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The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of Defeat and The Lessons We Learn Along the Way

David Carpenter

Herald Staff

The Boston Celtics 2021-2022 season was a roller coaster of emotions from opening night tip off to the final horn on June 16. For me as a life long Celtics fan, the thrill of victory and agony of defeat have never been quite as pungent, nor have I experienced both of those feelings in such constant intervals. 

The Celtics season began in a manner that would in some ways prophesy what lay ahead. In a double-over-time game the Celtics fell apart, back together and back apart to loose to the New York Knicks 138-134 . The first several months of the season were some of the most frustrating I’ve experienced in my basketball fandom. While the exasperation I experienced did not match the debacle that was the Celtics 2019 season, this team of very lovable players proved to be disappointing and infuriating at times. 

Many within the media felt it was impossible for the Celtics two young stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, to play side-by-side in a productive offense. Others, including myself, became frustrated with first year head coach Ime Udoka, who at time felt to be at odds with his players. This was multiplied by the fact the Celtics seemed to find a way to lose games. A clear example happened on Nov. 6. In a game on the road in Dallas, Luka Doncic hit an unbelievable shot at the buzzer to beat Boston. This and other games throughout the fall seemed to just slip away.  

On Dec. 27, the Celtics went on the road to play Minnesota in a game featuring a heavily depleted roster for the Timberwolves due to COVID protocols. Boston fell apart down the stretch and lost by three to a cast of mis-fits that Minnesota had thrown together. I remember this game specifically, listening to it on the radio while driving to Alabama to spend the week with my family. I will never forget the disappointment in the longtime voice of the Celtics Sean Grande trying to explain to his audience how the Celtics were losing to Greg Monroe who was signed to a 10-day contract earlier that day. 

Frustrations culminated for many Celtics fans on Jan. 6, when RJ Barrett hit a last
second heave to down them. The Celtics record was 18-21 at almost the halfway point of the season. I remember texting with a buddy who was simply sick of being let down constantly by the team, pondering if he wouldn’t just give up watching them until next year. I felt certain this team still had potential, but I didn’t believe they’d come close to finding it this season. Within me was a glimmer of hope for better days, but the month of January did not prove to be those days. By Jan. 28, when the Celtics fell to the Atlanta Hawks, Boston’s record was 25-25. 

Then, the energy shifted. Celtics wing Jaylen Brown predicted as much in a tweet on Jan. 31. A reenergized Celtics team appeared out of thin air. The Celtics rattled off nine straight wins and began to climb from their previously 11th ranked spot in the Eastern Conference to contention for a playoff team. The month of February would end with Boston’s record at 36-27.

As the Celtics were making a leap, my life changed forever as well. On Feb. 19 my father passed away unexpectedly. I took in the 129-106 win on Feb. 24 over the Nets at my parents house while we waited to make arrangements for his memorial service. In the darkest days of my life, this newly invigorated team was a bright spot. March started with five wins in a row. Including a win on March 11 the day we laid my dad to rest. 

The energy had shifted for the C’s who in just a little over two months had gone from a five alarm panic fire of a franchise with a 25-25 record to third in the Eastern Conference, Division Champs and sporting a record of 51-31. 

Throughout my life, I have heard the phrase “Don’t get your hopes up.” Unfortunately, at times for me, this reminder seems impossible. I don’t know that I am a “constant optimist”, but I feel that often I truly believe for the best. This certainly relates to sports where I always see my teams potential for contention or even a championship. My beliefs in this way may have been warped growing up as a Boston sports fan. This century I have watched my teams win four world series, play in three Stanley Cup Finals and win one, play in nine Super Bowls, winning six, and make three trips to the NBA finals, bringing the Larry Obrien trophy back to Boston in 2008 (humble brag). 

Entering into the playoffs this audacious hope swelled when Jayson Tatum hit a buzzer-beating layup to take game one of the first round series against the pre-season favorite to win-it-all Brooklyn Nets. In the next three games the Celtics would finish off Brooklyn,  sending Kevin Durant, Ben Simmons, and most importantly for Boston fans, Kyrie Irving back to Brooklyn and launch the guys in green to the second round. 

The NBA’s reigning champs Milwaukee Bucks flashed their championship pedigree in Round 2, coming to Boston to get a win in game one. Giannis Antetokounmpo showed why many believe that he is the best player in basketball with a 24 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assist performance in the Bucks win. The Celtics and Bucks traded the next four games placing Boston in a must-win game six, on the road in Milwaukee. Jayson Tatum had a masterful 46 point game bringing the series back home for game seven. The Celtics were great back on the parquet and closed out the Bucks in a 28 point blowout. 

