The Boston Celtics are NBA champions. Failure was their greatest teacher

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A long, long time ago — 51 years, to be exact — a famous group of Boston-area philosophers who called themselves “Aerosmith” said something powerful in their well-known missive “Dream On”: “You got to lose to know how to win.”

Now, that phrase might seem illogical on its face. Shouldn’t you be trying to win every single time? Shouldn’t you demand excellence?

If you’re not first, you’re last.

If you’re not the best, you’re trash.

Every time you don’t make it to the Promised Land makes you more of a loser.

That’s too often the way we think of sports, especially in the age of social media and hot takes. We’re so often prisoners of the moment, viewing players and teams as snapshots in time rather than an evolving picture.

But reality is different. We can evolve. We can change our stories. We can learn. And failure, as much as we hate to admit it, can be a wonderful teacher.

When the story about the 2024 Boston Celtics is told, it will be one of dominance — how one of the best teams in NBA history crushed the league from start to finish on the way to the franchise’s historic 18th banner.

Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics grabs a rebound over Daniel Gafford #21 of the Dallas Mavericks during the third quarter of Game 5 of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 17, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Peter CaseyGetty Images)

In fact, they finished this playoff run with one of 10-best winning percentages ever in a single postseason. They also tied for the third-most road wins in a postseason (7). No challenge was too big, no situation too tough for these Boston ballers.

But if you want to know why the 2023-24 Celtics can sing “We Are The Champions” for the first time since 2008, you need to first tell the story of their failures.

After all, the Celtics have gotten close to championships only to fail multiple times with superstars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as their core stars.

They’ve lost in the Eastern Conference Finals three times in the last seven years, including two defeats to the gritty, better-coached Miami Heat.

They came unglued in the 2022 NBA Finals against the significantly more battle-tested Golden State Warriors.

We can evolve. We can change our stories. We can learn. And failure, as much as we hate to admit it, can be a wonderful teacher.

They simply weren’t ready to win it all. But it was frustrating to watch them panic and devolve into the worst versions of themselves under pressure when you knew they could be so much better.

And that doesn’t even account for the scandal involving former head coach Ime Udoka that forced the Celtics to turn to an unproven Joe Mazzulla before last season. Trust me, he looked every bit a first-year coach for much of last year, and the whole city let him know it.

Many Boston fans and media outlets openly questioned if the Celtics would ever get it together. Maybe the “Jays” just weren’t built for this. Maybe they had the wrong coach or team-building strategy. Whatever it was, we couldn’t take many more shortcomings. They’d hurt us too much.

Turns out, the Celtics felt the same way.

After the 2022 Finals loss, Tatum continued his quest to transform his body into one that could carry the Celtics. By the start of this season, he’d put on 12 pounds of muscle.

Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics handles the ball against Maxi Kleber #42 of the Dallas Mavericks during the second quarter of Game Five of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 17, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics handles the ball against Maxi Kleber #42 of the Dallas Mavericks during the second quarter of Game Five of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 17, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Following last season’s bitter loss to the Heat in the conference finals, Brown, who struggled in Game 7 when Tatum got hurt, attacked his offseason workouts with maniacal focus to prepare himself for this moment.

Mazzulla worked on his strategy and drilled intensity into his team so that they would maintain their composure in situations where they’d failed in the past.

The organization went out and grabbed an experienced, championship player in Jrue Holiday, whose grit and willingness to sacrifice has helped define this team.

For seven years, this Celtics squad has been like a bunch of kids learning how to ride a bike. We all watched with a mixture of worry and frustration (and some patience too) as they fell over and over again, skinning their elbows and knees and threatening to throw a tantrum. Then one day, after all those falls, they finally got it. And we all celebrated in the streets as they took off and never looked back.

That’s the beautiful thing about sports. They’re not just games and meaningless pursuits to distract us from the real world. They show you who you are when the pressure is on — and when you get knocked down. The more you watch, the more you can usually tell who’s “built different.”

For seven years, this Celtics squad has been like a bunch of kids learning how to ride a bike.

Still, some of the very greatest athletes of all time had to taste the bitterness of defeat to reach new heights.

I grew up in northwest Indiana when Chicago Bulls’ great Michael Jordan was at the apex of his magic, with six championship rings and an undefeated NBA Finals record. I never saw the seven years of losing and scrutiny he went through to get there, which he referenced in his 1997 Nike commercial that was aptly titled “Failure”: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

The hated (around here, at least) LeBron James had to hit rock bottom in an embarrassing 2011 NBA Finals loss to the Mavericks in order to become the LeBron James who won four NBA titles.

Tom Brady, New England’s own football GOAT, was in danger of being traded after failing to win a Super Bowl for 10 years in the middle of his career.

Instead of letting failure define them, though, they did what all-time greats do: they let failure teach them. They learned. They persevered.

So did the Celtics. That’s why they’re bringing Boston its first duck-boat parade since before the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re a champion worthy of Banner No. 18, the Celtics’ legacy and the city of Boston — because they took their losses and turned them into the ultimate win.

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