[Romy Nehme is a Canadian hoops junkie who grew up worshipping the Boston Celtics. Below is a story of disillusionment and enlightenment at the hands of those C's. Romy can also be found at 2 girls 1 ball, which is not nearly as salacious a site as the name might imply. -- Ed.]
My sister and I said we were heading to a friend’s house for a birthday party. That was a lie. “Birthdays” had become a go-to subterfuge for us and one that seemed to quell my dad’s paranoia. In the interest of safety, we explained, we’d be sleeping over. My dad hugged us as though he would never see us again before we flew out of the door: “see you tomoooorrow!”
There was no birthday but there was reason to celebrate: we were starting out on our annual pilgrimage to see our beloved Boston Celtics play. Little did we know, but this trip was going to get us closer to the action than our corner loge seats afforded us. Think courtside seats, but with bottle service and a kiss on the mouth from Dick Bavetta. Despite an eight hour drive ahead of us, we cast aside our ill-fitting mix-and-match sporty green attire in favor of something a bit more classy and feminine. We figured that if our dad had to find out about us sneaking away to Boston via the “twins Jumbotron segment”, we’d better be looking good. (Plus, nobody had really figured out how to make women’s basketball apparel look like something other than a potato sack).
After harmonizing in thirds to “Gold Digger” for the sixth time, we finally pulled up at The Garden; a sight that at the time never failed to produce an almost religious awe in me and my sister. It’s all about the bannehs in Boston, and something about seeing Tommy Heinsohn patrol the sidelines, Cedric Maxwell man the booth and Jo-Jo White flash his million dollar smile from the stands, gray and old, makes us and this town better for it.
The lowly 2005-2006 Celtics did not inspire the same reverence. It was the midpoint of the season and they had yet to win more than two consecutive games (the end of the season would come before they did). But it was a time of change and under the new ownership group and Ainge’s stubborn direction, the Celtics had finally begun to mop up the deep septic mess that Paul Gaston and Rick Pit*no had tag-teamed to leave behind. In its place was a growing collection of sparkling young players that Ainge had cultivated … and would later dump for KG.
They were playing the Nuggets and Carmelo still had his rookie sheen, his slick scoring was not yet a casualty of the movement to redefine player value in the NBA. And on that night, he was cooking. He dropped home ELEVEN straight shots before finally missing his first attempt and 16,000 distressed fans breathed an audible sigh of relief. Nevermind that it was a 30 ft heave with one second left in the half.
We managed to escape the game without being given away by the Jumbotron, and the Celtics escaped with a win after Paul Pierce came to the rescue with a signature, thrilling fourth quarter barrage of buckets that left you shaking your head in disbelieving joy. After being down the entire first half, Pierce managed to match Carmelo’s 36 points with his particular flair for timing in these mano a mano duels.
It was an electrifying game, and we were grateful to have chosen it among the many stinkers the Celtics would play that year. But the story for us that night would be the game after the game.
The Garden is unique in that the car exit pours onto Causeway St., granting the riff-raff an unusual amount of access. One of our favorite postgame rituals is waiting for the players to roll out in their souped-up cars and wagering on who has the sexiest wheels, and more importantly, most stunning woman in the passenger seat. In 2005, the younger guys on the team seemed to all gravitate towards the same blingy car du jour — at the time, the hefty Range Rover.
One by one, the illegally tinted cars made their way out of the parking lot. Finally, out comes Big Al; he veers right and stops, momentarily, away from the throngs of hollering fans. We stroll up to his car, and he rolls down a window.
Us (having run faster than our minds had time to formulate an opening thought): “Hey, Al! Great game tonight. We came all the way from Canada to watch you guys play!”
Al (raising his eyebrows in typical Big Al fashion as though he’s been around for decades): “Really? You ladies should come hang out with us. We’re going to be at the [mangled unintelligible drawl-y one-syllable word starting with an “R”]”.
