Screw the Oscars. Antoine was back.
No. 88 was standing happily at the free-throw line, putting the finishing touches on a thrilling victory in Phoenix. My father and I were watching on opposite coasts, rehashing our favorite moments on the phone -- Banks' jaw-dropping block on Steven Hunter, Delonte's killer three in OT, Violet Palmer getting inadvertently nailed by a loose ball -- celebrating the most entertaining non-playoff Celtics game in 12 years. And Antoine Walker was the reason. In a last-ditch effort to salvage the season, Danny Ainge swallowed hard and brought back the team's former captain, the same guy he traded 17 months before. It was like someone screwing up a game of "NBA Live," glancing around the room, then hitting the RESET button.
Now you know -- Antoine was the heart of the Celtics.
As someone posted on my favorite Celtics message board, the trade invigorated this team like the adrenalin shot from "Pulp Fiction." During the Phoenix game, Dad and I ended up talking five different times -- which hasn't happened since the Reggie Lewis Era -- using the same incredulous, giddy tone that people have at the end of "Pimp My Ride." That's a pretty good comparison, actually. The Celtics took our crappy car (the pre-Antoine team), quickly remodeled it (with the trade), and suddenly we were driving around in a decked-out car with $40,000 worth of stuff in it. Really? This is mine? All for me? Sunday night, we looked like a genuine sleeper in the East, a hybrid of Phoenix and Seattle. Four days earlier in Denver, we looked dead.
That Antoine was single-handedly responsible for this transformation ... I mean, "ironic" isn't nearly a strong enough word. No local athlete divided Boston fans quite like Employee No. 8. "He just doesn't get it," my father always complained, firmly entrenched in the anti-'Toine camp. He must have muttered those words 35,000 times over the years. When we traded Walker to Dallas, Dad was fine with it. Then we watched Pierce and the gang mope through the following season -- a surly, unlikable group -- as Antoine's competitive spirit was sorely missed. Say what you want about the guy, but he always cared. This year wasn't a complete disaster, not with three promising rookies involved, but Dad (a 31-year season ticket holder) wasn't exactly skipping home from the FleetCenter, either. When I broke the news about the Antoine trade, he was mildly intrigued.
"Well, he drives me crazy, but at least he plays hard," Dad decided. "Maybe he'll wake Pierce up."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. At the end of the Suns game, as Antoine prepared to shoot those aforementioned free throws, FSN showed a graphic saying that 'Toine was a whopping 12-for-32 from the field.
"Oh my God!" Dad yelped. "Twelve for thirty-two! TWELVE FOR THIRTY-TWO!"
"We wouldn't have gotten to OT without him," I pointed out.
"Yeah, I know," he said, still laughing. "I just can't believe we're back here with this guy. It's like climbing back on a rollercoaster."
But have you ever had a bad time on a rollercoaster?
On Wednesday night against the Lakers, Antoine makes his triumphant return to Boston. The team plans on going all-out for him -- video presentations, posters, even a top-secret surprise -- and why wouldn't they? It's the toughest ticket since Rick Pitino's first game against MJ and the Bulls.
This isn't about welcoming back a favorite son, because nobody ever liked him that much. It's about 20,000 fans apologizing to someone who never received a fair shake. It's about a guy who learned from his mistakes and longed for a second chance. It's about perception and reality. It's about black and white. It's about 16 championships, and Red and Cooz, and Russell and Bird, and a franchise that used to stand for something. It's about standing and cheering and clapping until your hands ache, about appreciating someone that you never quite understood, about making up for lost time. It's about fans chanting "AN-TWAN WAH-KER" and clapping in rhythm to the syllables.
It's about No. 8 coming home.
I attended nearly every home game during Walker's first six seasons; there were times when I honestly wondered if the fans wanted him to fail. With diehards priced out of the premium seats near the court, those spots were filled mostly with businessmen and one-timers, few of them knowing much about the team. These people were always the toughest on Walker, who confirmed every stereotype they had about the league -- in other words, he was an overconfident African-American who seemed a little too pleased with himself, made too much money, talked too much smack and definitely wasn't Larry Bird. So they skewered him. When Walker signed a $71 million extension before the '99 season, then showed up overweight and out of shape, the city never really forgave him. Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan -- the most respected basketball voice in town -- slammed Walker in a column, called him a "punk" and sealed Walker's fate. Most Boston fans didn't watch Celtics games anymore, so they couldn't come up with their own opinion. Ryan did it for them.
To be fair, Walker made it impossible to accept him at times, between his hideous shot selection and bombastic personality. There were lots of moments like the Heat game in 1999, when we were winning late and Twan started talking trash to Mourning and Riley, even demanding the ball so he could launch a three in front of Miami's bench. There was the time he told a heckler to "Bite me" in Section One, then grabbed his crotch during a timeout for good measure. There was the time he wouldn't stop arguing with the refs, when Rick Pitino screamed "Stop it!", then whirled around and tabbed someone from the bench, like a frustrated parent sending someone to their room. These things happen when a team hands a 20-year-old kid too much responsibility, when he doesn't have any veterans looking out for him, when he doesn't know right from wrong. He ends up glancing defiantly to his buddies in Section One after baskets, wiggling after meaningless shots, antagonizing officials for no real reason. He ends up digging his own grave.
