It was deserved, even though Doc eventually admitted he walked out on the Celtics.
Doc earned those cheers Wednesday not just because of "Ubuntu" and that wonderful 2008 championship season, but because of the fact that he helped the Celtics return to the standard that the team originally set six decades ago and rekindled during the original Big Three era in the 1980s.
[Doc bias alert: We attended Marquette University at the same time. He was a talented athlete and Big Man on Campus. I was just big.]
But there's another reason why Doc was showered with respect and applause Wednesday night.
Boston fans have mellowed in the past dozen years or so. Winning eight championships will do that to any fan base. Back in the day - which was before
Varitek Vinatieri split the uprights against the Rams - Boston's fans were a vindictive lot. And for good reason. Their entire mantra was built upon a former player who went to their biggest baseball rival and spiritually destroyed the home town franchise.
The usual routine was for a returning coach or player, especially one who left under dubious circumstances or "quit on the team," to be booed, jeered and greeted with derisive signs and/or chants.
Along with multiple middle-finger salutes.
The word "traitor" - as opposed to "trader" - was a big part of the city's sports lexicon.
There were, of course, exceptions. Ray Bourque being the most notable. Bourque was traded to Colorado as gift for his two decades of service to the then-woeful Bruins and allowed the chance to win the Stanley Cup. Bourque brought the Cup back to Boston in June of 2001 and greeted by about 20,000 fans at City Hall Plaza. That's how bad things were in this city just a dozen years ago.
Athletes had to bring championship trophies in from 2,000 miles away just so Boston sports fans could celebrate a title.
No wonder Robert Parish was booed lustily during the 1994-95 regular season when he played for the late Charlotte Hornets. [At least by one fan in the balcony.]
Winning has brought many benefits to the city's sports teams, the media outlets who cover them and their fans. Perhaps the best benefit is that those who invest their time, emotion and money into these teams have achieved a sense of appreciation and satisfaction.
It's always easier for Boston sports fans to forgive when all three of their teams playing are in first place and they're watching those games while being awash in 2013 Red Sox World Series Championship swag.
It's no longer a question of "dying in peace" but rather "living in peace."
The bitter edge has undoubtedly softened. There's still plenty of necessary and healthy cynicism, and opposing players and coaches still suck once the games begin. But when the likes of Adam Vinatieri are booed and jeered just for no longer playing for the Patriots, those fans who engaged in such mindless behavior are rounding criticized across multiple media platforms.
Doc's return to TD Garden was probably the final flip in the direction of cheering, initially at least, those players and coaches who helped Boston enjoy this Gilded Age of Sports Dominance.
Bruins fans were magnanimous in greeting Tim Thomas when his video review was displayed at the Garden last month as he sat up on the ninth floor. But the reaction given to Tyler Seguin earlier this season wasn't nearly as positive.
For years, ex-Celtics, Bruins, Patriots and Red Sox who played for title-winning teams will be coming back to this city as players for other teams.
Fans should follow the pattern repeated last night at the Garden in Doc's return. Boston fans can still maintain their well-earned, deserved and beloved reputation as "Massholes" while at the same time showing class in honoring those who helped them win a title or two.
The next big test of Boston sports forgiveness/recognition/reconciliation will be on April 22, 2014. That day, Jacoby Ellsbury returns to Fenway Park as a member of the New York Yankees. It will be a day after the 2014 Boston Marathon and all the emotion and ceremony that event will carry with it. Boston fans may be ever tempted to return to the good-old days when Ellsbury is introduced and/or gets his World Series ring wearing Yankees' road grey. But they'll also will likely be emotionally drained by that point.
My guess is that Ellsbury will get that first, well-earned round of applause and ovation for his role in helping Boston win two World Series Cups in his seven years with the Red Sox. Then be booed, jeered, mocked or receive the occasional middle-finger salute like any other member of the Yankees would.
He took the money and ran to the Yankees, but that move was expected and was not countered with any serious offer by the Red Sox. Ellsbury never connected emotionally with the Red Sox fan base like
Judas Johnny Damon did.
Damon was the heart of the lovable 2004 idiots. Ellsbury never demonstrated much heart when it came to anything. He played, when he wasn't hurt. He hustled, at least on the basepaths. He smiled. He even eventually grew a beard. But he also hopped on a plane right after the Duck Boat parade while Jake Peavy was buying a Duck Boat and Mike Napoli was was carousing shirtless throughout the Back Bay.
Doc went West for the coaching opportunity of a lifetime. He gets to run the whole show in the nation's No. 2 market. It's obvious his time in Boston had run its course, given the team's turn toward rebuilding. Doc has already completed one reclamation project in Boston. Time does heal [almost] all wounds, especially in the world of sports.
But winning helps even more. That World Series Cup buzz won't wear off for a while. The Patriots are 10-3 and the Bruins and Celtics are each resting atop their respective Atlantic Divisions.
Let's hope the winning keeps up in time for Josh Beckett Day in 2017.
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