Jerry Seinfeld once famously said that, as sports fans, we are rooting for laundry. And as much as I have tried to rationalize the reasons why I support the teams that I do, fundamentally, Seinfeld is right. I root for the name on the front of the jersey.
So as last Thursday's NBA trade deadline came and went, with rumors swirling about my beloved Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, I started thinking about who I root for as a sports fan and why. I don't like Dustin Pedroia and Rob Gronkowski more than more than Miguel Cabrera and Calvin Johnson for what they've done on the field. I like them better because I grew up outside of Boston, not Detroit.
Yet more than rooting for any one player, I always believed I rooted for championships a mindset that most, but not all, team sports fans share. I rooted for the Celtics to win the NBA championship every year and did not think twice about it. As long as Boston ended up with the trophy, I did not care how it happened.
But when Paul Pierce's name started coming up in those trade rumors, I began questioning what I truly valued as a sports fan. I did not want the Celtics to trade Pierce because I believed he gave the team the best chance to win a title in the near future. But, more than that, I did not want Pierce to go because I see him as the physical embodiment of the Celtics. He was on the team when I first started supporting Boston in 2002, and he suffered through some tough times before finally winning a title in his 10th year with the team in 2008. I view Pierce the same way fans in the 1960s viewed Bill Russell or fans in the 1980s viewed Larry Bird: to me, he is the Celtics. For him to end his career with another team would just be plain wrong.
I can root for a championship every year, but if the Celtics really did win a championship every single year fun fact, this actually happened from 1959 to 1966 I would get bored. As a fan, winning every year gets old and each successive title means less and less. There is no drama when you have already seen the movie.
Almost as much as a championship, I value the players who were truly loyal to my teams and have stuck it out because the team meant as much to them as it did to me. Or at least that is what I tell myself. Maybe Pierce would not have minded if he ended his career somewhere else, but I convince myself that he would have because he is a Celtic, and that's that.
Everywhere you look in sports, you see players abandoning their franchises, like LeBron James leaving Cleveland in 2010 and Albert Pujols departing St. Louis in 2011. It does not bother me when someone like Octavio Dotel joins his 13th team in 14 years because free agency is and should be part of professional sports. But it saddens me when someone who has the chance to have a special connection with a city destroys it by selling out to the highest bidder.
In this case, I'm talking about Pujols, who signed with the Los Angeles Angels for 10 years and $254 million after declining a 10-year, $210-million deal from the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that drafted him in 1999.
Pujols won three MVP awards and two World Series titles in St. Louis and was well on his way to becoming the spiritual successor to the late Stan Musial, one of sports' all-time class acts. I thought to myself: "You can't put a price on that kind of legacy." Apparently, Pujols can: $44 million.
Sports geeks like me use words like legacy when thinking about players because it helps us forget that we are rooting for laundry.
Looking at a guy like Mike Schmidt, who played all 18 seasons of his Hall of Fame career with the Phillies, reminds me that, in special cases, we can root for more than laundry. We can root for that special connection between player and fanbase that James and Pujols eschewed and Schmidt embraced.
And that is why I want Pierce to retire as a Celtic, even if it does end up hurting the team in the short term. The kind of bond he has right now with Boston is so rare, and I want to savor every remaining minute of Pierce's career, which I can't if he is off playing for the Clippers.