After playing with the Hawks, Antoine is more than happy to be back in Boston.
For the most part, the FleetCenter crowd openly loathed him, treating him like Ashlee Simpson gets treated after her average halftime performance. I remember one game when he sprung for 35 in the first 42 minutes, but they still booed him in crunch time after three straight misses. He couldn't win. Admittedly, I was right there with them -- I gave up on Antoine at least 20 times. For my old website, I wrote more words about him than anyone other than Pedro, every column centering around three themes: "He's finally putting it all together!", "What's going on with him?" and "Maybe we should trade him." Way back in January of 1998, after they retired The Chief's No. 00, I wrote a column with the headline, "Will They Ever Retire No. 8?" (The conclusion? No.) During one eight-day span in 2000, I argued the merits of keeping him, then wrote a column making up more fake trades with him. Re-reading these old columns, you would think I was bipolar.
And this came back to the "Will he ever get it?" question. Antoine's best quality was also his worst quality -- there wasn't a second when he wasn't entirely convinced that he was the best player on the court. On Opening Night in 1997, when Jordan was still in his prime, Walker capped off an astounding comeback by banking a turnaround in MJ's face and drawing the foul, then doing his exaggerated wiggle and chest-bumping Walter McCarty ... all three feet away from a furious Jordan. There was never any cause-and-effect with 'Toine -- he always riled up the wrong teams, challenged the wrong guys, took that one extra three we didn't need. When he was heckled from the stands, almost always, he sought out the offending voices and stared them down. The guy was a mess. A maddening, talented mess.
Here was a potential superstar who could play five positions, a gifted offensive rebounder with 3-point range, one of the truly competitive guys in the league ... and he drove everybody batty. I remember hoping that an opposing player would punch him, just to settle him down, and it almost happened with Jerry Stackhouse once. Alas. But when someone is guaranteed $71 million before turning 23, can you really convince him that he's doing something wrong? Many young NBA stars fell short of expectations in the 90's, and only because they made waaaaaaay too much money waaaaaay too soon. Walker almost became one of them, a card-carrying member of the "Hey everybody, look At me!" generation, the same era that nearly destroyed the league. When Pitino made his famous "Larry Bird isn't walking through that door" speech, he didn't realize how poignant it was. Celtics fans didn't just miss the good old days, we pined for them.
This went a little deeper, of course. Thanks to relentless self-promoting and trash-talking, unflattering stories about posses and illegitimate kids, tattoos and crotch-grabbing, spiralling salaries and everything else, as we headed towards the millennium, it became tougher and tougher for paying customers (mostly white) to identify with the players (mostly black). Because of Walker's infamous wiggle, as well as his penchant for trash-talking and baiting referees, Boston fans naturally associated him with every other problem child. Sure, he was bad, but he wasn't that bad. Behind the scenes, he was practically a prince -- adored by everyone in the organization, the kind of guy who remembered everyone's names, bought birthday presents, took care of ball boys and paid for employee's vacations. Nobody knew about this, and nobody really cared.
That was one of the many dichotomies with 'Toine. A superb offensive rebounder, he spent most of his time 25 feet from the basket. A surprisingly creative passer, he still managed to make the dumbest pass possible at the worst possible time. Nobody cared about winning more than him, yet he never got himself into phenomenal shape until last summer (a contract year, of course). Considered to be a terrific teammate, he struggled adjusting to "second banana" status as Pierce evolved into a franchise player. He was never quite what we wanted him to be. And we excoriated him for it.
Pitino didn't help matters by floating Walker's name in about 100 different trade rumors, then leaking an unflattering story about Walker after his resignation -- something about 'Toine griping about not getting enough shots in the huddle of a tie game, which was allegedly when Pitino had the epiphany that he needed to resign. (Actually, he needed to resign because he was a terrible NBA coach and an even worse evaluator of talent. But we won't split hairs.) Now Walker's name was sullied for good -- he wasn't just a bad guy, he was a coach-killer. With the team unable to trade him because of his contract, we were stuck with him. Almost like VD.
When the team improbably turned things around during the Jim O'Brien Era, making it all the way to the Eastern Finals in 2002, the fans fell head over heels for Pierce. Walker was an afterthought, belittled for shooting so many 3s, even though his coach was imploring him to do so. With two quality players and 10 average ones, O'Brien decided that the best way to compete was by playing Walker and Pierce big minutes, slowing things down and revolving the offense around an unconscionable numbers of 3s. For whatever reason, Antoine was blamed for this style of play, a curious outcome for the undisputed heart and soul of the team, an admitted work-in-progress, someone who played 40-plus minutes a night and never missed a game, someone who spent summers in Chicago with Jordan and absorbed as many lessons as he could. Most fans would love a guy like that. We tolerated him.
