I took a little heart out of the Boston Celtics' win over the Detroit Pistons last night. For years I have been a latent Celtics fan, having come to them out of the mild frustration with growing up with an ABA franchise down the road. The Denver Nuggets nee Rockets were never much to speak of when I was a kid, and by the time David Thompson showed up to become the first basketball star in the mile-high city, I had already moved on. To Boston.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the team that I had picked out of mild desperation already had a winning tradition by the time I started to take mild interest in them. I was even more impressed when Larry Bird showed up. The Hick from French Lick gave me a work ethic to emulate and endless enthusiasm for the game. And a lot of highlights.
Speaking of highlights, it was about this same time that my buddy and future roommate began his own infatuation with the Philadelphia 76ers and their star, Doctor J. When he did move in with me, we got along fine with the few weeks out of the year when the Sixers played the Celtics. It was never quite the rivalry that the Celtics had with the Lakers, but it was an intense little bit of Atlantic Conference competition. Sitting in our living room in Colorado, we longed for the chance to one day take in a game in the Garden, or the Spectrum.
The closest we ever came was when the Nuggets finally joined the NBA and every so often we would be visited by our teams from the east. We would buy tickets and promise the other that we would not actively root against the other's team, but it was fair to cheer for the Nuggets. I spent a lot more time during these years with the sports pages. I learned to flinch when I saw that Bird's back was acting up, or smile patronizingly when I heard that Dr. J. was retiring.
Then, like all relationships, things changed. My buddy moved back east. Another friend and I drove him and his footlocker down to the airport in Denver. We made our farewells, and he went off into the night sky. And then I was alone.
Well, not really alone. My other friend could sense my mood, and so he suggested we drive over to McNichols Sports arena. "Maybe we could grab a couple of cheap seats." I mumbled something that sounded like assent, and off we went. Sure enough, when we got there, the game had just begun, and we bought a pair of ten dollar tickets and made our way up to the rafters. The Nuggets were playing the Cleveland Cavaliers, and I tried to maintain interest while I shook off the list of things I wished I would have told my eastbound buddy before he left.
This was back in the days before LeBron James, and a matchup between the Nuggets and Cavaliers didn't pack the house like the Sixers or Celtics. There were a lot of empty seats, and the lasting sense memory I have of that night was the sound of Dan Issel was making his way up and down the court for one of his last seasons. This was a guy who had the not-so-clever-but-very-appropriate-nickname of "The Horse". From way up high, we could hear his heavy breathing as he chugged up and down the hardwood. And in these echos, I felt an era coming to a close.