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October 13. 2013 12:40AM

Even a rebuilding team brings in the crowd

Vin Sylvia: Celtics are still a big draw locally


 

A young Celtics fan waves the flag of his allegiance during the team's Saturday night exhibition game against the Knicks at Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester. (Bruce Taylor/Union Leader)
MANCHESTER -- First pitch in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and Tigers was approaching Saturday night, the Bruins had won for the third time in four regular-season games that afternoon, and around New England, Patriots fans were awaiting Sunday's game against the Saints while following the region's new favorite soap opera, "As the Gronk Turns."

Nevertheless, folks at Verizon Wireless Arena were anticipating a crowd of around 9,000 to see the team calling itself the Boston Celtics play the New York Knicks in the fourth game of a nine-game exhibition schedule.

And, sure enough, the place was nearly packed as the cobbled-collection of Celtics rewarded the local show of support by racing out to a 28-15 first-quarter advantage despite playing their third game in four days and doing so without the services of veterans Keith Bogans (thumb) and Gerald Wallace (rest).

As it turned out, the Knicks were even more depleted, sitting star Camelo Anthony and most of their other starters. When all was said and done, the Celtics had a 118-81 victory, their first under new head coach Brad Stevens.

I'll be damned.

This wasn't 2005, when the big draw was one of New Hampshire's own, Concord's Matt Bonner, making his first appearance as a professional in his home state as the Celtics hosted his Toronto Raptors. Attendance was 8,868 in the 11,140-seat Big V that night, and, yes, the player who drew the loudest cheers was the Red Rocket.

This wasn't 2008, when the Celtics were the reigning world champions. They drew 9,393 that night, and the fact that they were playing a whole collection of Rockets -- this time of the Houston variety -- had nothing to do with it. The NBA champs were draw enough.

But Matt Bonner wasn't coming here Saturday night, and the Celtics who were here were a far cry from the team preparing to hoist its championship banner in 2008. That team had the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, along with rising star Rajon Rando. This one brought Rondo with it to Manchester, but he was in street clothes, out indefinitely while recovering from knee surgery, while the Big Three were long gone — Allen to Miami after the 2011-12 season, Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn not long after these same Knicks eliminated the Celtics in last spring's playoffs.

So what was the draw? The Knicks, attracting the many transplanted New Yorkers who inhabit Conference Finals and one more to the NBA Finals? Well, there was some of that, but this was an overwhelmingly green-clad crowd.

Curiosity over who these Celtics are and what they are to become?

Probably a combination thereof — that and the fact that this was the Celtics' first trip here since 2010, their eighth overall since the Big V opened in 2001.

It wasn't the names on the back of the jerseys. Jeff Green is expected to be the Celtics' leading scorer, but he's been terrible this preseason, and it's not like he had a huge following to begin with. Jared Sullinger was having a good rookie season before he got hurt last year, but an offseason charge of domestic abuse certainly didn't do anything to help his image. First-round draft choice Kelly Olynyk (15 points, 6 rebounds) looks promising, but he's hardly a household name.

Nope. The fourth-most-popular professional sports team in New England was in Manchester Saturday night, and that, for those who nearly sold out the place, was enough.

Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at vsylvia@unionleader.com.

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