The NSA Transcript of Paul Pierce & Kevin Garnett's Late Night Phone Call

Late into a sweltering night, PP stands in the dining room of a large, suburban home, decorated with modern accessories. These accessories include: a long glass aquarium; unwieldy, tall chairs made of light metal; an empty salad bowl made of tempered, frosted glass. He gently places an empty white wine glass on the granite countertop and swallows the last bit.

PP walks down a short hallway decorated with family photos. In one, he wears a Bugle Boy t-shirt with a cartoon cat on it, a pair of brown, 9” oxford shorts, white ankle socks, and no shoes. Standing closely next to him is an elderly white man clutching a cane, his balding head dotted with the spots of old age. They are both smiling and holding hamburgers. He looks at himself in the reflection of the photograph and squints, and wishes his beard came in fuller, and that he owned more than one t-shirt.

He peers into the rooms of his sleeping children, at their glowing, resting faces, and reaching his office, sits in a large green hand chair. There is an old fashioned telephone on the desk next to him. He looks at it with hesitation before picking up. He wipes a single tear off his cheek, and speaking into the receiver, PP asks the old-timey operator woman to connect him to 1-888-GARNETT.

KG (leans back in beach chair): This is Sparta.

PP: Hi, Paul here. I understand it’s late…

KG: I’m on the West Coast right now. I think it’s somewhere around 3, 4PM. It’s fine.

PP: I can’t sleep. They’re going to trade me to New Jersey. Danny needs you to waive your clause so they can get something back for me.

KG: Look, I know this is a long time coming. They’ve been trying to get me to do this for two, three seasons, ever since my knee got fucked up. I just need you to know that there’s no fucking way I dress up as Santa Claus next season. Not even for one game.

PP: They need to trade you, too. They want you on the Nets.

KG: I don’t understand this, man. They push Doc out, they don't resign Tony, they get rid of Big Baby. This world makes no sense to me. I can’t go to New Jersey, where am I gonna get Greek pizza?

PP (sinks into hand chair): I can’t do this alone.

KG: I can’t give up this clause, Paul. Not yet. This is a big deal for me. I wanted to retire with a franchise that had some dignity, respect to it.

PP: Me too. But this is a real bad time for us. The CBA put us in a real bad position.

KG: It was bad. How much money do you think Byron Mullens is going to get?

PP: All of it.

KG: Big men just ain’t built like they used to be.

PP: He wants more than Danny can offer. His hands are tied without you waiving your clause. They can never get Byron without you waiving your clause.

KG: He’s Danny’s style, too. Tall, lumbering, no skills.

PP: For a franchise that has a lot of dignity and respect in its public reputation, it’s incredible how attractive Boston is to free agents.

KG: It’s an awful city filled with old ships.

PP: They’re putting in an “ice bar” as a tourist attraction.

KG: It’s hot outside, even in this mid-afternoon dark. I’m looking at a woman on this beach right now who is dressed like a bumblebee. I don’t know what else I would ever want in a woman. Can I tell you a joke, Paul? I just heard this shit.

PP: I could use a laugh. The thought of going back to Boston after this, I don’t know. I’ve always felt like I’ve worn my soul as a suit, and this feels like all of the moths outside of my pastoral estate have rushed in and are eating this suit, just tearing it apart, and I can’t stop crying. I just can't stop crying.

KG: Let me tell you this joke JET told me.

PP: Thanks, I'd appreciate it.

KG: Ten years ago, we had Bob Hope…

PP (puts head in hands): Oh god, no…

KG: … Johnny Cash …

PP: I’m going to hang up, man.

KG: … and Steve Jobs.

PP: This is actually making me feel worse.

KG: I’m sorry. I’m just trying to take the edge off things.

PP: I know, it’s a joke. Just think about Brooklyn for a minute. They have pickup games there, real ones.

KG: Drew League is gonna be down the street soon. Maybe I should go blow out my knee?

PP: You should, right after you sign with Brooklyn with me. Have you ever had a cronut?

KG: I haven’t.

PP: Let me tell you about these cronuts. They’re half-croissant, half-donut. It’s a thing. They’re filled with cream and jelly and…

KG (interrupts): How does that work? Are they flaky?

PP: They’re flaky. They’re filled with this delicious sweet cream and this jam, reduction, whatever, and they’re topped with raspberry frosting.

