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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