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Passion is in fashion

Boston has four of the league leaders in intensity, and they wear it well

Not that Milan Lucic needs a kick-start, but the Bruins’ top goal scorer says he is inspired by the faces on the fans before games at TD Garden. Not that Milan Lucic needs a kick-start, but the Bruins’ top goal scorer says he is inspired by the faces on the fans before games at TD Garden. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)
By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / June 24, 2011

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In the 21st century, no city in the United States has won more professional championships than Boston. The Patriots have won three Super Bowls, the Red Sox two World Series, the Celtics an NBA title, and now the Bruins a Stanley Cup. In fact, no other city has captured all four championships within a 10-year period. Ever.

The passion of Boston fans is part of the DNA of its players. And the Bruins’ Milan Lucic, the Patriots’ Wes Welker, the Red Sox’ Kevin Youkilis, and the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett are arguably the most passionate stars in Boston today.

Lucic says the four have a lot in common.

“I’ve always been a competitor growing up, and if you look at all four of us, that’s probably the main thing that we have in common,’’ he says. “We all have that competitive nature and that attitude to win at everything we do. Even video games or anything we do, we want to win. That’s what definitely gives me that passion and a little bit of an edge.’’

Lucic credits the fans for his energy.

“During the anthem, I always look at the people’s faces coming in,’’ he says. “You talk about passion — you can see the passion on people’s faces. That kind of gets me going because I feel the same way that they do.’’

Lucic is honored to be mentioned in the same breath as Youkilis, Welker, and Garnett — athletes who are not afraid to “empty the tank’’ every game.

“Youk, he’s been great, he’s been there since I’ve been here,’’ Lucic says. “It’s fun watching a guy like him play. You can tell in his face every time he steps up to bat he wants to make a big play. He wants to be the guy that helps contribute to his team.’’

He smiles when he recalls a delirious Garnett screaming, “Anything is possible!’’ after the Celtics became world champions in 2008.

“I think that’s the main reason he came to Boston is because he wanted to win a championship,’’ Lucic says. “He’s done so much in the NBA. I’ve sat courtside watching him, the effort he’s put into his team, and how much he really wants to win it.’’

He says Welker has surprised him the most.

“He’s impressed everyone for sure,’’ Lucic lauds. “A guy of his size to do what he does, he’s not afraid to go over the middle and take those hits. He’s a big part of that team for a reason.

“I had a chance to meet him last summer in Vegas for the Garth Brooks Foundation. I was a little overwhelmed to see how small of a guy he was, and that just shows how tough of a person he is.’’

Lucic: A real smash Passion, says Lucic, is a tricky emotion. Too much excitement on a delicate wrist shot can send a puck flying over the net.

“If you are overexcited and overemotional, and have too much adrenaline and you’re not thinking, it may not be the right thing,’’ he explains. “We felt it here in the ’07-08 season when we played Montreal. We got ourselves so pumped up and so revved up before every game that when we got on the ice we were doing stuff that we weren’t used to doing. We were taking too many penalties. We were just over the top, and I think that’s how it could cost you.’’

Lucic says past Game 7 failures (2008, ’09, ’10) needed to be avenged. The 2011 Bruins did that by winning three Game 7s on the way to the Stanley Cup.

“We’ve come up short in Game 7 before, so it’s easy to keep that passion up, because you want it more,’’ he says. “You want to keep pushing more.’’

The hard-working left winger, who led the Bruins in goals this season, has heard plenty of naysayers in his career.

When he was 15, Lucic was diagnosed with Scheuermann’s disease, which causes curvature of the upper back.

“That’s nothing,’’ he says, quickly dismissing the notion that he had a handicap. “Sometimes people look at you and you look awkward out there, but other than that, it’s nothing.’’

He wept and almost quit when he was passed up in the 2003 Western Hockey League bantam draft.

“They told me I was never going to be a good enough skater to play in the NHL, but I never wanted to feed into that,’’ he says. “I just kept my focus and did what I have to do. I believe in myself, and I think that’s what got me here.’’

His greatest hits reel includes the crushing check of Toronto’s Mike Van Ryn that shattered the plexiglass at TD Garden on Oct. 23, 2008.

“That was just a play that happened,’’ he says. “Me doing what I do, finishing my check. It just so happened that the glass broke.’’

He felt bad that the shattered pieces cut two fans in the front row.

“It was actually a brother and sister from Ireland,’’ Lucic says. “They were on vacation and they bought front-row seats and it just so happened that the glass broke. I had to explain to them that that rarely ever happens.

