They spoke of ghosts in the creaky old building that once stood above North Station in Boston. If you ask old-timers who once loitered around 150 Causeway St., however, they would say it was leprechauns. They would talk about unseen masters of mischief who sapped the strength of squads stationed in the visitor’s locker room. Or tell stories of invisible dwarves who disturbed the dribbling of darting daredevil foes.
Championship dreams came to die at Boston Garden. Teams arrived there to have their hoop hopes snatched, sometimes too literally—by Hondo (Havlicek stole the ball!); by Larry Legend (And now there’s a steal by Bird!).
Impish elves. Fairy powder puffing out of championship banners and retired numbers hanging from the rafters. A curse only those clothed with the crest of the clover were spared from. The Celtics Mystique, some called it; Boston Mystique to others—and people, teams, bought into it. As a result, the Celtics were almost unbeatable in their Garden.
They would face grim circumstances. Old, limping and battered with non-believers counting down the final moments of glory: down 8 in Game 7, under 6 minutes to go. Or 5 seconds, playing defense, 4th straight Finals berth on the line with the guy in jersey No. 3 still not in the frame; they need a 2 and trail by 1. Dire. Given up for dead.
And then, as if it were tradition, the ghosts would awaken.
There was a split-second of silence when I asked “The Last Dance” director Jason Hehir how his uber-popular 10-part docu-series would figure in basketball’s heated Greatest Of All Time referendum. And then the sudden snap: “I don’t care.”
“That’s not why we made the documentary,” he said.
However, “The Last Dance” will be dragged into the interminable debate because intent and result often end up so drastically far apart from each other. Intent is Einstein calculating E=mc2 to refocus the way we view the world. Result is the mushroom cloud that obliterated two Japanese cities in World War 2.
“I realize that people are going to argue this GOAT debate after they see this and while they see it,” Hehir said. “And if they want to use this documentary as an exhibit in their case for Michael or against Michael, that’s up to them. But that did not factor into the making of this documentary. LeBron [James] was not mentioned in this documentary, and I’m a huge LeBron admirer.”
Hehir is a self-confessed Celtics fan. If you think it’s funny that he should bring up being a LeBron admirer, the reason is because James is often the guy at the opposite end of the GOAT argument.
Funny, though, he should say “for Michael or against Michael.”
But if Mystique were that powerful, and leprechauns were real, how do you explain 70 wins in three seasons (1997-1999)? Remember: to kick off the three-peat that led to the Last Dance, Chicago won 70 games—in one season.
Why, after tormenting foes with Birds, McHales, DJs, Parishes, Waltons, Havliceks, Cousys and freakin’ Russells, did Boston make Paul Pierce cycle through LaFrentz-Walker-Potapenko-McCarty-Szczerbiak-Baker before offering him redemption with KG and Ray Allen?
What happened to the elves?
Did the “blessed dust that usually coats the Celtics, and assures them only good things in this rickety building” disappear when the Garden crumbled for good? Did the leprechaun die with potential MJ rival and future Boston star Lenny Bias in 1986? The Chief certainly thought so.
‘Len Bias died and Larry’s back hurt and Kevin’s body fell apart and Reggie Lewis is dead. The leprechaun has been dead for a long time.’
“The leprechaun is dead,” Robert Parish told teammates in ’94. “Len Bias died and Larry’s back hurt and Kevin’s body fell apart and Reggie Lewis is dead. The leprechaun has been dead for a long time. What year was it that Len Bias died? … (after someone said 1986) Eight years. The leprechaun has been dead for eight years. That’s the way it is. He hasn’t been around here for a long time.”
Or did Magic murder mystique with his “junior, junior, junior, sky hook” in ’87?
You have to wonder, sometimes, why there is so much flammable obsession over settling who is the greatest individual athlete in a team sport. GOAT, they want to crown that person. MJ or LeBron. Kobe or Kareem, maybe. Goat, however, could also mean “noun; a person who is blamed for causing a failure or defeat, esp. in a team sports competition.”
So if the difference between “woah” GOAT and “oof” goat is just the caps lock button, why the fuss?
“The Last Dance” will have to deal with its being evidence submitted to court, however. And it’s reeking with pro-Jordan points. Kobe, rising from the crash that took his life, returned to the world of the living for about a minute to genuflect before Jordan. Magic Johnson talked about Jordan’s killer gene. Larry Bird refused to celebrate a Reggie Miller game-winning basket in the 1998 East Finals with less than a second on the clock because, well, guess who was on the other team? In candid interviews with the greats of the game, nothing seemed to suggest anything other than conceding that MJ is the greatest.
Then there are the highlights from the six championships. The Dream Team scrimmage that was a game for the ages. The scoring feats. The high-flying highlight reels. League MVP, All-Star MVP in a game featuring a lot of the NBA 50 class, league scoring champion, defensive player of the year, league steals leader, slam dunk king—in one season. The legend-level trash-talking, and the bite that almost always followed the bark. The singularity of purpose. The “food-poisoning-not-flu game.”
And then in the final episode, a damning piece of evidence.