KG: That sounds delicious. I love flakes.

PP: I’ve had one. They don’t have it in Boston. They don’t have shit in Boston.

KG: Do they have it in New Haven?

PP: They don’t have an NBA team in New Haven. They have Apizza. It's pizza covered in clams. They got these new Citibikes in New York, this bike sharing network, it looks real great. We could do it together.

KG: I wish they traded us to the Clippers.

PP: Me too.

KG: All right, buddy, I'm coming.

PP: Thank you.

PP hangs up old-timey telephone, and sitting in his hand chair, sheds one more single tear for Boston, his home for so long, a city rooted in history. He glances at his office's walls at the photography, memorabilia, symbols from his life for the last fifteen years. PP wakes his children and his wife, gathers them outside of their home, then lights a match and sets the house ablaze.

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How Do You Say "Thanks" to Paul Pierce?

It was nice to see that the Boston Celtics had their marketing department buy space in today’s Globe, and published a full-page thanking Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for their years of playing basketball. It was a kind move on their part to increase the weekday advertising revenue for a struggling newspaper. However, reusing marketing catchphrases (“Banner #17,” “Celtic Pride,” etc.) along with appreciating "hard work" indicates a hollow, blank understanding of the way that fans view players or teams, and a miscalculation in terms of how psychologically devastating the trade of their two most beloved players actually is.

When you need a couple weeks to get used to the idea of a player being traded, is it a matter of a brain being stuck in an era of "franchise players," or an uncomfortable reflection of my own mortality? I dunno, dawg. I've heard a million times: "This is for the best." It continues to ring wrong, and it comes down to money.

Long-term, this feels like a cost-cutting measure through attrition – and people who pay for tickets next season or for the next several seasons are nothing more than encouraging disaster tourism by allowing a small number of wealthy lions to continue to wildly prosper. By stocking up on draft picks for the next five years, it seems clear that management would rather gamble on cheap contracts than spend their personal profits paying the luxury tax. I don't feel comfortable supporting that. In a large city where an NBA team's owners' resources are in financial services, money is had everywhere and lavishly like in no other industry (besides basketball, according to ownership).

Although I appreciate the gesture mentioning "hard work," what fans are thankful for is much different and more complicated than what a multi-million dollar company is ultimately appreciative of. The people of this city, known throughout this country as being curmudgeonly racist, are also miserable most of the time because of terrible weather, poverty, social injustice, crappy aging parents, gender inequality, public transportation, blue laws, a lack of well-paying meaningful careers, national politics, large student populations, cold ocean water, and terrible pizza.

While that and the racism thing might be true for Red Sox fans, not every Celtics fan is culturally white and bound to that stereotype (though still, fuck those who still are). Over the last several years, the Celtics of Pierce and Garnett have given all of this city's basketball fans a positivity that it was lacking for a long time before, at which time the positivity was a cause célèbre of mostly white Anglo-Saxons (because Larry Bird, as you well know, is a white guy). These Celtics were heroic, were just as good as those men of legend, and now they're gone.

The people of this area can be thankful we made our own legends to alleviate some of our woes, and we can be bullshit that the management of the Celtics have taken that away before they were allowed to fade out and be replaced in natural peace. We don't need to argue for the pick-laden future, like little venture capitalists stuffing money into our elastic rodent mouths, because there is no incentive in that besides silliness and pointless hand-wringing.

We are thankful up here in this miserable city, drenched in sweat, soaked in the litter of a deep summer.

And we are thankful down here on the ragged, rocky shores, where we step timorously to avoid the hermit crab scuttling.

And we are thankful up where our legs are scratched to pieces, as sunlight breaks through the thin limbs of birch trees.

What the Celtics organization have instead given us in this "thanks" is fairly self-fellating. Management scuttled players who brought basketball fandom back to Boston away to save money, to “rebuild," under a collective bargaining agreement that has destroyed much player agency and lowered ceilings for well-meaning players in order to stay close to a severely limiting cap. "Rebuilding" is a word without meaning at this point, considering the many definitions that it has, but it's hard to rebuild if the ownership isn't willing to give you a ladder. Think about it: ten years later, Sacramento is still rebuilding from cheap ownership. Phoenix is starving. This isn't a rebuild. Considering the financial auspices of the CBA, it could be a deliberate, semi-permanent sink into oblivion. What kind of thanks is that?

