Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett Trade Reminder That Notion of Loyalty in Sports Cuts Both Ways

Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul PierceA ticket to a basketball game doesn’t buy a whole lot. It earns the ticketholder a right to a seat in most cases, and if the team is bad enough it may include some sort of deal on concessions. It does not guarantee the buyer an entertaining game, an autograph from his or her favorite player or even a quality product on the court.

What a ticket buys most of all, though, is the right to express approval or displeasure. If the fan likes what he or sees sees, they can cheer. If they dislike it, they can boo. To an extent, a ticket is a free pass to be a judgmental jerk, within certain confines.

So after Ray Allen splits town for a conference rival, Celtics fans can boo him when he returns to Boston with the hated Miami Heat. Allen had the gall to leave their beloved team. Therefore, they will jeer and let him know exactly how they feel about his desertion. After all, they’re only asking for a little loyalty.

But what happens when that beloved team happens to be the one that initiates the breakup? How should those same fans respond when it is the team that sends away their beloved player, as the Celtics did Thursday night, sending Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets for players and draft picks? Would those same people boo their team as heartily as they booed the traitorous player?

After all, they’re only asking for a little loyalty.

Thursday’s agreement between the Celtics and Nets served as another illustration that when it comes to the quaint concept of “loyalty” in professional sports, the obligation — or lack thereof — cuts both ways. Just as teams like the Celtics reserved the right to seek out offers for Pierce and Garnett, even with the latter’s no-trade clause, players like Allen earned the right to seek out offers from other teams in free agency. The team is under no more responsibility to make a bad business decision out of some abstract concept of right and wrong than the player is.

(Please, none of that “but it’s the Heat!” hooey. Allen went to a conference rival. Pierce and Garnett were traded in-division to a team the Celtics were slated to meet in the first round of the playoffs this year with two weeks to go in the regular season. Irrational hatred of all things LeBron James-related aside, the difference is marginal.)

Allen did what was right for him, and he got another championship ring out of it. The Celtics did what was best for them, and they hope that in a few years they, too, can have a chance at another championship banner. Doc Rivers, who may or may not be booed when he returns to TD Garden as coach of the Los Angeles Clippers next season, expressed similar feelings about the trade in a TV interview during Thursday’s draft.

“It’s sad to see everybody leave Boston, but you just want [Pierce and Garnett] to go somewhere they have a chance to win, and they have,” Rivers said on ESPN. “They’ll be rejuvenated by that. It’s obviously a great deal not just for the Nets, but for the Celtics, too. Not now, but for the future.”

It’s a little ironic Rivers was left defending his former employer, because if anyone is an easier target for boo birds, it’s Rivers. Unlike Allen, Rivers had a contract. Unlike the Celtics, who reserved the right to disassemble the team at any time, Rivers did not have anything in his contract that gave him an automatic out if he stopped being motivated to be their coach. In breaking up the so-called “Big Three,” Allen and the Celtics were merely exercising their professional rights. Rivers is the only one who went beyond those bounds to create special circumstances to get what he wanted.

The Celtics may see attendance and TV viewership drop off a bit for the next few seasons. Fans will speak out with their feet by staying at home and finding something better to do with their mid-winter nights than watch a mediocre basketball team. Eventually, though, they will come around. They will flock back to Causeway Street a lot sooner than they will start cheering for Allen again.

That is their right. They will buy tickets, so they are entitled to their opinions, as long as they are aware of their hypocrisy. Teams can trade players who gave them the best years of their lives. Players can walk away from teams that gave them glory and adulation and made them filthy rich. And getting mad about any of it, well, that’s just silly, no matter how badly it stings.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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