Me: “We might join you later.”
Things were about to take a turn for the bizarre.
* * *
We spend the next hour wandering around aimlessly and playing an ambulant game of Boggle by enunciating every possible one-syllable word starting with “R” (“Rug”,“Rump”, “Roid”, “Rash”…). Finally, a local solved the riddle: “You mean The Rack”, he said, as in a pool hall.
To The Rack!
First, some fortification: three shots on an empty stomach. Historically, something in my brain always seemed to short-circuit in the last milliseconds between cuing up a normal thought, which leads to me blurting out rapid-fire gibberish to “famous” people. Fingers crossed.
We make our way to The Rack and find the Celtics quintet (Big Al, Perk, Tony Allen, Delonte West and Orien Greene) streaming out of the private room. No sooner than we’ve settled into a booth close enough to ogle at the group, but far enough that we wouldn’t be too obvious and could leave without a fuss, (pre-Bipolar Disease diagnosis) Delonte signals us over with a practiced nod of the head.
We hot potato’d under our breath:
“No, you go!”
“NO, YOOOOOUU goooo!”
Another nod, this time more insistent.
Finally, we both ambled over with nervous crooked smiles wishing we’d gone for a fourth shot. We hadn’t really gotten past the giddiness of being invited on the “Behind the Scenes” tour by an NBA player, hence never once stopped to contemplate what would happen once we’d actually reached The Rack. Too late, the game was about to start.
Delonte, either incorrectly assuming we were Latinas, or, trying to be charming: “Como te llamas?”
Me (dishonoring my high school Spanish teacher with shameful, shameful syntax): “mi llamas es Rrrrromy!”
Delonte squeezes into the booth between me and my sister, wraps his arms around us with familial familiarity (remember your creepy Uncle Bill?), and orders us that much needed fourth analgesic. As we all raise our shot glasses, Delonte provides a salacious toast that would make my dad reach for the nearest blunt object (or bible) — Dad, we are not blowing candles and eating funnel cake. Momentarily stunned by how quickly the conversation had strayed out of bounds, I attempt to steer the conversation towards that one really effective and well executed misdirection play in the 2nd quarter where… 
* * *
Up until this point, my knowledge of such, err, social situations was limited to the drama in Love & Basketball and the occasional picture that surfaces on the internet. Back home, puck bunnies — the hockey equivalent of basketball groupies — are kind of like mythological creatures; you read about them a lot but sightings are rare. For one, hockey arena climates aren’t exactly inviting to scantily clad women — no midriffs amongst snowdrifts. The surprising truth, however, is that trickin’ is a rather easy trade with few barriers of entry. Even woman-repellent Michael Cooper purportedly got sloppy 14ths once the rejected girls had gone down the entire roster and had nowhere to go but Cooper. Looks, smarts, eloquence? Bah, all superfluous, don’t strain yourself. It turns out being hit on by NBA players is just about as glamorous as sniffing a freshly played in hockey glove.
* * *
Delonte, visibly unimpressed, eventually goes back to his corner and soon leaves the bar with a girl who could gouge my eyes out with one fell swoop of her freshly lacquered nails. Once again, I’d reached the Famous Impasse: Delonte was looking for Popeye’s chicken, and I … well, I was dangling a stale flax seed granola bar. Those are the breaks when you’re an XX with XY passions, sometimes.
I’m not sure why I was expecting players would oblige me and my prying fanaticism. This obviously wasn’t an autograph signing in a controlled environment where players felt contractually obliged to spew milquetoast PR-speak to fans and media alike. I was on their turf now, shifting the social contract away from the established reciprocity that governs the fan/athlete relationship (they play hard/wow us, we cheer/encourage them from afar) towards something less known and made even murkier when you throw in gender norms/cues.
