“Let’s Stay ‘Til The End”
4 minutes left, Miami up 25, fans streaming towards the exits, Celtics coach Doc Rivers has conceded the game and pulled all his starters.
“You want to turn it off?”
“Mmm…let’s stay ’til the end.”
Because you never know what might happen. That’s part of the joy of being a sports fan. Last night there was no miraculous comeback for the Boston Celtics. (The Miami Heat trounced them 98-79 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score.) But if you’re a sports fan, there was something almost as memorable.
With a little over two minutes left in the game, the fans at the Garden who had decided to “stay ’til the end”, began chanting “Let’s Go, Celtics!”, and didn’t stop—continuing through every whistle and free throw—until the game was over. As Ray Allen said after the game, “They understand the situation that is before us, and we understand it. And that was basically them sending us off, letting us know, ‘Hey, this is still well and alive. We need you guys to go down there and get a win for us.’ We all felt it on the bench. It seemed like that three minutes lasted forever. It was special. I’ll talk about that forever, just knowing we’re down 20 and these people are still standing up, cheering us on, because they know we just have to win one game.”
Of the four major American professional sports, basketball is the most intimate. Football and hockey players are covered in armor. Baseball players spend half their time hidden in the dugout. Basketball players are up close and exposed, wearing little more than underwear. They regularly dive into the crowd chasing after a loose ball or completing a play. Fans are close enough to heckle, or cheer, players individually.
That combination of physical closeness and of regular stops in play allows fans to read (or at least think we can read) the emotions of basketball players throughout a game more closely and thoroughly than athletes in other sports. (So, for example, LeBron James’ intense, impassive, unchanging expression throughout the first quarter was a clear sign to experienced fans that he was “in the zone” and at the beginning of a magnificent performance (45 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists).)
Part of the power of what happened last night was the unscripted nature of the fan reaction. The Jumbotron wasn’t flashing instructions. The PA announcer wasn’t leading the crowd. The sound effects producer wasn’t giving cues.
Someone, then a few, then more, and finally all the fans remaining in the arena found a way to give voice to their support for their team. They said, “We’re still with you.” “We think you can win Game 7 in Miami Saturday night.” “Remember, we’ll be cheering for you even though we’ll be 1,500 miles away.” They said, “Thank-you for a great season.” “We appreciate how hard you’ve worked all year.” “We know how difficult it’s been with all the injuries.” They said, “Win or lose Saturday night, you’re our guys.” “Winning’s a big deal, but it’s not the only thing that’s important about sports.” “We’ve watched them all—Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson, Dave Cowens and JoJo White, John Havlicek and Sam Jones, Bill Russell and Bob Cousy—and we recognize you as their worthy successors.”
They said, “We can be as rude and fickle and unreasonable as fans anywhere, but we too are capable of rising to the occasion—just as our predecessors did (at 2:14 of this clip).
Let’s stay ’til the end. Chances are we’ll be glad we did.