My college tour during the summer of 1988 wound down in Boston. I enjoyed the trip, but each school was but a prelude to the real reason I was on the tour: to visit the Boston Garden. When my parents announced one morning that the day's itinerary was Boston's historic Freedom Trail, I replied: "You guys have fun. I'm heading to 50 Causeway Street." I knew the Garden would be closed, but it didn't matter. I was going.
From the outside, the Garden wasn't particularly impressive. NORTH STATION BOSTON GARDEN, the large lettering on the front read. North Station, a stop on the "T", was next to the Garden, and any fan who had ever watched a Celtics home game on CBS Sports knew it well. CBS had a camera on the T so that viewers felt as though they were pulling up to the Garden right before tipoff. It always worked for me. What happened next during the thousands of games since the Garden opened since 1928 made the building magical. Impressive or not, I had chills.
All the main doors were locked. Of course they were. It doesn't matter, I told myself. I'm here. But it did matter, and so I kept trying until I found a side door away from the main thoroughfare on Causeway Street. It was unlocked.
I went in. The halls were dark and old, unlike any arena I had ever seen. It wasn't what I expected. I walked around alone until I ran into an older gentleman who asked what I thought I was doing. It was a fair question. I explained and crossed my fingers that I wouldn't end up back on the street. He looked me over.
"Come with me," he said with a warm gesture. Nothing more.
Together we entered one of the most storied arenas in American history. It was smaller than I thought it would be, but it was grand. It was summer in the Garden, and so the final touches were being put on a professional wresting ring. The legendary parquet floor was nowhere to be seen.
He pointed to the rafters as we sat down.
"If you came to see the Celtics," he told me, "there they are."
Sixteen World Championship banners floated above, including three that memorialized the champions of my youth. A history lesson began, and for no less than an hour, I was transfixed on every memory that this historian shared with me. Cousy, Russell, Havlicek, Sam and K.C. Jones, LOSCY, Heinson, Silas, Auerbach, Cowens, and my heroes of the 80s. All of them came to life before my eyes.
I had the feeling that my new friend found these stories no less magical than when he originally had seen these legends in action. Had I returned the following day, I think he would gladly have relived them. When he finished, we sat and admired the banners.
"There's something I'd like you to have," he said. Nothing more.
We left the arena and headed to the gift shop, which was filled with boxes during the quiet summer. He disappeared for a moment before returning with a thick pennant that proclaimed the Celtics as the 1987 world champions, which would have represented back-to-back titles.
I immediately understood its significance: the Celtics never won that second championship. My friend was giving me a piece of Celtics and Boston Garden history that never happened.
"We never got to sell these," he said.
I nodded. He knew that I understood.
In Game 4 of the 1987 Finals, the Celtics led their archrival Los Angeles Lakers by 2 points with :09 remaining. Boston Garden was on its feet after a dramatic Larry Bird 3-pointer put the Celts back on top. After a foul, Kareem Abdul Jabbar went to the line and made the first of two free throws. The second caromed out and went out of bounds on the baseline. Lakers' ball with :07 on the clock. Timeout, Lakers.
What happened next is NBA lore and a recurring Celtics nightmare. Magic Johnson received the inbounds pass on the left side at the 3-point arch. The clock started as Kevin McHale moved out to play defense. And then the unthinkable. Magic drove directly into the heart of the Celtics' Big Three -- NBA legends McHale, Bird, and Robert Parish, arguably the greatest front-line ever. His soft baby hook over Parish and McHale swished. It remains the gutsiest shot I've ever seen. Bird's last second attempt from the corner to win the game barely missed. The Lakers went on to win the series in 6 games. They were the 1987 NBA champs.
I held in my hands a memorial to an alternate history, one that the venerable Boston Garden never witnessed.
"We'll get more," my friend said confidently.
I certainly didn't doubt that.
There were many Celtics moments in the years that followed. When the team went public, my mother bought me a share for my birthday. I own the Celtics!, I rejoiced. During my freshman year of college, I participated in my first NBA fantasy draft. While others picked Karl Malone and Chris Mullin, I drafted Celtics small forward Kevin Gamble. After many rounds, I had almost the entire Celtics roster. How can I possibly lose? It's amusing in retrospect.
After years of heartbreak, Celtics fans everywhere rejoiced in the accomplishments of the second Big Three, who delivered our 17th championship banner. I hope with all my heart that my friend saw Ray Allen's smoother-than-silk jump shot, Paul Pierce's maturation into a true Celtics captain, and Kevin Garnett's intense love of the game. Had he and I sat together again to describe that banner, I'm sure he would have spoken first of teamwork.
My summer escape to the Boston Garden was the only time I ever saw it. The Garden was demolished in 1997 to make way for its successor. My trip was beyond description, although I've tried my best. A kind gentleman who might well have escorted me to the door instead ushered me into a past filled with heroes. He shared them all with me, not to mention a piece of Celtics history that I am saving for the right person.
I have thought often of my friend and still do. If he is still with us, then bless him. If he is not, then I have no doubt he's smiling from the rafters.