Boston Celtics being booed heralds a return to normality

The pent-up emotion from the Boston bombings needed release and, as ever, sport acted as a pressure valve

Members of the community, who assisted in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, are honoured  during a break in play between the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks in the first half of Game 3 of their NBA Eastern Conference semi-final play-off  in Boston. Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

Members of the community, who assisted in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, are honoured during a break in play between the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks in the first half of Game 3 of their NBA Eastern Conference semi-final play-off in Boston. Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters


From the very beginning, sport has been the backdrop for the bizarre and violent Boston bombing saga and already there are signs that the legacy of that atrocity will be continue to be honoured and remembered in sporting arenas long after the story has faded from the television news.

Last Friday night, the New York Knicks ambled into Causeway Street in Boston in the novel position of leading the Celtics 2-0 in a play-off series. The Boston team, both aged and injury-riven, had played so miserably in the first two games that the Knicks now have a golden chance to sweep the series entirely and enjoy the rare sensation of dancing victorious in the most prickly and proud house of basketball.

There has always been a discrepancy about Boston and sport: in scale and architecture and noise, the city will always be the second sister to New York, some four hours down the road. The 1919 decision by the Boston Red Sox to sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees only to watch the chubby Baltimorean become the most beloved and successful baseball player of all time and an enduring American icon would continue to haunt them throughout the 20th century.

The Red Sox attempts to win the World Series always seemed to fall somewhere between tragic and comic, with so many impossibly close and vividly-recalled misses that it was all too easy to believe in the substance of the Curse of the Bambino. But then, at last, the Sox did win the Series in 2004 and again in 2007.

And the New England Patriots suddenly bloomed and won three Superbowls in four years.

And then the Boston Celtics, whose general manager Danny Ainge had been a punkish, pouting shooting guard on the 1981-86 Celtics team, put together a trade that brought Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston to help Paul Pierce, the team’s lone superstar, to try and win what the Boston sports fans had come to consider a native birthright: the NBA championship.

And in 2008, they not only did that, they beat the loathed Los Angeles Lakers in a classic Finals series. So in the space of a decade, Boston had claimed the three most prized trophies in American sport. New Yorkers could but watch on in envy or pretend it wasn’t happening.

General empathy
So this opportunity to silence the Celtics has been long awaited for. But because of the general empathy towards Boston in the wake of the marathon bombing, the attitude of fans arriving in Madison Square Garden was compromised.

The Celtics, in their traditional green, were the most visible manifestation of the city in New York on Saturday afternoon last and in the pre-game theatrics, the Celtics got a one-time-deal welcome in the arena. (Although Paul Pierce was still booed when his name was called).

By Tuesday night, however, normal business resumed and, with the Knicks dominant, the arena thrummed in a low boo every time the Celtics players were on the ball and special ire was reserved for Kevin Garnett, the 6ft 11in veteran whose confrontational intensity incenses fans.

Time and time again, 20,000 people lustily shouted “KG Sucks” whenever he was on the ball and he was hissed and jeered every time when he walked to the team bench. The visiting team looked pitiful and lost at times and the crowd delighted in the sense of helping in the downing of Boston.

Even a lone fan wearing a green peaked cap who decided to exit the arena with two minutes left got a gloating chorus from hundreds of Knicks fans seated around him. He bowed his head, grinned, and kept walking. The same fan was probably there last night in Boston shouting his head off at the Knicks fans.

Sport has always been America’s way of getting life back to normal. On the weekend after JFK’s assassination, the NFL made the decision to proceed with the scheduled visit of the Washington Redskins to the Philadelphia Eagles even though the state capital was, like most of the western world, in a state of paralysed grief.

After 9/11 there was a brief suspension of scheduled sporting events but when they resumed, the New York teams – even the Yankees – were afforded night after night of overwhelming welcomes.

So it was with Boston this time. The general sporting tributes to Boston have been well publicised. Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline , which for some reason has replaced The Standells’ Dirty Water as the stadium’s unofficial anthem, got an airing at many baseball arenas across the country. To European eyes, the gestures can seem melodramatic and gushing and, well, American. But they are delivered sincerely.

The pursuit of happiness
The reason that this latest assault on the American sense of inviolability was so cutting is that it was a direct attack on the very aspect of life which is associated with the most enshrined and oft-quoted words in the constitution: the pursuit of happiness.

For what is a marathon race if not that? And Boston, wouldn’t you know, prides itself on staging not just any old race. No, their 26 miler has over a century of tradition: an annual fixture in the city since 1897, long before distance running was fashionable elsewhere.

For years, the winner was presented with nothing as gauche as a purse or cheque but with the patrician gift of a laurel of wreaths. Just like the ancients. Over the years, the New York marathon has, of course, become bigger and flashier.

But Boston has always been the one the purists want to race in. So the bombing was a direct assault on a city tradition. The deaths of three people in those explosions were, of course, sickening but it was a miracle the count wasn’t higher. But the knowledge that an eight-year-old boy died while waiting for his father to finish the race was a deep assault on the American sense.

If you talk to people, Americans will admit that they live in a cocoon and that the brisk television reports of deaths and atrocities of children in the far-flung Middle East or Africa do not register with them as they might. They will readily admit that only when the violence is brought into their garden do they lose the sense of complacency or the vague belief that the turmoil in other continents has nothing to do with them or their country.

It is the very rarity of attacks within America that causes such an explicitly anguished and outraged emotion. The scale of the police operation in Boston was observed with incredulity by outsiders but for Americans, it was a reassurance. In little over 48 surreal and gripping hours, the suspect had been cornered, apprehended and brought to justice – just like in the films.

Quickly, all that pent-up emotion and anxiety and anger needed an outlet. The lights came on and the people went to see some games. As ever, sport acted as a pressure valve. And New Yorkers jeering at Boston and Boston last night seething at uppity New Yorkers has been the first sign that things are back to normal again.

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