“They were all good. We hooked them up with some signed jerseys and they were happy and in good spirits.’’

Lucic acknowledges that the hit was probably worth millions, as he signed a three-year, $12.25 million contract extension the following season.

“It was definitely a highlight that people can remember,’’ he says. “Just the type of player that I am.’’

But even the passionate sometimes get sick, injured, or drained by travel or personal problems. What then?

“You have to suck it up,’’ says Lucic. “That’s basically it.’’

Lucic thinks players either have passion or they don’t.

“I think you are born with it,’’ he says. “I don’t think it’s something that can be taught. It’s something that lives and breathes with what they do.’’

Welker: Driven to succeed Welker, a three-time All-Pro receiver, agrees with Lucic — to a point.

“It’s a little bit of both,’’ he says. “You’ve got to have a little something about you that makes sure that you are doing the right things, that makes sure you are bringing that passion and that heart out on the field every play.’’

Welker has met Youkilis and Lucic. He says there was an instant bond.

“It’s real natural,’’ Welker says. “It’s almost like they are in your locker room with you. They’re both great guys. They definitely have a real passion for what they do. Plus, they have the great charisma off the field, and they are good guys to hang out with.’’

He is also a big Garnett fan.

“His passion for the game and how he plays it, you’ve got to respect it,’’ Welker says. “How he brings it in every game.’’

Welker defines passion strictly in football terms.

“It is the energy that you bring when you are out there on the field,’’ he says. “The way you play each and every play. It’s how you get your teammates to buy into that same kind of energy and passion.’’

He says his passion to succeed was ramped up by his older brother Lee and his friends, who called him “Wuss’’ instead of Wes.

“They used to beat me up all the time,’’ Welker says. “Both my parents worked and were gone, and so it was just whale on Wes. I definitely had my fair share of beatings and things like that, so I guess it can only make you tougher.’’

Maintaining the passion isn’t so easy, he says.

“It’s hard to bring it every single day. Sometimes you’ve got to reach deep inside yourself to make sure you’re bringing that same energy on a regular basis.’’

Welker also agrees with Lucic that finding the right mix can be difficult.

“There can be too much passion,’’ he says. “There’s so many assignments, like if the defense does this, you do this — you can be too ramped up where you screw up the play and you are all out of whack. You still have to have some calmness about you, but at the same time go out there and give it all you’ve got.’’

Welker says he motivates himself.

“For me, it’s just by talking to myself to get myself going,’’ he says. “It’s like, ‘Come on, Wes, let’s go, let’s go make some plays. Today is your day, let’s go.’ ’’

But Welker always believed in himself.

“Back in high school, I was like, ‘Give me the freaking ball,’ and the coach was like, ‘Well, OK, you’re getting it,’ ’’ he remembers.

In a playoff game, Welker scored 10 points in the last 13 seconds on a touchdown run, extra point, onside kick, and 39-yard field goal into a headwind to lead his team to victory.

After a successful career at Texas Tech, Welker went undrafted but has become one of the elite receivers in the NFL. Since joining the Patriots in 2007, he has had the most receptions in the league.

When Welker tore his ACL and MCL against Houston on Jan. 3, 2010, he made up his mind he would return for the 2011 opener.

“Nobody thought I could make it,’’ he says. “I wanted to be back for Week 1 and I pushed myself every single day to get back for it. The days I felt bad, I kept pushing myself to work harder.’’

Music fueled his passion, he says.

“I put on Kings of Leon or Eminem — something to get amped up with,’’ he says. “Plus, the guys you work out with, they bring that good energy to bring everything to the table.’’

He caught two TD passes in the season opener against the Bengals.

Sometimes his passion for the game and for his team can go a bit too far, though. During a January press conference, he made 11 veiled references to feet to mock Jets coach Rex Ryan’s alleged foot fetish. Coach Bill Belichick benched him for the start of the divisional playoff game against the Jets. Welker later apologized to Ryan.

Besides passion, Welker says an attitude of gratitude helps.

“I love to play,’’ he says. “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else than playing football.’’

Welker says he ignored people telling him he would never succeed.

“Yeah, I was too short, too slow, too all that stuff,’’ he remembers. “They said, ‘You’ll never make it.’ You’ll never play in college, a lot of the coaches thought. So I tried not to listen to them and to believe in myself and put my best foot forward, and do what I could with what I have.’’