On the clean sidewalks and the recreation center playgrounds, where children hustle, try to learn the pick-and-roll, and play on hoops where the rims are tied on too tight by an old man who knows a long winter is coming and if the hoop isn’t on straight and tight, it won’t make it past the wind and the wet, and the rust will squeeze its way inside of the screws holding it straight. A ball is passed the ball to the corner, and wearing those worn #34 and #20 and #5 jerseys, they're thankful too in a way that salary cap savings can never express. The bright orange hide clanges from the edge of the rim, caught on the weak side, and then they run again.

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Who Cares About Value?

One of the easiest ways to con someone is to appeal to their vanity. A good confidence man seems like they’re more intelligent, that they understand more about the system than anyone else, and makes the mark believe in what they’re selling. They can separate the mark from everyone else on account of their specialized insight, then separate them from their money.

The three-way trade that sent Rudy Gay to Toronto at first seemed relatively bad for Memphis, in that it seemed to be going the opposite direction of their trade just the previous week with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In that deal, they traded future first round pick for salary cap space to keep their franchise players, but in the next they traded a large component of their current team for more salary cap space and a second round pick. It isn’t hard to see through the press coverage of the trade to see just what kind of con the new Memphis ownership is pulling on their fans. It isn’t a new trick – Phoenix’s ownership and management pulled it for years, sinking their once-exciting team. Sacramento has done it too. They’re using our own vanity to sell us the future as a real thing.

"We are excited to add three players who bring with them a tremendous amount of value to our team and have achieved incredible success on the pro, college and Olympic levels," general manager Chris Wallace remarked in a Grizzlies press conference, under the glowing lights of earnest speech, codifying his communication to hide the team’s real long-term goals.

Translating that, the figurehead told the press, “Since modern technology has forced us to acknowledge that you know as much as we do in terms of salary justifications and statistical analytics, anybody can see how valuable flexibility is, and how transparent this trade is. We all know Gay is really paid a lot of money, has limited future potential, whereas a cheaper Ed Davis has some potential, and now we have all this elasticity with the salary cap. You know, and are silent.”

Thanks to the new sports media, fans are now also buying this narrative, and accepting the meta-game of “inside basketball” as part of the story. 

Consider how long the Phoenix Suns did it, trading down picks and good players to stay “flexible,” to put the pieces around Steve Nash to win, sending star players all over the league. Eventually, they dumped Nash himself for the “flexibility” to rebuild. No one in the Phoenix management actually thought Michael Beasley is going to turn it around, but they just know how much his salary is worth, and can smile.

In this case, people ignorant of the increasingly stingy purses of NBA owners may be right in rejecting what’s presented in front of them. The con of “quality/value” can only work for so long. Has anybody ever seen a highlight reel demonstrating salary cap space? A retired jersey hanging in the rafters for a season having avoided luxury tax? Does anybody other than Daryl Morey and his acolytes want to see underpaid players more than people worthy of being stars?

Morey’s game, and this con, is part of the problem in that his ilk has convinced many, many intelligent people that financial value actually matters much in something where it’s less than primary: watchable competition. Smart people don’t look at All Star votes or commercial endorsements, they find it value in offensive win shares, points per 100 possessions, and true rebounding possession. Management and ownership then uses that information to exploit whoever fits best financially. 

While the best teams can find contributions from well-paid role players like Jason Terry or Mario Chalmers, or even good minutes off late draft round picks like Norris Cole, it is the expected well-paid stars, LeBron or Dirk Nowitzki or Derrick Rose, that matter the most.

Value is great in all kinds of things, but in pure competition, it does not matter much at all. We award the presidency to whoever gets the most Electoral College votes, not who got the most voters per dollar. Analytics work for forecasting an election, but aren’t quite there for monetizing the voters themselves. If you’re going to drive it every day, a Corvette is a better value sports car than a Bugatti Veyron, but that same Bugatti is still faster on the track. In basketball, an overpaid Josh Smith is going to put more basketballs through a hoop than an underpaid Jeff Green [editor’s note: Jeff Green will never be underpaid].

Basketball isn’t about saving their ownership money, it remains a sport about winning. This trade does not help the Grizzlies win, short-term or long-term. They simply dumped salary and said they gained “value” or “flexibility.” Over the course of two trades, they went from having a first round pick to a second round pick and from having a legitimate starter and a bench to an aging Piston and a “value” backup for the only positions they have filled with franchise players.

