BOSTON – Twenty years ago, I took a walk with Joe Dumars through the streets of Boson’s North End, an Italian neighborhood not far from the highway overpasses, small restaurants, row houses, residents sitting outside on chairs or leaning from their windows. The Pistons still were trying to win their first title, and we did an interview while walking the streets.
“DUUUMAHS!” some guy yelled out the window, “YAH GONNA LOSE!” and Joe shyly smiled. He was a young shooting guard, I was a young sportswriter. It was a warm day, and everything felt fresh and ahead of us.
I took a similar walk Wednesday morning, and I invited Dumars, now the Pistons’ president, to join me, to reminisce on coming back for another Detroit-Boston Eastern Conference finals. The day was similar to two decades ago, sunny, a nice breeze. The streets, at first glance, also seemed the same, brick facades, outdoor tables, restaurants named Tresca or Piccola Venezia.
But the ugly highway overpasses were gone – buried as part of a multibillion-dollar construction known as the Big Dig – and the area had become quite desirable. A cab driver told me even modest homes today “cost a fortune. It’s all different now.”
I stopped by a shop called The Connah Store (for how New Englanders pronounce “corner”). An old woman stood out front smoking a cigarette. I picked out two newspapers. She stomped her cigarette and came in to ring me up.
The newspapers trumpeted the Celtics’ victory over the Pistons in Game 1. It was the same teams as 20 years ago.
But the similarities ended there.
The old ghosts and leprechauns
If you could have been at the old Boston Garden, back when Dumars, Isiah Thomas and the others were battling a dynasty that included Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. That building reeked of age and legend. The banners hung low enough to taunt you. The screaming fans were one part enthusiasm and nine parts arrogance.
“The place was so hot,” Chuck Daly, the old Pistons coach, reminisced this week. “The locker room was tiny, like two small bedrooms. The windows wouldn’t open. It had no air conditioning. We played afternoon games and the heat was so bad, it was impossible to even breathe.”
This was where Larry Bird stole the ball and the Pistons lost a Game 5. Where Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson banged heads and the Pistons a lost Game 7. A haunted arena where leprechauns made Boston rim shots bounce up and fall through the hoop.
It was also the last place I remember that didn’t fill the minutes between time-outs with video clips or dance teams. It was just basketball, and you screamed about basketball until the teams took the floor again. That was one reason it was so loud.
Tuesday night, in the new TD Banknorth Garden, the lights went down during introductions, and it could have been any cookie-cutter NBA arena. Loud rock music, endless video clips, female dancers. The banners hung very high. The building was well ventilated. I suspect it had fewer rats.
Time waits for no hoopster
Back in the North End, I sat at Modern Pastry Shop on Hanover Street, a classic Italian bakery. I had a cappuccino and a mostaccioli, a chocolate cookie with almonds so good I was quickly down to crumbs. I read the Boston newspapers praise of the Celtics’ grit in Game 1. Back home, the Detroit papers blamed a lousy Pistons effort.
But all the stories were about a game, not a rivalry. Twenty years ago? Heck, many of Boston’s star players weren’t here last season. Young players don’t feel that rivalry, nor should they. They don’t take nostalgic walks around the North End.
This is their time, but it’s a different time. More money. More hype. No hot, tiny locker rooms with the windows blocked. Twenty years?
By the way, Dumars had to cancel at the last minute. There were sudden meetings he needed to tend to as an executive. He apologized. I understood. We’re both older, the highway is buried and, as the cabbie said, it’s all different now. I finished the crumbs and stepped out into the sun.