A funny thing happened at the forum known as the Garden last Friday night.
There was the controversial Stephon Marbury, clad in Celtics green, coming off the bench in his debut for his latest team, the first minutes he had played in more than a year following the soap opera that surrounded him in New York. Noted “team killer” and all-around embodiment of the narcissistic professional athlete, Marbury is on board in Boston out of desperation, a move Celtics fans weighed for months with a drastic amount of trepidation thanks to his past transgressions in the NBA.
Yet despite the overwhelming fear that this one player, equivalent to poison in the locker room, might derail a team with championship aspirations, the Garden crowd greeted Marbury with a standing ovation as he strolled onto the parquet. A player many fans had said would be difficult to root for just hours earlier received a hero’s welcome before even scoring his first bucket of the season. Maybe we’re just a welcoming society, and it was a greeting to a new beginning. Or maybe it’s the increasing sycophancy in this town after a decade of professional athletic excellence.
We’ve seen this before. It has been less than two years since the Patriots stole Randy Moss from the Oakland Raiders to the knee-jerk chagrin of Pats fans, concerned that the volatile wide receiver would create a schism in a franchise built on a foundation of team-first preaching. Yet Moss has re-emerged as one of the game’s top receivers, and wouldn’t you know, ever since he donned New England’s colors, he hasn’t been such a bad guy after all.
Perception can be a fickle thing, depending upon where you’re standing in relation to the looking glass. The Celtics drew national criticism last week for leaping into a relationship with Marbury, who is the antithesis of the franchise’s traditional employee, lacking the character that at one point was synonymous with Celtic Pride. But from Danny Ainge’s point of view, the risk of Marbury imploding again was worth taking for the minor cost — a reported $1.2 million — involved.
If Marbury behaves and plays well, the Celtics are in a much better position to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference crown. With the timing of Kevin Garnett’s return uncertain, he’s a body they desperately need. If he proves to be the Stephon Marbury the league is used to, rather than the immense talent he was once upon a time, they cut their losses and try to press on without him.
That’s the Boston perception of the situation. But here’s what LeBron James had to say about Marbury: “I couldn’t have a guy like that on my team.”
Some will have you believe that speaks to James’ concern for team unity. Others (now us, in Boston) will tell you that’s because Marbury would distract from the singularity of James, a player who would have some adjustment period if he ever wished to subscribe to Ubuntu. Then again, had Marbury gone to Cleveland and had Paul Pierce said those words, we’d be nodding in agreement, wondering how a team with a chance for a title could make such a risky move.
But, much like Moss, Marbury now has a chance to reinvent himself. We are, indeed, a coddling sports society these days, a long way from the hard-nosed critical group of once upon a time, a transformation that’s taken place thanks to Duck Boats galore.
After all, it took about eight seconds for us to universally forgive Rodney Harrison after he was busted for performance enhancers, with excuses including, “He was just trying to get back onto the field to help his team.” It’s all in the name of winning these days. Character, integrity, and reliability need not apply.
Exception that proves the rule
Last summer, Boston was on the opposite end of the indulgent spectrum. After almost eight years of antics, ranging from the harmless to the destructive, the Red Sox shipped Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers before he had a chance to obliterate team chemistry. Sox fans debate the move to this day, even though the guys in the locker room who had to deal with his haphazard mental abandonment applauded.
Forgiveness these days is easily attainable in the Boston stands. One need only recall Ramirez’s appearance at Fenway following the trading deadline in 2005 to understand that, in the eyes of the fans, athletes can do whatever they want in this town, as long as they perform and succeed. For a week, Ramirez spat on the fans, but he was welcomed back with loving arms after rapping a game-winning single against the Twins. The love affair continued for three more years until the Red Sox, finally, had had enough.
It’s funny, though, that on July 30, most fans couldn’t imagine life without Manny. On Aug. 1, they issued an overwhelming “good riddance.”
There is something to the theory that headaches, Ramirez aside, are less of a distraction on winning teams. Partly that’s because even a malcontent will take a certain degree of medicine if it means working toward the ring he’s wanted his whole life. But the surrounding characteristics also play a part. Not often do you see a championship team without a grand level of sacrifice and commitment from its players. If that attitude rubs off on guys like Marbury and Moss, then the sports world in general is better for its level of citizenship.
If it doesn’t, we’re sure to make some excuse about why not. Until we cut them loose, of course, at which point everyone other than a few apologists will vilify them for what they did in their time here.
So, was Marbury’s greeting a surprise? Not really. These days, we’re spoiled enough and greedy enough for more titles that we’re willing to look whatever way necessary to make that possible. Bill Belichick sold his defensive-minded soul for Randy Moss, and it’s worked out tremendously, albeit with no title to speak of. For Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers, it’s TBD with Stephon Marbury, the most self-interested player in the league now on a team that preaches the benefits of community.
If they’re still standing for him come June, consider it just one more project in a recent line of reclamations.
Eric Wilbur writes the Boston Sports Blog on Boston.com (www.boston.com/sports/columnists/wilbur/)