What other business could tell their customers that they’re making their current product worse for the purpose of keeping flexibility to maybe make a better product in the future? Which other sports’ owners could get away with telling the fans that even if the team is worse, to root for them because the ownership is making more money? This is a disappointing way of doing business, for the casual fans, and a con to anybody paying attention.

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The Long Cold Snap

At this point, it is incalculable to understand just what the loss of Rajon Rondo may mean to the Boston Celtics. When I found out, I walked upstairs and laid face-down on my bed before turning the game back on. I peered outdoors. A brown hawk sat outside of my bedroom window, perched on a lone, barren branch of a wintered, gray oak tree, scouting below for squirrels wandering through the piles of leaves and trash that had grouped together at the tree’s roots. The bright colors of purple and pink and yellow children’s toys and furniture wrapped around the tree like a loud piece of jewelry on the finger of a weathered hand. The hawk’s chest feathers, off-white in the shadows of late afternoon, blew in the light breeze of another frigid afternoon.

Shortly after I sat up, Bill Simmons tweeted, “Just a death blow for the Celtics. Probably kills next season, too. No way they can keep KG and PP, have to blow it up now.” I sighed and sent it along as a text message to a friend.

“They can’t trade Paul, can they?” she asked.

“No trade clause, thankfully,” I said. “He would have to agree to it, which would be… I don’t know.”

“He can’t, he wouldn’t. 99% chance he recently tattooed ‘Celtics For Life’ on his body.”

“I think he might actually have ‘Celtics For Afterlife’ tattooed on his body as well.”

She always had a point for ribbing on me for being a crummy fan when I joked about trading Rondo for Russell Westbrook, which was fairly frequent back in 2010 and 2011. Teasing about Pierce was, and continues to be, out of the question. I was wrong about Pierce's no-trade clause (it doesn't exist).

A long time ago, I laid in her bed next to her, and the shape of her body became fluid, her long arms would wrap and wrap around the covers, and twist like bare branches towards the sky away from me, and I would watch a grim silence spin in the whirring wooden blades of the ceiling fan above us. I missed what we would fortunately become again through friendship. Her fandom was always much different than mine. More honest, pure. But Rondo's injury hurt the both of us.

When Rondo returned to the Garden after receiving the news at that hospital on Mission Hill, his effigy was dark, his face looking sunken, his eyes unoccupied, empty. He looked like David Bowie’s title character in The Man Who Fell To Earth. The game played on, and the Celtics seemed to be inspired by his presence, grinding a superior Heat team through two close overtime periods. Paul Pierce, whose main modus operandi appears to have been “struggling” over the past several weeks, seemed gifted with a renewed sense of purpose. In one sequence late in the second overtime, Pierce’s efforts to rebound the ball in a crowded Heat frontcourt appeared Herculean, his fingers clinging to the ball like a shopper in an open air produce market  inspecting the season’s first cantaloupes. This one feels perfect, he felt, so it is mine.

I could watch that rebound all day, like I've watched Rondo's trick passes on YouTube, and real life, where his features are even more striking and gangling. It haunts me that we may never see that enthusiasm ever again, the constant sideline pressure from Tommy Heinsohn to “Just push it!” in the open court. Listening to local broadcasts for years, Tommy has always been very vocal about Rondo’s aggressiveness. What if he can’t push when he comes back? What will Tommy say? Well known as a contemplative player, this injury could scare him into altering his style into something we don’t recognize now, like Mike Bibby or Kirk Hinrich, or something else awful that has played for the Hawks.

As sideline reporter Doris Burke broke news to the triumphant Pierce of his teammate’s demise in the post-game victory interview, the aging colossus was very clearly rattled, but maintained his composure, supplying satisfactory, olfactory answers. He half-heartedly tossed his green headband into the crowd as he walked dazed towards the locker room, where Rajon would explain the depths of his injury to his shocked, distraught teammates. They have already been through a lot this season. Pierce has never really been a dynamic player in the same way that Rondo has been constantly for years, but his play on Sunday was wonderful on both sides of the floor, and to know the naiveté of his individual situation at that very moment makes it even more heartbreaking. In Paul’s eyes though, I saw that aimlessness.

