THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Giddy, and a little sheepish, loyal fans return

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / May 11, 2008

Patrick Princi was a regular at Celtics home games, sitting with his dad under the Heineken sign in the old Boston Garden, and dreaming in vivid green. But that was decades ago. Over the years, and especially during the late 1990s, Princi not only abandoned the club, he even turned down the occasional offer of free tickets.

Last Thursday night, Princi was back, walking the concourse in the new TD Banknorth Garden, playoff proud of his Celtics again, decked out in a green Puma jacket and the Celtics corduroy hat and wristbands he hadn't worn since junior high.

Asked about it, asked about where he's been, Princi, a 33-year-old from Barnstable, said, "I guess I am a little bit of a fair weather fan."

He has plenty of company. Uneasily mixed into the euphoria over the Celtics' remarkable season and the fervent hopes in this playoff run is the nagging sense that maybe Atlanta Hawks guard Mike Bibby was right: Maybe, as he said at the beginning of the prior playoff series, we really are a collection of "bandwagon jumpers."

To understand this fan angst is to glimpse the essence of the Boston sports fan - a breed that purports to prize loyalty and passion as much as knowledge. Fair weather fandom is for other places - Los Angeles or maybe Miami. In Boston, we are true to the sport as well as the team.

Or are we?

Jim Sylvia, a 46-year-old from Newton, could have been a Havlicek scholar in the '70s and a Dennis Johnson scholar in the '80s. He played varsity ball in high school. He knows the difference between a double pump and a double dribble. But now that he's back, he feels a little sheepish about where he has been for all these years - which is nowhere near the Garden or any TV set carrying the games.

"Part of your reputation as a fan is that you want to go to the game, to appreciate the game and cheer on your team," he said. "I feel guilty about the fact that I stopped rooting for the team."

But now, here are the Celtics executives and past greats offering something even another playoff victory won't provide: Absolution.

All is forgiven, they say. Easy as that. Their fault, anyway.

"No hard feelings," said Wyc Grousbeck, the team owner. "I don't feel that anybody should feel guilty. It's the job of the team to do well enough in entertaining people to make sure that people pay attention. The most reliable way to entertain people is to win."

Danny Ainge says the same thing. Jo Jo White extends his lanky arms to welcome you, too, and Tommy Heinsohn understands your grief.

"People like success," said Heinsohn, a starting forward on teams that won eight titles in nine years. "It might be great history, but what have you done for me lately?"

But while their words might make the (surging) fan base feel better, the taste of victory certainly will not be as sweet as it was for diehard Red Sox fans who stuck it out for 86 years.

Fans here grew up with Russell, Hondo, and Jo Jo, and later feasted on Bird, Parish, and McHale. This was our team. They represented our city, and we identified with their work ethic.

"The Celtics aren't a team," Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach once said. "They're a way of life."

In 1986, as Roger Clemens struck out 20 batters in one of his best games, only 13,414 showed up at Fenway Park. The reason? The Celtics were battling the Hawks in the playoffs. The Sox game wasn't even on AM radio because the Celtics had control of the flagship station.

But Larry Bird retired in 1992, and the Celtics posted a losing record in eight of the next 10 seasons.

The legendary Boston Garden was demolished to make way for a more modern building that changes names every few years. A series of blows - the deaths of first-round draft pick Len Bias in 1986 and team captain Reggie Lewis in 1993, and the years under head coach Rick Pitino - were too much.

While the Red Sox consistently came just close enough to allow us to smell victory, the Celtics who were dominant for so long took a dramatic fall.

Losing became too hard to stomach - especially with rising ticket prices.

"If I'm going to pay 200 bucks, they better win," said Bob Carleton, a 44-year-old developer from West Barnstable who was wearing a Lacoste sweater at a playoff game.

Even Auerbach blanched when he watched the Celtics in the lean years.

"If I'm watching a game and we're up, I'll keep watching," he once said, according to his friend, longtime sportswriter John Feinstein.

"If we're down, I turn it off. I can't stand it. And if we start to lose a lead, I turn it off, too. It's too hard to watch," Auerbach said.

When the team celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996-97, they suffered their worst season, with a dismal 15-67 record.

So it was particularly painful when our newfound euphoria was pricked by Bibby, the veteran guard for Atlanta, who belittled us by saying, "A lot of these fans might be bandwagon jumpers. They try to get on this now. Because I played here last year, too. I didn't see three-fourths of them."

Bibby's barb is, ahem, backed up by the facts. Last year, when the Celtics won only 24 games, the team sold out nine home games. This year, including playoffs, the number is 47, and counting.

Suddenly, the State House has a billboard-sized Celtics banner draped over it. Movie stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Jason Bateman are showing up to watch games, and there are even pink Paul Pierce jerseys for sale. ABC executives are salivating over a possible Celtics-Lakers matchup. Heck, even the headline in the Philippines' Manila Standard Today recently broadcast, "Lakers-Celtics Showdown looms."

"The Celtics are back," said Rich Gotham, team president. "It's the way people remember it. There's this nostalgia this year, that this is the way it's supposed to be for the Celtics."

The scientists who study fan behavior would be happy to have us all on the couch.

They have found that sports watchers tend to refer to their team as "they" when it loses, and "we" when it wins.

Fans are more likely to wear team gear the day after victories - a concept researcher-types call "basking in reflected glory." And they are also likely to shed any association with a losing team, called "cutting off reflected failure."

"Nothing makes fans angrier than disloyal fans of their team - 'How dare you jump ship!"' said Daniel L. Wann, a psychologist of sports fan behavior at Murray State University.

With the Celtics, we jumped ship. Now we're climbing back on board - wearing our middle-school wristbands.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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