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Funeral Games, RIP

Teams wearing all black to a closeout playoff game has been happening for a few seasons, but after Boston’s failure to bury the Wizards on Friday, the Funeral Game needs to meet its maker

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The Celtics dressed for the Wizards’ funeral, wearing all black to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Friday.

But the team in the metaphorical casket wasn’t exactly ready to get buried. John Wall resurrected his team with a game-winning 3, forcing Monday night’s Game 7, and yelled about how nobody should "come to my city, wearing all black, talking about a funeral."

But the Celtics had reason for pulling the gag, and it wasn’t because they’d all watched the music video for "Crossroads" by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony before the game. The Wizards had worn all black for a January game between the two teams. At the time, Isaiah Thomas called it "cute," and pointed out that it was an odd choice for a regular-season game as opposed to a closeout playoff game. So when Boston actually had a closeout playoff game, the Celtics returned the favor. But Thomas denied the funereal garb was intentional after Game 6 — "I wear black all the time" — and the Wizards accused the Celtics of "copycatting." "They just tryna be like us, they just want to be us so bad, man. They can’t. There’s only one Death Row DC, and they can’t do it like we can do it," said Washington’s Markieff Morris.

The Wizards’ claims of plagiarism are a bit far-fetched, as Washington was not the first team to pull this stunt. The Funeral Game has become an NBA trope over the past half-decade, and I’ve got to say it’s getting played out.

The origins of the Funeral Game start with the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. They all wore something black to Game 6 of the NBA Finals, in which they upset the Heat and their newfangled superteam. After winning the championship, they revealed to ESPN’s Marc Stein that they’d started the tradition during a second-round sweep of the Lakers. It worked — the Mavs didn’t lose a closeout game all playoffs — and it was cool, because it was unique, original, and subtle. The team kept it to themselves: Nobody reported on them wearing black until after the team won the championship.

But they didn’t keep quiet for long. By October, Tyson Chandler was already yelling at the Texas Rangers to wear all black to Game 6 of the World Series. The next postseason, when the Mavs trailed 3–0 against the Thunder, Jason Terry vowed to wear black as some sort of reverse psychological gesture to prevent a sweep. He said they would "try the black suit thing — the funeral. And we just hope it’s not ours," even though there was no possible way it could’ve been the Thunder’s funeral. Either way, he didn’t wear black to the game and Dallas got swept.

The following year, Terry was on the Boston Celtics, and Chandler and fellow 2011 Maverick Jason Kidd were on the Knicks. The Knicks took a 3–0 lead, and before Game 4, Terry told the Knicks "you’re not dancing at my funeral today." This angered Kenyon Martin, who instructed the Knicks to wear funeral colors to the next game — and told everybody about it, ruining the secretive element the Mavericks had two years earlier.

This blew up in the Knicks’ faces. Here is an article calling the Knicks "classless" "jokers" for the "disrespectful" and "wrong-headed" decision to reference a funeral just two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings. "We were going to a funeral, but it looks like we got buried," said J.R. Smith after the Knicks lost the game. Coach Mike Woodson said he would have prevented the whole thing from happening had he known about it, and Raymond Felton said he didn’t know there was a "funeral" aspect to what he thought was just a fun team-building exercise. Somehow, nobody pointed any fingers at Chandler or Kidd, even though it seems likely one of them brought the idea over from Dallas. The Knicks won Game 6, something I point out not because it’s relevant but because I just want to remind everybody that the Knicks actually won a playoff series four years ago, even though it seems like they’ve been garbage for centuries.

As a member of the Rockets, Terry tried to hold a one-man funeral for the Mavericks in 2015 — it didn’t work.

That should have been the end of the Funeral Game, as Terry tried to single-handedly keep alive a years-old bit that was meaningful only when done by an entire team. Jason Terry is the NBA’s least effective mortician.

But it was revived this year by the Wizards, and the Rockets wore all black to Game 5 against the Thunder.

The Rockets players didn’t say anything about their clothing, and when the Celtics wore black to Game 6 against the Wizards, they actively denied it was meant to imply a funeral. But we now know the deal. The 2011 Mavs were able to wear black on several occasions to pivotal playoff games and get away with it, but now, if we see a team wearing black to a game, we can connect the dots, even if nobody talks. We keep our eyes glued to each team’s arrival in the stadium, hoping one will sartorially subtweet the other — or that Russell Westbrook will finally dress in a mankini.

As for the actual gag, it doesn’t seem to be particularly effective. Assuming the Mavericks wore black to all three closeout games in the 2011 playoffs, teams and/or Jason Terry have gone 5–3 when proclaiming it an opponent’s funeral. That’s good, but not great considering these are (usually) teams that were leading postseason series, and it’s especially bad when viewed as a statement that the opposing team’s season will be dead by the end of the day. Remove the Mavs — the only team ever to actually pull this bit off well — and the record falls to 2–3. Please, when I die, do not bury me in any cemetery that is successful in only 40 percent of undertakings.

The Funeral Game should die. It will never seem unique or original again, and teams don’t back it up with nearly the efficiency needed for it to seem meaningful. I’d say its primary purpose at this point is adding motivation for the team whose death is being planned — for some reason, simply "facing elimination" seems less urgent than "facing elimination against an opponent who disrespects you enough to dis you via clothing."

Instead of pissing off your opponent, I propose that playoff teams try to confuse their opponents. Here are five ways to coordinate outfits to mimic significant life events that should bewilder your opponent and prevent them from focusing in pivotal playoff games.

The St. Paddy’s Game

Wear all green, and pinch your opponent periodically throughout the course of the game for not wearing green. Do it subtly, so referees won’t notice, leading to multiple technical fouls and ejections when pinched players get fed up and swing at you.

The Bar Mitzvah Game

Dress in suits that awkwardly fit your rapidly growing, pubescent body. Pick one player on the other team and yell "Today you become a man!" at him. When the opponent is shooting at your basket, have several teammates remove a chair from the bench and hoist it upward while gesturing at the player to sit in the chair. Throughout the game, present the player with checks for $18 signed with the actual names of his aunts. You could also wear matching dresses for the Sweet 16 Game, or even better, the Quinceañera Game, which would probably cause most of your opponents to take precious pregame moments to look up what a quinceañera is and wonder why this game was theirs.

The College of Cardinals Game

Wear extremely intricate red robes. When your opponent misses shots, release black smoke to indicate that his most recent failure to hit a shot has prevented you from electing him pope. If a player does go on a hot streak, quench it by releasing white smoke and forcing him to address the frenzied crowd while wearing an enormous hat.

The Bachelorette Party Game

Wear the same neon pink tank top with a custom message printed on it and show up to the game staggeringly drunk. Wave dick-shaped balloons at your opponent. You’ll be terrible at basketball, but there’s no way the opposing team will be able to bear staying in the same room as you for 48 minutes. You’ll win by forfeit.

The Mariah Carey’s Birthday Party Game

Dress up as different versions of the best player on the opposing team to commemorate the iconic achievements he’s made over the course of his career. The Funeral Game gag is an ultimate sign of disrespect, but I think you’ll find that by showing an overwhelming, obsequious amount of respect for your opponent, you’ll unsettle them more than you would with any meanness.