Youkilis: Stand-up guy Youkilis, a two-time All-Star, is cut from the same cloth. He says he was not born to be a baseball player. According to Sports Illustrated, his high school baseball coach called him “roly-poly,’’ his college coach called him “pudgy,’’ and his former general manager called him “a fat kid.’’

None of that bothers “Youk,’’ who is accustomed to hearing his nickname stretched out ad nauseum.

“I wasn’t blessed with the speed of others,’’ he says. “I wasn’t gifted as much with my body and all that, so I’m passionate about working just as hard as I can.

“Fear of failure pushes a guy to work harder to better himself. If I’m on first base and the ball’s in the gap, I try to score on the double, I take a pride in that. In running out every ground ball. That’s my passion, to be a better ballplayer every day.’’

He says baseball is unique because it mostly is about failure. The last player to succeed four times out of 10 at-bats was Ted Williams 70 years ago.

“Some players think you should just accept it,’’ says Youkilis. “But for me, I don’t think so, because why should I accept failure? Is it possible that you can get a hit every time? Probably not. But I’ve had days when I went 4 for 4. Why not try for that day? Don’t be happy that you got three hits, get a fourth hit.’’

Passion is not always a good thing, he agrees.

“If your adrenaline’s going too high and you can’t control it, yeah, there are times where it can hurt you,’’ he says. “But if you can maintain the adrenaline from either being very upset or very excited, you can use that adrenaline.

“Some guys can, some guys can’t. Some guys will spiral out of control. Some guys thrive with the adrenaline rush.’’

Youkilis says you also need to keep your ego in check.

“I never think of myself as what people think of me,’’ he says. “I just think of myself as one of the guys that’s a good ballplayer. That still thinks he can get better. I could hit 50 home runs and hit .380, and I’d still find a way to think I need to do more.

“I don’t want to be average. You don’t play this game to be average. You play this game to be a champion — that’s what I do.’’

Youkilis’s passion is just a part of who he is.

“J.D. Drew doesn’t show a lot of emotion, but that’s the way he works,’’ he says. “That’s the way he operates. Some people think that’s the wrong way, but for J.D., it works.

“For me, I’m passionate, and so is Dustin [Pedroia]. We show a lot of emotion. David [Ortiz] shows a lot of emotion, too. That’s just who we are. You can’t change who you are as a person and if you try to, you might fail. You just can’t change who you are in life.’’

He says the perception of him always arguing with umpires is incorrect.

“I think I only got thrown out of one game in the major leagues,’’ he says.

Youk says he gets emotional defending his teammates when fans heckle them.

“I’m the first one to stand up for them and yell back at the fans,’’ he says. “I tell them to knock it off. It’s happened a couple of times. Even at Fenway it’s happened. I know I shouldn’t do it, but I just feel that no one should disrespect one of my teammates. They are trying as hard as they can.

“We’ve all gone 0 for 10. They are the first person that wants to get out of it. They are going home, sleeping with it, where a passionate fan is yelling at them. They don’t have to go home and worry about that. They go home and worry about their family and their kids.

“I get it. I understand it all, but for me, I’m just passionate about my teammates. Even if they are wrong, I want to be the first one to step up and back my teammate.’’

Garnett: Fire burns within Tracking down Garnett, in or out of the locker room, to talk about his passion proved to be a fruitless task. He repeatedly declined interview requests throughout the 2010-11 season.

His sister Sonya explains.

“You have to know Kevin,’’ she wrote in an e-mail. “When it comes to things like this that single him out from his team, he’s always cautious. There is no ‘I’ in team, and that’s how he thinks. All of our guys have passion for the game, they all just express it in different ways.’’

But Garnett, a 14-time All-Star and a former MVP (2004), easily tops the list of passionate athletes in Boston. His blood, sweat, and tears know no bounds. What separates Garnett from the other three stars is his natural physical talent.

“A genetic freak,’’ says 76ers coach Doug Collins.

No one outworks him, no one out-trash-talks him. No one sees him after he leaves the court, including his neighbors in Concord.

He has plenty of enemies. Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah, who wore a Garnett jersey as a kid, now calls Garnett a dirty player.

“He’s a very mean guy,’’ Noah told ESPN radio.

Celtics guard Ray Allen says elbows are part of the game in the paint, and he calls Garnett a “great teammate and friend.’’

No one is more emotional than Garnett, and not just with the chest thumping he does before each game. Garnett openly wept during a 2005 interview when he was a frustrated Timberwolves franchise player.

“I’m losing,’’ he said, before asking that the camera be shut down. “These are tears of pain. It’s eating me up. This ain’t golf. It ain’t tennis. It ain’t about me. It’s about us.

