate and self-effacing. Holley asks him about coming to Boston as the “throw-in” on the Josh Beckett trade and Lowell draws a laugh with, “Hey, I coined the term.” His best moments are talking about being Manny Ramirez' teammate.
“Manny's got a 12-year-old's mind, but when it comes to hitting, he's Aristotle” brings down the house. He also mentions Ramirez wouldn't pick up the fare on a $6 cab ride and I make a note that there's a Manny tell-all book waiting to be written.
2nd Honoree, Willie O'Ree.
O'Ree became the NHL's first black player in 1958: 11 years after Jackie Robinson; 39 years before golf had its first black major winner; 50 years before the first black president; and 26 years before Ernie Hudson broke Ghostbusters' color barrier. No one says how old he is but he's in great shape. Move his hairline forward a little and he looks like he could kill a power play.
He's introduced by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who's greeted by the crowd like he's Taylor Swift taking the stage at Gillette last weekend, just to twist the dagger in Vancouver's side a little more.
O'Ree talks about the racial taunts he endured and how he overcame the abuse by refusing to let it get to him. Huge applause. Then Bettman reveals that Willie played his entire career legally blind in one eye. Thunderous applause.
O'Ree tells the story about watching the Cup finals with his wife, who's from Vancouver, while wearing a B’s jersey and a B’s hat. And in Game 7, when they scored their second goal, Mrs. O'Ree looked at him and said, “Why don't you go watch the game down at the Holiday Inn?” Now we're in full-on adoration mode.
I knew very little about the man coming into this, but he's instantly one of my favorite Boston athletes ever – just a walking, talking lesson on triumphing over adversity instead of letting hatred and handicaps bring you down. He took the stage to LTD's “Back in Love Again.” If I had to endure the crap he did, I would've picked The Heavys' “How You Like Me Now?” You're a better man than I, Willie O'Ree.
3rd Honoree: Ty Law.
Law's induction opens with a video of his great moments, not the least of which is his pick-6 off Kurt Warner and his inconceivable three-INT playoff game vs. Peyton Manning in the snow. Note to every emergency room doctor in the state: if you ever need to check my vital signs, show me that tape and if I don't get goosebumps, page the priest.
The amazing dynamic about Law's ceremony is the genuine warmth and affection between him and Kraft. All the bad blood that drove the discussion around here in the 2005 offseason is gone. Now it's something to joke about.
Ordway asks Law about his two stints with the Jets and he says, “Well, I wasn't too happy with this other guy...,” gesturing to the Patriots owner. Kraft responds, “Money's not important to him.” There are laughs all around, and all the angry words and public feuding are now water under the bridge like this is “The Bachelor: After the Final Rose.” Law and Kraft share a sincere bond of friendship; that's obvious. As he takes the stage, Law stops and bows before his old boss. When they leave the stage, they hug. Reason no. 175,000 why the NFL lockout needs to end, TODAY: As soon as it does, Law can sign a one-day contract with the Pats and retire, because, as Kraft said more than once, “he's always been a Patriot.”
4th Honoree: Bobbi Gibb
Walking in, I was convinced Bobbi Gibb did harmonies on “More Than a Woman.” My bad. She was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. And shame on me for not knowing that because her story is amazing.
In 1966 she took a Greyhound bus from San Diego to run the race. The trip took four days -- as in four days of staring out a bus window without an iPod or a DVD player or a smartphone, then climbing out of the bus and running 26 miles, which she did in 3:45. But not before she was told women couldn't enter the race because it's “physiologically impossible” for them to do so. So she pulled a hoodie over her head and passed as a man.
I respect Gibbs' story enough not to resent the fact that she still looks like she'd run laps around me. Or that the last time I drove from Hopkinton to Boston I was exhausted and wouldn't have made it if I didn't stop three times at the Burger Kings on the Pike. And of course it's always good to honor someone like Gibbs and her presenter Joan Benoit Samuelson, and not just remember the Marathon women who took the T or pooped themselves.
5th Honoree: Mickey Ward
Ward is everything you'd expect him to be. Genuine. Humble. Honest. Profane (he threw out the night's first and only F-bomb). The Pride of Lowell to the core.
Ron Borges presents him and the talk quickly turns to the things “The Fighter” didn't mention: The three epic Arturo Gatti fights. Borges tells the story of the last fight, when both fighters were taken to the ER, sharing a room separated only by a curtain. Ward is the first man on his feet, goes over to Gatti, hands him the painkillers the doctors have given him and says, “Here. You need these more than I do.”
Hilarious. But the mutual respect between Ward and Gatti is obvious and he kills with a reference to how stopping Gatti is like trying to kill Jason from “Friday the 13th.” Huge round of applause for Dickie. No terrible Hollywood Boston accents anywhere to be heard. They're saving those for “The Fighter II.” Hopefully.
(On a personal note, afterward I approach Borges, one of those media guys I've always taken shots at. I have my speech all ready to go and it's along the lines of, “My name is Indigo Montoya. You killed by father. Prepare to die.” Instead it comes out like this: “I'm Jerry Thornton. I write for Barstool Sports and WEEI. I'm a shameless Patriots suckup/fanboy who's ripped you a thousand times,” to which he laughs and says, “Well, that's OK!” and says it's nice to meet me. So I tell him he did a great job presenting Ward and we part ways amicably. I can forgive many things, but not looking into the face of Dr. Evil and finding out he's a pleasant and gracious guy.)
6th Honoree: Larry Bird
With all due respect to the others... and God knows they are due all respect... Larry Legend is the Main Attraction. Like he's climbed down off the Boston sports' Mount Rushmore to come speak to us. They play a highlight tape with “Free Bird” as the sound track. And if I had my way, it would've lasted as long as the extended-play version of the song. Just the buzzer beaters and fully extended dives into the scorer's table plays alone would be enough to fill the guitar solo. It's mesmerizing. Anyone who can watch that tape and still compare Dirk Nowitzki to Larry should be banned from ever uttering an opinion in public ever again.
Bird is remarkably humble. He takes every opportunity to talk about his great teammates. He deflects a question about winning NBA Coach of the Year to talk about his assistant coaches and veteran team. Asked about his best game, he passes, leaving Bob Ryan to mention his other-worldly Game 5 Finals performance in the 97 degree heat of the old Garden when he went 15-20 with 34 points and 17 rebounds. If the other legends tonight were the historical figures Bill & Ted brought back for their history project, then Ward would be Genghis Khan, O'Ree would be So-krates, and Gibbs Miss d' Arc. But Bird is unquestionably Abe Lincoln. The greatest icon in a group of great icons.
The Tradition is a remarkable event. Truly. It hits just the right balance between reliving old glory days and honoring the ones who never really got honored enough. Even in the midst of an unprecedented run of success like we're currently enjoying, there's always time for that. And personally, I'm going to make The Tradition a... well, a tradition... because the ones they do 10, 20, 30 years from now are going to be unbelievable.
Follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryThornton1.