LeBron’s iconic championship moment will always be rallying Cleveland from a 1-3 series deficit to hand the Cavs the crown. A triple double in Game 7. Tied game, under two minutes remaining. Warriors on the break. Andre Igoudala for a go-ahead layup. James with the block of all ages. Kyrie’s killer three. K-Love dancing with Steph, never missing a step for a stop. A classic sequence for all-time. Probably the best, except…
Episode 10’s reminder: Jordan’s iconic championship moment. John Stockton hits a triple. 41.9 seconds. Bulls down by three. About four seconds later, a Chicago basket. Then a steal against an NBA all-timer.
All the action in that stretch coming from one person. Michael “running on fumes” Jordan. No Kyrie. No K-Love. That is the sequence of all sequences.
Mystique was laid to rest long before the Garden was finally felled. There was very little homage to it in 2008, when a 22-year-old title drought came to an end. Nobody knows where they buried Mystique. The grave is unmarked. Although some would say that The Hub on Causeway, which sprouted from where the proud and glorious old arena once stood, was built on the bones of slain leprechauns.
It did not take smoky incantations or prayers or amulets to lay the ghosts of the Garden to rest. Only scrutiny; reporters repeatedly asking opponents about Mystique. Pat Riley getting tired of the questions. People seeing elvish creatures for what they really were: Red Auerbach’s masterful manipulation of the homecourt advantage—something all NBA teams had anyway. The Celtics just made it sound sacred.
They dug and dug into Mystique. They found no poltergeists playing on the parquet. Just dead spots on the floor that sucked the bounce off balls. Spirits did not drain energies of teams in the opponent’s locker room. Heat did. It was turned up when it was already hot—which was right about June, when the NBA Finals rolls around. And in the winter, the shower heaters were turned off. And it’s not like the visitor’s dugout was a room in The Plaza. Cramped, with a low ceiling, it was built for discomfort.
In his Showtime book about his 1987 Lakers, Pat Riley wrote:
“The ‘Boston Mystique’ encourages the lowest common denominator of fan behavior. It grows directly out of the low-rent attitudes of Boston management … The Boston Mystique isn’t leprechauns hiding in the floorboards. It’s a willingness to use any tactic to upset an opponent. Turn up the heat when it’s already hot. Shut down the visitors’ water heaters. The general manager (Red Auerbach) chasing officials all the way to the dressing room to try to intimidate them. To hell with dignity. To hell with fair play.”
People kept digging into Boston’s Mystique until the hole they dug was deep enough to bury all that supernatural talk in.
Shine a light bright enough on leprechauns, you’ll find they aren’t real.
“…or against Michael.” Remember?
Before “The Last Dance,” people spoke of Jordan in reverential tones, mostly with passed-on, rolling memories that had gathered embellishments with every retelling. MJ didn’t have to face real-time social media scrutiny the likes of LeBron and Kobe dealt with. The 24-hour news cycle, a relatively young idea then, featured select highlights. And they mostly polished Jordan’s image. Stuff that sullied the shine—the gambling, the incessant horse-whipping of teammates—were easily outmuscled off headlines and search results by Space Jam, by sneaker sales, by undefeated championship runs.
In time, basketball fans, including docu-series director Hehir, ended up seeing Jordan as a “two-dimensional figure.”
“He still was a logo on a shoe, he still was a poster on a wall, he still was an image on a T-shirt,” said the filmmaker. And he wanted to change that: “Because if all we do is mythologize him … and the only image you have of Michael is in a Bulls’ uniform, winning championships, [you’re] not going to change your view with him. It’s not gonna make you appreciate him any more or less. You won’t have learned anything.”
Indeed, “The Last Dance” made its record millions of viewers appreciate Jordan the man. Nothing could have been rawer, more human, than the agonized sobbing of Jordan moments after winning the 1996 title on Father’s Day.
To strip Jordan down to his human form is to peel away the layers of his myth. And it’s not just a one-pass scrubbing. It’s out there on loop, in every stream and every share. And it is not “The Last Dance” that loses part of its luster—the subject will always be larger than the sum of its 10 episodes. It is MJ. Something happens to mystique under intense scrutiny: Reality sponges off some of the awe. People begin to feel Jordan was too hard on Jerry Krause, who may have been unfairly treated, Pip gets mad, Jordan starts to sound hateful, teammates push back. Was Jordan petty? Did he cross the line with his teammates? Will Luc Longley forever hold his silence? Will Scotty Burrell forever live with his whipping boy moment in the limelight?
The pizza gets to talk back.
Even Jordan’s 6-for-6 pure basketball greatness comes under the spotlight. Could he have accomplished the same with a No. 2 other than Pippen? Did Gary Payton, roasted by Mike with a now-famous hearty chuckle, get the last laugh?
It is often said you should never meet your heroes. This is what “The Last Dance” feels like—a 10-hour, high-def, hip-hop handshake and hangout with His Airness. You feel giddy about the curtain being pulled back, but you don’t want to stare too long.
You still want to believe in leprechauns. And unimpeachable hoop gods.
(Photos provided by Netflix)