“I hate that I’m like this in front of you, man.’’

To understand Garnett’s passion for basketball, you need to understand his past. Garnett’s basketball journey began in Mauldin, S.C., where he was a tall, skinny kid who stood out in a mostly white school. His mom worked as a hairdresser and his stepfather hated basketball.

“He was so tall, he couldn’t get his legs under the desk,’’ says Janie Willoughby, his American history teacher. “He used to tell everybody I was his white mama. He was my pride and joy.’’

He had a passion for hoops even then. He wore Malik Sealy’s No. 21 because he idolized the St. John’s star who would later become his teammate. He practiced day and night.

“He just went for it,’’ says Willoughby. “He knew he was good enough to go pro and he fought for that with his mind and spirit and just kept going.’’

Willoughby says KG was a private person whose life was under a microscope.

“He had colleges and scouts and everybody coming,’’ she says. “I had a drawer in my desk that was his drawer for mail and we would sort through them together.’’

But then there was a fight between black students and a white student. Police came to Willoughby’s class to arrest Garnett.

“It wasn’t right. He didn’t throw any licks or anything like that,’’ says Willoughby, who knew the police and talked them out of handcuffing him. “He told me that and I believe him.’’

Garnett’s mother, Shirley, wanted out of South Carolina because the school he had put on the map didn’t even bother to call her to let her know what was going on.

She approached coach William “Wolf’’ Nelson of Farragut Academy in Chicago because KG had done a summer Nike Camp in Indianapolis with Nelson before his junior year and loved the coach’s fun-loving spirit.

He would become the mentor that Garnett never had.

Garnett later confided in his new coach that he had tried to break up the fight, only to be met with a racial epithet.

The charges were eventually dropped, but the damage had been done. The story had become national news.

Nelson says Garnett was a gentle soul off the court, but on it, he was a madman.

“He would jump up there screaming and hollering, and throw it down,’’ says Nelson.

One assistant coach worried that Garnett was going to make the other team angry and asked that he tone it down.

“Kevin said, ‘Nah, that’s the way I play,’ ’’ said Nelson. “I said, ‘Kevin, don’t worry about that. I like your passion. Do what you do. It’s war.’ ’’

Nelson let Garnett live with him in his 11th-floor Chicago apartment while his mother and his sisters lived upstairs on the 12th floor.

Nelson, who grew up in a tough neighborhood, took him to the worst Windy City projects, where basketball mixes easily with blood.

“Not the places where they wanted his autograph,’’ he says.

The gang bangers welcomed him.

“They said, ‘We’re gonna toughen him up a little bit for you, man,’ ’’ says Nelson.

Nelson didn’t mince words.

“I told ’em, ‘Don’t take it easy on him. He ain’t gonna break.’ It helped him to hone his skills, because realistically they can’t hack him like that in a game.’’

The hard love worked.

Nelson remembers cutting out an article from USA Today about the top basketball prospects.

“He taped it to the mirror, and every time Kevin played against one of them, he’d be on fire,’’ says Nelson. “Then when he came home, he put a line through their name.’’

Garnett was named USA Today National Player of the Year, and skipped college to sign with the Timberwolves.

Garnett’s passion comes from his past, according to Nelson.

“He said, ‘Where I’m from, if you don’t work, you don’t eat.’ He said only the strong survive.’’

Nelson says Garnett at times was too unselfish.

“When he played for me in the state tournament, we got upset because he cared too much about getting everybody involved. I said, ‘Kev, would you please shoot the ball?’ But he couldn’t help himself.’’

Nelson says the tragic death of Sealy, Garnett’s best friend and Minnesota teammate, had a profound effect on him.

Sealy was killed when his SUV was struck by a drunk driver traveling in the wrong direction on a highway in May 2000. He was returning from Garnett’s 24th birthday party.

“He came to my house,’’ says Nelson. “They were going to play the Bulls. I said, ‘Uh-oh, Kevin’s not laughing.’ He had this look of maturity and I thought, ‘You are ready now.’ ’’

Garnett finally got his wish for a championship with the Celtics in 2007-08.

Nelson was not surprised.

“He would say, ‘I’m gonna do whatever it takes to win,’ ’’ Nelson says. “If I need to intimidate you, I’m gonna do that.’ ’’

Celtics coach Doc Rivers just laughs when he hears talk about Garnett being a dirty player.

“They can say what they want, but there are 29 other GMs that would love to have him on their team,’’ says Rivers. “His passion has been phenomenal.’’

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.

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