With 17 NBA championships in their proud history, the Boston Celtics haven't played the role of underdog very often. Having won the Stanley Cup 23 times, the Montreal Canadiens are even less familiar with the role. But on back-to-back nights last week, the Celtics and Canadiens shook the NBA and NHL, respectively, and dismissed teams all but predestined for this year's championship series.
I happen to be one of the 14 people south of Chicago who care about the Stanley Cup playoffs. Having spent my high school days in Vermont, I'm as comfortable with the legend of the Canadiens as anyone who doesn't speak French as a first or second language. For Montreal to be a series away from its first Stanley Cup final in 17 years somehow seems like a return to normalcy. But for the Habs to get there by eliminating Canada's beloved Sidney Crosby (and his Pittsburgh Penguins) is indeed a shock to the system.
For the first time in three years, Sid the Kid — Olympic gold medal secure around his neck — will be reserving tee times in advance of June. Can't be a happy development for NBC, which will cling to the possibility of an Original Six finals as a hook for viewership beyond my club of 14. (If the Chicago Blackhawks can beat San Jose in the Western Conference finals and Montreal upset Philadelphia in the East, two of the NHL's original franchises will battle for the Cup for the first time since 1979.)
The night after North America's most famous hockey player was sent packing, the world's most famous basketball player was hurled headlong into the most talked-about free agency in a generation. The Celtics left little doubt in their six-game elimination of LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers (a team that won more games than any other NBA franchise in 2009-10). This, of course, was to be THE year for the Cavs. With Shaquille O'Neal essentially rented for a title run, the city of Cleveland would end one of the longest championship droughts known to man, and secure a contract extension for James that would have him owning Lake Erie by the year 2020.
Or not. Again, the TV folks — this time at ABC — are drying tears, as the Kobe vs. LeBron Finals every advertiser has paid for will not come to pass. Instead, it looks like the veteran Celtics making one last push for Title 18 against the peaking-at-the-right-time Orlando Magic, the defending Eastern Conference champs. With Phoenix's Steve Nash a series away from his first Finals — but with Kobe Bryant's Lakers in the way — the NBA playoffs are closing in on must-see territory. You gotta wonder if LeBron will be watching. (One opinion: James will stay in Cleveland. Unless his quite-public devotion to all things Ohio is merely a negotiating ploy, James will make the Cavalier franchise his for good. And you think I exaggerate about Lake Erie.)
• The easiest word to lip-read in the English language is an f-bomb. Which makes watching the Celtics like staying up to midnight staring at HBO. Over a five-minute stretch in the Game 6 win over Cleveland, I counted six such bombs from the trio of Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, and Glen Davis. Maturity is one thing; we can hardly expect pro athletes to grind their teeth when angry or disappointed, and stoically move on to the next play or game. But what about originality? Is there not another expletive — polysyllabic, perhaps — that can be the "new" f-bomb? I ask this for all the children watching.
• Over the last 13 years — a period we can only call golf's Tiger Woods Era — only three players not named after a jungle animal have won as many as three major titles: Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, and Padraig Harrington. Wonderful to see that Harrington will be among the headliners at next month's St. Jude Classic.
• If you're looking for a snakebit sport, try lacrosse. Despite the sport growing — albeit glacially — beyond the east cost and privileged set, the only national headlines lacrosse gets involve violence. First came the 2006 party/sex/rape scandal at Duke, in which Blue Devil players were accused of assaulting a stripper at a house party, only to be exonerated (much more quietly) months later. Then earlier this month, a female player at Virginia (Yeardley Love) is brutally murdered, apparently at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, a male player at UVA (George Huguely).
The sports world, in general, deserves better. And especially the ancient game of lacrosse. Fact is, the Love murder is not a sports story beyond a peripheral connection. It is, though, a tale of caution for every college campus in America. Excessive drinking, combined with the heartache of young love lost can turn a squabble into something entirely more lethal. Shouldn't take the death of a top athlete to remind us to pay attention.