The rest is one big blur of improbable tragicomedy. Picture having the hot hand, except the inverse social situation. Money conspicuously slaps down on the pool table left and right as the players get into it, drinks are plentiful … heck, even affable trainer Bryan Doo is out having a good time after dealing mainly with strained groins and the like a few hours prior.
As we’re floating around, alternating between retreating from, and observing the scene with equal parts horror and fascination, chatting it up with the few players on hand, a diminutive man with stocky, uneven limbs scurries over to us and presents himself: “I’m Bo, TA (Tony Allen)’s uncle and agent.” This man of legal age but not legal height to enjoy most carnival rides was clearly smitten with my sister. At one point, after all his other tactics had failed, he proudly dangles the following proposal in front of us, rattling off names with the gusto of an auctioneer: “Who do you want (pointing his way down the roster)? I can make it happen, just name a name, this name, that name, any name! Do you want to come to practice tomorrow morning?”
We soon figured out that this gnomish figure was not only in charge of handling Tony Allen’s on and off court affairs, but that he was also taking it upon himself to rep the rest of the squad. Although clearly an empty boast — though likely a productive ruse — I couldn’t help but imagine Section 12 in The Garden filled with tonight’s motley crew of “female friends” and Doc Rivers looking up into the stands, exasperated.
Finally the stunted, grotesque, puck bunny act gone wrong comes to a screeching halt.
Them: “You ladies should come hang out with us in our hot tub.”
Me (desperately trying to conjure up an excuse): “well … I forgot my bathing suit at home, so I’m afraid I won’t be able to join you tonight.” (Sad face.)
Intended reaction: “Oh, you don’t have a bathing suit. Gee whiz, gals, I guess our night is over!” …
Reality: This was not an adequate deterrent.
Still trying to comprehend whether I was trying to be funny/flirtatious or just otherworldly dumb, they reassured me that that was no problem at all.
In the end, it should be said that they were still a bunch of OK guys. Delonte, Bryan Doo, TA’ uncle. It’s just that their guys’ night had met our girls’ night and created some sort of modern godless Babel spinoff.
“You Will See Him On Any Given Sunday / Win the Super Bowl and Drive Off in a Hyundai” blared in the background. It was time to say our goodbyes.
During the drive back to Ottawa, as we reminisced on what was and what could have been, my sister looks down at her phone and sees there’s a missed call and a message: “Hey baby, it’s Bo, TA’s uncle and agent from the bar yesterday. I just wanted to see if you ladies were still in town…..”. We laughed to tears, then rehearsed a G version of our PG-13 story as to not get caught in a prisoner’s dilemma-type situation while recounting our adventure to our scrutinizing mom.
I still look back on that trip fondly because of its eventfulness and having successfully pierced that usually rigid fan-player barrier. But I have to say that a small part of my NBA fandom died that night. My little world of puppies and dad-sanctioned sleepovers never intersected with the Young, Rich, Black and Famous lavish lifestyle — where women seem like a natural extension of players’ on court success — nor did it rub mini skirts with the organized crime establishment that Baller Alert represents with its army of mobilized modern basketball strumpets ready to pounce at a text’s notice.
We had stumbled into a world filled with rules and expectations that we didn’t fully understand, or simply chose not to believe before coming face to jello shot with it.The lesson is this: it’s always more enchanting to give a snow globe a hearty shake and marvel at all those pretty flakes whimsically fluttering about. It never really dawns on you to contemplate what life is really like inside the globe: amidst the seemingly pristine blanket of snow, it’s cold as hell, someone’s got to shovel the driveway and you can’t get into your car because the frost has glued the door shut.
: Paul Pierce is like that guy at the billiards that fools everyone by pretending not to know how to break, only after his opponent fails to clean the table, cleans it up himself with a bastard grin on his face.
: I later recalled a personality test I had taken in an organizational behavior class that revealed, using fancy cartesian grid analysis, that I was essentially an alien whose utterances usually went into a warping device and came out as something that retained nothing of the original message before reaching the intended recipient.