When he was finally traded, the prevailing attitude seemed to be, "Good riddance." Even I felt that way, although I hated what they got in return. It was time for him to go. They needed to hand over the team to Pierce, once and for all. Antoine was in the way.
Or so we thought.
So why are we excited to have him back? Because he gave a crap about being a Celtic, that's why. Walker came to the franchise in 1996, four years removed from Bird, three years removed from McHale and Reggie, two years removed from Parish. He played with Dee Brown and Rick Fox, both of whom played with the Big Three and understood how the franchise resonated with the city. For all his faults as a player, Walker always understood that it meant something to wear the Celtics green, knew the names on the rafters, valued Red Auerbach's advice, listened to Tommy Heinsohn's tips on the team charter. When the team traded him, he was devastated -- not because they gave up on him, but because he never wanted to play anywhere else.
And there's something to be said for that. The NBA has evolved into a league where everyone goes to the highest bidder, save for a precious few like Tim Duncan. When Kobe became a free agent, you never heard him say the words, "There's no way I'm leaving the Lakers." He explored his options for most of the summer, even using the Clippers to jack up his price before re-signing. This happens all the time. In Cleveland right now, an entire city holds its breath with LeBron, hoping he won't be leaving in three years. In this league, you never know.
The Celtics didn't know how much they needed Antoine until he was gone.
Antoine? He loved playing for the Celtics, setting him apart from everyone on this current team. Even as recently as last week, GP looked exasperated, Pierce exhausted, Blount catatonic. Ricky Davis always looked happy enough, but the guy could have a good time picking up elephant poop. The rookies started out wide-eyed and giddy before the season ground them down; during last week's Lakers game, mild-mannered teenager Al Jefferson even chewed out Jiri Welsch for missing him on a fast break. Heading into the trading deadline, this was a sullen group content with going through the motions, a rudderless ship, the kind of team that could give up 15 straight or score 15 straight at any time.
Then Danny bit the bullet and brought Antoine back.
Suddenly guys were huddling before free throws, helping each other up, cheering teammates from the bench. In about 3.2 minutes, 'Toine transformed them into Hickory High. Finally -- finally! -- he had harnessed the misplaced emotion from his previous stint in Boston, figured out how he could use it constructively. Maybe the time away helped -- a humbling up-and-down stint in Dallas, followed by four eye-opening months in Atlanta (the least talented team in the worst possible city) -- but the fact remained, he looked like a different player. THIS was the guy we always wanted: Well-conditioned, focused, passionate, always in control, the ultimate teammate. His influence on Pierce was worth that 2006 first-rounder alone; almost instantaneously, Pierce started playing hard again, feeding off Antoine's intensity, just like he did back in the day. It was like getting two All-Stars in the same trade.
And honestly? As a basketball fan, that Phoenix game was one of the most satisfying nights I can remember. From 1996 to 2003, I had invested in Antoine Walker. Cared about him. Defended him. *****ed about him. Cheered him on. Worried about him. Wondered about him. It was an all-encompassing experience, almost like being a relationship, with the same peaks and valleys and the same ambiguous ending. When he was shipped to Dallas, it resembled a bitter romantic breakup, and I was guilty of the same emotions we feel in those situations -- I wanted him to fail, wanted him to make an *** out of himself. When he was exiled to Atlanta last summer, I remember taking a perverse amount of joy in his plight. And then, when I heard word that he might be headed back to Boston, I wanted him to come home, without even a hesitation. Maybe I just wanted someone on the team who actually cared about being a Celtic.
And sure, over the next few months, you can count on 'Toine launching some terrible shots, arguing with a few referees, maybe even losing a game or two with an ill-advised 3. That's part of the Antoine Package, for better or worse. You can also count on his getting teammates involved, making an infinite number of big plays, going to battle night after night, teaching the rookies about being a Celtic, wearing his heart on his sleeve. For once, the pluses outweigh the minuses. I never thought I would say that about Antoine Walker.
"Hey, maybe he gets it now," my father said this week. "Stranger things have happened."
Well, not really. But that's the NBA for you. For better or worse, we watch talented kids mature into adults on the biggest stage imaginable. We hand them millions and millions, treat them like kings and expect them to handle it. When they can't handle it, we ridicule them, gripe about them constantly, wonder if they'll ever "get it." And because of the salaries and ticket prices, an underlying level of jealousy overshadows our relationship with them, maybe more than we want to admit. In retrospect, Boston fans weren't booing Antoine because he was a bad guy; we booed him because he made a ton of money, because we weren't patient enough with him, because he wasn't Bird or McHale. Was it unfair? Absolutely.
Starting tonight, we have a chance to atone. After nine grueling years, Antoine Walker will finally have the FleetCenter in the palm of his hand.
And yes, I wish I could be there. More than you know.