Celtics assistant coach Damon Stoudamire never watched the tape, because he saw no reason to relive the nightmare. Besides, the memories were hauntingly vivid anyway. In the spring of 2000, the 26-year-old point guard helped guide the Portland Trail Blazers to the Western Conference finals, where they were facing a rising but unproven Lakers team.
Portland fell behind, three games to one, before winning the next two to force Game 7 in Los Angeles. Portland roared to a 13-point fourth-quarter lead and was just 12 simple minutes from the Finals. Then the Trail Blazers missed 13 shots in a row, went nearly eight minutes without a point, and were handed a stunning loss.
“All I remember is it felt like an earthquake at Staples Center,” Stoudamire recalled, “and then it took us like 2½ hours to get out of the arena, because there were people all in the streets. And I remember a group of grown men literally crying, because we felt like we had an opportunity and we let it slip away. You cry about the game, you really do. You cry about the loss. But more importantly, that was a special team. We didn’t win, and that team will never be together again. I don’t think people understand that.”
Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and the Lakers went on to win the first of three consecutive NBA titles. After the Game 7 loss, Stoudamire believed time was at least on his side. It was his second consecutive conference finals appearance, and the basketball runway in front of him remained long.
But eight years passed before he returned to the conference finals. This time, he was 34, playing for the Spurs, and Celtics coach Ime Udoka was his teammate. That run was halted, too, and Stoudamire never found out what it felt like at the top.
He did not bring up these memories because he felt like recalling crummy days. He brought them up because he believes they are relevant.
Now, the Celtics are being guided by talented young players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. This team reached the conference finals in four of the last six seasons and is in its first Finals, tied 2-2 against the Warriors. To some, it might seem as if this will become customary. But in recent weeks, Stoudamire has brought up his own cautionary tale because he wants the players to embrace this massive moment.
“I don’t take any of this for granted, because you’re not guaranteed to get back here,” he said. “That Game 7 in 2000 was the most stunning loss of my career, and I tell the guys that all the time, that I got to the conference finals when I was 25 and 26 and didn’t get back again until I was 34. You’re just not guaranteed these moments, so try to cherish every day of it.
“This group will never get this moment back. That’s the way I look at it. But if we win together, we’ll be entrenched together. Our group texts now as a staff, as a team, it’ll be the group texts forever. We’ll share moments as a family because we won together. That, to me, is what this is all about.”
Last summer, Stoudamire was hired by Udoka, his longtime friend from Portland, Ore., after spending five seasons as the head coach at Pacific. He said that with Tatum and Brown as cornerstones, he believed this team had potential to be great.
Even when Boston stumbled the first few months of the season, Stoudamire remained confident. He had seen plenty of coaching changes as a player. He knew it just took time.
“The trust and buy-in started to get built, and we became a team,” he said. “You could see us gaining steam.”
The Celtics pushed aside their slow start, surged through the second half of the season, and secured the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They’ve since toppled Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo, survived three elimination games, and handed the Warriors their first road loss of these playoffs.
“What this group doesn’t get enough credit for is how mentally tough they are,” Stoudamire said. “It’s not easy, man. It’s not easy to do what they’ve done. It’s not easy to go on the road and beat the Miami Heat in a Game 7. Do you know how hard that is? Do you know how hard it is to go and win Game 6 in Milwaukee against the defending champions and the best player in the league? It’s hard to do that. So the way these guys have done it, it’s just going to make it sweeter for them if we can get it done. Those are the things I think about when I think about this crew.”
Most of all, Stoudamire wants this championship for these players. He says they’ve earned it and they deserve it. But he acknowledged that it would also be fulfilling for him. He said that when he was coaching in college just one year ago, he didn’t know if he’d ever come back to the NBA, or if he even wanted to. Now, he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
“This feels awesome, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “To get a ring would be the culmination of my career. And I’ve tried to enjoy every moment of this, because you don’t get this back. I try to remind everybody every single day that we have an opportunity to do something special.”