Danny, you broke my heart. You broke my heart!
If you are looking for a case against being a sports fan in 2017, Celtics GM Danny Ainge has served it up for you with his latest mega-deal, the trade that will send Isaiah Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers along with Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick for Kyrie Irving. It is a bad deal for the Celtics in several ways, but it is a horrible deal for Celtic fans to an almost absurd degree. It is not just “sports are a business,” and this is business as usual. It is championship-chasing nihilism- the belief that there is nothing about the sports-fan experience that means anything except getting a fucking piece of jewelry. Maybe most fans really do just root for laundry and would trade their soul for a few duck boats on parade, but I’m not there yet. I still care a little who wears the jerseys I’m watching, who rides in those boats.
Being a fan is not a rational thing. There is no earthly reason why anyone should sacrifice their time, their emotional energy and their joy and heartache to a group of strangers playing a game. The modern sports world has been forced to confront rationality on all fronts. The gut-feelings of old men that once ruled these games have been banished in favor of precision calculations, data sets and probability tables. And that is a good thing. Reason should win out over superstition and the end of superstitions has improved performance, pushed boundaries and created an era that has seen some of the greatest performances for both teams and individuals. If you are the GM of a major sports franchise, it is vital that you divorce yourself from sentimentality and build a winner at any cost. But if fandom is an inherently irrational thing, maybe the cold rationality of the modern front office can go too far?
That is what happened today.
Nevermid all the rational, calculated reasons this was a bad deal. I’ll get to those. Isaiah Thomas’ 2016-2017 season was special. It was historic in several ways, but it was not the record-setting numbers that made it such a joy to watch. Everyone loves David-and-Goliath stories and, at 5’9, Thomas will forever be cast as David, but his 2016-17 season wasn’t that either. David might beat Goliath but he usually doesn’t burn three Goliath’s in the paint at will with the Kingdom on the line. The season that spawned the King in the Forth meme was the kind of magical occurrence that makes it worth watching sports. Here was this guy- too small for his sport of choice- who bounced around the court with the kind of ease that only comes with a tortuous commitment to making difficult things look easy. He scored at will. He beat double-teams and triple-teams. He buried wild step-backs and crazy-deep threes. He did it without the obvious athleticism of Westbrook, the length of Kawhi, or the flashy moves of Harden. He did it all with a smile that fell just short of hiding the Everest-sized chip on his shoulder*. He did it when it mattered most and when everyone was trying to stop him.
*A chip that just got bigger, BTWs.
That King-in-the-Fourth thing would have been enough to make 2016-17 a season Celtics fans held dear, but when tragedy struck on April 15, 2017, Isaiah Thomas’ season became something else entirely. After losing his sister in a car accident, Isaiah Thomas didn’t step away from the court- a choice that would have been completely understood by anyone with a functioning soul. Instead, he returned to the game he had given up so much for and gave it something that will ring out as long as there are fans who can remember watching it. On the day his sister would have turned 23, Thomas played the greatest game of basketball I have ever seen. It might be irrational to care about sports, but when you watch a game like that, it makes sense in some deep way that we can’t get at with words and numbers.
You don’t trade that easily. You certainly don’t trade that for a minor upgrade with an extra year of control.
But that is what Danny Ainge has done. Because this is what GMs do when they forget that irrational thing at the heart of the game. Without that, ther are too eager to make the headline-grabbing deals, even when they are wrong. They chase rings and only rings and think of nothing else. They forsake all the reasons we watch the games to make sure they can win those games, under the theory that winning will bring the fans. But what if it doesn’t work? What if they are wrong? What if I don’t what to watch the Kyrie-Celtics for some irrational reason. It was irrational to watch in the first place, right? The NBA might be selling games, but they are really selling stories. How disposable can characters be before we are out on the story itself?
Even Game of Thrones, a show built on brutally punishing our expectations of loyalty to its characters has not been able to do what Danny Ainge just did. There is a part of me that keeps expecting Isaiah to crawl out on to the ice and catch a horse back to Boston. But it isn’t going to happen. And that only leaves the question, why am I watching this anyway?