Once you’ve begun to stare at something that is lost, what do you do?

You can sit back and suffer (as we all do, and will), or things can end and change, and hopefully if you’re decent enough, you can make things work in a different way than before (as we all want to, and need to do). For better or worse, I've tried to learn that for myself.

The Celtics lineup is built around Rondo’s individual talent and relative youth, but also the persistence of Pierce’s ever-remarkable longevity and Kevin Garnett’s unwavering defensive stature. In particular, Garnett has been lucky to have avoided a large-bodied rival like Andrew Bynum, but eventually, Bynum will return and the older man’s endurance will be tested in routine divisional games. The next ten to twelve months, through the surgical intervention and recovery, will feature (predicted) decay from the principal characters, but undoubtedly change and tumult in any remaining personnel from the team that won Sunday’s game. That trigger-happy finger is, unfortunately, part of Danny Ainge’s character at this point.

But when will it end? Will Rondo’s absence allow a natural changing of the guard in Boston, or through some awful trade, will there be an attempt to salvage an already insurmountable challenge in the Eastern Conference? Aging is one thing, but a severe injury to a team leader’s knee is another. Despite the weary head-to-desk from Simmons, couldn’t Danny Ainge look at his rival Gar Forman, and that team’s difficult challenges, and decide to stay the course in a season where they weren't going to the Finals anyway?

Will Ainge see hope in the future or act out of desperation?

For the Celtics and their fans, this is the beginning of a dark period. January 27, 2013 was an awful day. Please realize that things are different now, that this team needs to change in some ways - hopefully, for Garnett and Pierce's sake, not all of them - and that it is time to make the most of this struggle. Rondo will be back one way or another. Eventually, if we're lucky, we can get a greasy, warm brunch, and when we're looking at their eggs and coffee and face, we can see that things are okay.

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The Existential Crisis of J.R. Smith

In the last two minutes of Thursday night's game, despite being 2 for 15 and 0 of 5 for threes, J.R. Smith put the boot on the throat of the Celtics’ final push with no hesitation. Smith’s positive contribution was mainly due to two gambling “steals” (or at least one steal and a crucial deflection that resulted in a turnover). That was a possible swing of nine points, a swing equal to Smith’s point total for the whole game, of which he played 35 minutes. Smith, an essential part of the Knicks’ success this season, had 33 minutes of really terrible play and two minutes of spectacular play. Those two minutes were enough.

When a player does that to win a nationally televised game, they’re said to be clutch. But J.R. Smith isn’t “clutch,” a “clutch” player is aware of the pressure and rises to it. The influential sports talk press has always described Smith as a “jacker,” a reckless player, but he isn’t that either. To be reckless is to ignore a risk. J.R. Smith has absolutely no knowledge, or ability to begin to understand the risk of a J.R. Smith jump shot. J.R. Smith is good for the Knicks because he has no recollection of his own negative tendencies.

“Know thyself,” commonly attributed to Thales of Miletes (c. 624 BCE – c. 546 BCE), has become one of the fundamental tenets of Western philosophy. J.R. Smith is why Thales and the Oracle at Delphi were both wrong. J.R. Smith thinks like a kid pretending to be Michael Jordan hitting a contested jumper at the buzzer over Craig Ehlo, only he isn't pretending, he thinks he’s that good all the time. Long held in check on the bench, Smith contests that he should be a starter, and his enthusiasm on the court demonstrates that he feels like he’s starting the All-Star Game during every Sunday matinee. However, it doesn’t make him a good sixth man in the way guys who should start subsume themselves to a team role – it drags him into becoming a lunatic.

This lunacy is necessary for a Knicks team that relies on Carmelo Anthony for a significant amount of offensive pressure and performance. Without Anthony on the floor, the Knicks aren’t the same Knicks, but Smith allows them to maintain the auspices of quality through confidence. His self-assuring presence allows them to play a “B” quality ball, which keeps the team moving in the same system and direction at all times. Playoff teams don’t need “A”-grade ball off the bench all time, especially in the East (see: Atlanta, Milwaukee), but they can’t completely collapse either. Smith prevents what otherwise should be a terrible bench from slipping out of the rest of the main starting system.

J.R. Smith has solved the existential dilemma – he is essentially a great basketball player because he knows he is, regardless of his actual existence as a guy who goes 3 for 16 off the bench in 35 minutes.

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