As Grant Williams scored a playoff career high 27 points, I began to really believe this was the year for the Celtics. Their depth seemed unmatched, their defense was elite, and they could score with any team in the league. 

The next challenge for the Celtics was in Miami against the team who eliminated them two years ago in the conference finals. In this series, the Celtics seemed to be the better team, at times it seemed there was a lack in the intensity that had fueled their run at the end of the season. Turnovers piled up and the motion of their offense slowed down and began to mimic the stagnated, isolation heavy offense that had failed so epicly in the first 50 games of the regular season. With their backs to a wall, in game seven, on the road, the Celtics came through and gutted out a win against the tough Miami squad. 

Somewhere in this time I began to feel certain this team was on their way to their 18th championship. I was convinced they would win regardless of their opponents. Some of the factors motivating my belief are obvious. I am an unashamed homer who always sees the best in his teams. The Celtics defense rounded into a unit, the likes that Boston has not seen since 2008 and Tatum and Brown both seemingly climbed to another level of greatness.

Undoubtedly many reasons for this hope were personal. My dad wasn’t a basketball fan, but he always cheered for my teams to win, because he knew how much it meant to me. I thought perhaps in the worst year of my life, this moment of achievement I had hoped to see for so long would finally be a bright light at the end of the tunnel of personal grief.

This hope became palpable as the NBA Finals began. The Celtics flexed their muscle and showed their heart during a comeback win in Golden State to start the series. After game two they returned home and shined for the fans in Boston. The size and athleticism of the Celtics seemed to be too much for the Warriors to handle and the Celtics were leading the series 2-1.

Game four seemed like the game for Boston to take a giant lead towards their unrealized potential. Steph Curry was incredible, but the rest of the Warriors were still  fairly pedestrian, although Andrew Wiggins began to flash his game changing potential. The Celtics came out of halftime with a lead and a back and forth third quarter found the Celtics up early in the fourth. Curry’s brilliance seemed to rub off on his teammates and the Dubs traded haymakers with the C’s throughout the fourth. 

With a four point lead and four minutes to go, my hope for this team hit an all time high. “Close out the game, and you just have to win one of the next three” I thought. I felt tears of celebration nearing. Until late in the game, when the buckets quit falling for Boston and seemed to multiply for Golden State. The series was now tied 2-2, the Celtics had missed a golden opportunity and hope began to slip away. 

The next two games for the Celtics were fairly similar. They would come out with intensity. Boston would go on a great run, but never be able to extend a lead. My team looked tired, confused and turned the ball over at a mind-blowing rate. I sat for the majority of the second half of game six with my head in my hands, trying to convince myself that it wasn’t happening. Normally, I am quite animated, but that night I wasn’t. I just watched it all come crumbling down. The Warriors finished off the Celtics 103-90 in six games. It is their fourth championship since 2015. 

Hope is a funny thing. It is the motivating factor behind the majority of the risks we take. One might hope a risky change of career will propel them into more time freedom or financial success. Hope could also motivate you to ask a pretty girl on a date, hoping she’ll say yes. At its root, sports are so invigorating, infuriating and emotional because they cause us to hope. Hope that someone, or one’s, we believe in can overcome obstacles or beat the odds. Hope that a team can unify around a common goal to achieve greatness. As our hope grows and swells with each progression towards its end, so grows the opportunity for disappointment and heartbreak. So why do we show up? What makes the hope worth the risk? 

Is it addiction to the thrill? This seems improbable considering some of the most devoted fan bases cheer on some of the most consistently average teams. I believe it is because true hope never dies. It springs eternal. My hope for that moment of celebration and joy in a season of darkness may not have been realized this year as I was almost positive it would be, but I already know where I will be when the Celtics tip off their season this October. 

 I think sports teach us a lot about life and maybe even more about ourselves. Each and every one of us  want something to cheer for. We want to believe in something bigger than ourselves and find others to believe along with us. We live through the agonies of defeat because the thrills of victory are so incredible. 

Yes, I wish the Celtics were the NBA champs. Even more so, I wish my dad was still here, and I could call him and tell him how disappointed I am in the loss. There are no guarantees in basketball, nor are there in life. In both we will feel the thrill of victory and experience the agony of defeat. Much like sports we have to take life one season and moment at a time. In the dark moments of disappointment and loss, we can choose to appreciate the wins along the way and learn from the losses we suffered. 

This season may be over, but I am already hoping for the next. I’m hoping another run will land my team at the precipice of winning it all and one day they will for the eighteenth time hang a championship banner. When they do, I’ll remember this day, I think of my dad, and I’ll celebrate all the ups and downs between here and there.

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