Loyalty is a tricky concept in professional sports, particularly in this region of the country. For the purposes of my point, I’m throwing Middletown into the “acchusetts” region of our dear state of fandom, New Yorkacchusetts.
Look at the fates of two great Boston sports heroes, members of the Bambino-busting 2004 World Series champion Red Sox. Johnny Damon was vilified for jumping ship from the Red Sox to go to the bitterly rivaled Yankees, cursed by the fanbase by giving a virtual middle finger to the diehards. Pedro Martinez, a year earlier, signed away under similar circumstance, to another team that calls New York City home, but was deified by Red Sox Nation as he departed.
Those two men signed away from their team, leaving as free agents after their contract expired. So in the Damon camp, let’s look for some similar cases: Roger Clemens, who scooted for Toronto; Ray Allen, who couldn’t avoid the allure of Pat Riley’s hair gel in Miami; and LeBron James, no Decision joke necessary. On the Martinez side, we see Wes Welker, to Denver, Chris Bosh, to South Beach, and Jacoby Ellsbury, surely somewhere else soon.
To me, there is one great common factor among the former group: they all left for a similar amount of money to what their former teams were offering them, which sports fans interpret as telling their city, “It’s not that I’m leaving because of the money, it’s just that I like this other city a lot more than yours.”
In the Martinez camp, we see players who left their city simply for a bigger paycheck. Their former teams did not have the funds to keep the player, and fans, particularly working-class ones, understand that players are going to chase the dollar and do what’s best for themselves financially.
So in terms of free agency, it seems that players have every right to leave their city and refuse to give a hometown discount, and they have the right to expect a polite round of applause when they return to their former city, provided they leave for money. If they leave for their own happiness and well-being, however, fans have every right to give them the ol’ LeBron James treatment.
It’s safe to say, though, that you have no responsibility to root for the success of any free agent signed away, regardless of how they departed town.
Loyalty etiquette is fairly cut-and-dry for free agents. Get them checks, but don’t expect any glee from the crowd when you rack up a triple-double on 10-of-12 shooting when you open up the following season on the road in your hometown.
How to feel about the success of traded players is a far more complex matter. Why did Washington and Orlando fans delightfully watch Albert Haynesworth and Dwight Howard fail in their respective cities? On the opposite side, why did Boston fans root for Colorado to win the Stanley Cup in 2001 after Ray Bourque was traded away, and why are those in San Diego celebrating Jake Peavy’s (twice removed via trade, but applicable nonetheless) recent World Series victory and subsequent Duck Boat purchase?
It would seem that, in a trade, when a player is involuntarily moved from one team to another, players can either be in the right or in the wrong, despite (theoretically) being in a powerless situation. This has far more to do with the player’s character than the free agency departures did. The character of people traded, though, dictates precisely whether you are obligated to root for the traded player’s success thereafter. Haynesworth and Howard were uncontrollably selfish douchebags, and therefore their failures were celebrated. Bourque and Peavy, though, were both quietly respectful, never complaining about their team’s lack of success, and did their job as best they could, so Boston and San Diego were happy when they succeeded.
I’m writing about this because I’m trying to clear my conscience of a recent bad habit I’ve developed. When I’m searching for sports streams on the interwebs—Philo, in all its glory, carries a grand total of zero sports stations, local or national—I find myself searching for Brooklyn Nets games before Boston Celtics ones.
I am a die-hard fan of the Green. I cherish a piece of mail I have, signed by M.L. Carr. Seeing Walter McCarty on the Red Line made me so nervous I couldn’t speak. I even vehemently defend the fairly universally-agreed-to-be-offensive Lucky the Leprechaun mascot, despite my Irish heritage, because I never thought the Celtics could do wrong.
That is, until this winter, when the Celtics traded away Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry for three first-round draft picks and a former supporting actor on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
I was heartbroken. I never thought it could happen. This is Paul Pierce! He’s second in team history in scoring. He’s the only Celtic to ever lead the NBA in points scored. He got stabbed 11 times trying to break up a fight three weeks before the start of the 2000-01 season, and still started every game. That Paul Pierce.
So can I blame myself for rooting, not just for his success, but for his new team’s success? I want nothing more than for the Nets to win the title this year. I want nothing more than for Pierce to score 50 on the parquet of the TD Garden, kick Rajon Rondo in his still-recovering knee, and then yell up to the GM’s box that Danny Ainge is a great, big asshole who can rot on in hell.
But Paul Pierce wouldn’t do that. Not Paul Pierce, who put up with Antoine Walker doing The Wiggle for seven seasons.
Maybe I should blame myself, declare myself a traitor, and be tried for basketball treason for rooting for Team Jay Z. Maybe my loyalty should be with the Celtics, with the corporation, which is just trying to maximize future profits, ahem, championships, by sacrificing the basic human decency associated with, you know, not uprooting the life of a guy that put up with season after season of sixth-seed one-and-dones, when he knew that he could find more money and more success elsewhere.
Still, I couldn’t have been the only Celtics fan whose heart broke with Pierce’s as he, rather than sounding excited, sounded as if he was living a nightmare when he said: “It’s finally starting to become real. I’m no longer a Boston Celtic, I’m a Brooklyn Net.”
Maybe it’s time for Boston sports fans to ask themselves a tough question: are you a fan of the team, or a fan of the individual players? The NBA season is underway, but I’m still not sure.