“All I remember is it felt like an earthquake at Staples Center,” Stoudamire recalled, “and then it took us about 2½ hours to get out of the arena because there were people on the streets everywhere. And I remember a group of grown men literally crying because we felt like we had an opportunity and we let it slip. You cry about the game, you really do. You cry about the loss. But more importantly, this was a special team. We didn’t win and this team will never be together again. I don’t think people understand that.”
Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers won the first of three consecutive NBA titles. After losing Game 7, Stoudamire believed time was at least on his side. It was his second consecutive Conference Finals appearance, and the basketball runway ahead of him stayed long.
But eight years passed before he returned to the Conference Finals. This time he was 34 and playing for Spurs, and Celtics coach Ime Udoka was his teammate. That run was stopped too, and Stoudamire never found out what it felt like at the top.
He didn’t bring up those memories because he felt like reminiscing about bad days. He approached them because he believes they are relevant.
Now the Celtics are led by talented young players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. This team has reached the conference finals in four of the last six seasons and is in its first final with a 2-2 draw against the Warriors. For some it may seem like this is becoming a habit. But in recent weeks, Stoudamire has come up with his own cautionary tale because he wants players to embrace this massive moment.
“I don’t take any of this for granted because there’s no guarantee you’ll come back here,” he said. “That Game 7 in 2000 was the most stunning loss of my career and I tell the boys all the time that I made the conference finals when I was 25 and 26 and didn’t come back until I was 34. You’re just not guaranteed those moments, so try to cherish them every day.
“This group will never get that moment back. That’s how I see it. But if we win together, we’ll holed up together. Our group texts now as a staff, as a team, it will be the group texts forever. We will share moments as a family because we won together. That’s what I’m about.”
Last summer, Stoudamire was hired by Udoka, his longtime friend from Portland, Oregon, after spending five seasons as head coach at Pacific. He said that with Tatum and Brown as the cornerstones, he believes this team has the potential to be great.
Even as Boston stumbled in the early months of the season, Stoudamire remained confident. As a player, he had seen many managerial changes. He knew it just took time.
“Trust and acceptance started to build, and we became a team,” he said. “You could see how we were gaining momentum.”
The Celtics brushed aside their slow start, stormed through the second half of the season and secured second place in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Since then, they’ve toppled Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo, survived three elimination games and gave the Warriors their first away loss of the playoffs.
“What this group doesn’t get enough credit for is their mental toughness,” said Stoudamire. “It’s not easy, man. It’s not easy to do what they did. Taking to the streets and beating the Miami Heat in a Game 7 isn’t easy. Do you know how hard that is? You know how tough it is to win Game 6 in Milwaukee against the defending champion and the league’s best player? It’s hard to do. The way these guys did it will only make it cuter for them if we get it right. Those are the things I think about when I think about this crew.”
Above all, Stoudamire wants this championship for these players. He says they deserve it and they deserve it. But he conceded that it would be fulfilling for him too. He said when he was coaching in college just a year ago, he didn’t know if he would ever return to the NBA or if he even wanted to. Now he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
“This feels great, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “Getting a ring would be the highlight of my career. And I tried to enjoy every moment of it because you don’t get that back. I try to remind everyone every day that we have the opportunity to do something special.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.