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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: We All Want Tacko

The Celtics’ 7-foot-5 rookie became the NBA’s largest human victory cigar—but more importantly, an enormous example of how the G League can develop more than just skills

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.

“Give the people what they want,” is the advice that Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said he got from his 10-year-old daughter in late December, and what the people wanted was 7-foot-5 rookie center Tacko Fall. A few days before Christmas, in a game against the Detroit Pistons, fans clamored for the 24-year-old Fall, who was called up from the Maine Red Claws of the NBA’s G League following a number of Celtics injuries. “We want Tacko!” people yelled with their bossy Boston abandon—the same way they had a few months earlier, during the team’s preseason opener.

In that game, Fall entered in the fourth quarter and finished with five points, three rebounds, and two blocks in eight minutes. “Sometimes I do feel bad for Coach Brad,” Fall admitted on October 11, both appreciating and wincing at the vocal support. But by the time the Pistons game in late December rolled around, Coach Brad was in on the act. Bolstered by his daughter’s feedback about the popular Senegalese center, Stevens looked not unlike an end-of-the-bench hype guy himself as he implored TD Garden fans to cheer louder for Fall.

And who could blame any of them? When it comes to the sort of communal touchstone experiences that define both nascent and established rooting interests, there are the obvious ones: the deep playoff runs, the against-all-odds buzzer-beaters. But pretty high up on the list are also those blissed-out spells in which some novel prospect captures near-universal support, those times when everyone gets to collectively see a person get their start without worrying about how it might all end. This season, Fall, who was born and raised in Dakar before winding up on a college campus in Orlando and signing, undrafted, with the Celtics, was one of those players. And he rode the wave with veteran good humor despite being a first-year, mostly-minor-league guy.

Fall is a long-limbed presence on the court and a good sport in the world. He guest-conducted a Boston Pops concert and learned to swim in front of a camera. He averaged 12.9 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks in 29 games in Portland, Maine. He’s also been in on some fine bits with his Red Claws teammate and road roommate, Tremont Waters, the 5-foot-10 point guard who is, objectively, the more talented player of the two. Their TikTok involving a giant onesie and a hotel bathroom was great, but old heads may appreciate the faithful re-creation of the famous Manute Bol–Muggsy Bogues photo shoot even more.

In January, early voting returns for the NBA All-Star Game showed that Fall earned the sixth-most fan votes among Eastern Conference frontcourt players, ahead of guys with many multiples of his minutes. By the end of the month, he’d earned All-Star support from some fellow pros, too. And during the All-Star Weekend’s dunk contest, he literally shouldered a great deal of attention.

During the truncated season, Fall appeared in just six games for the Celtics, recording a cumulative two blocks and 19 points. Still, for the NBA, having one of the game’s most recognizable new players spend the bulk of his time playing minor league hoops in Maine was a feature, not a bug. NBA fans and general managers alike obsess over each and every payroll dollar and hockey assist and Finsta dispatch as if it alone might provide an edge toward a championship. And yet the NBA has also long had a surprising lack of meaningful internal infrastructure at its entry level, instead essentially outsourcing the start of the player development process to the problematic NCAA, or to the increasingly well-oiled international game.

But there are signs that this has already changed. In 2017, a Gatorade sponsorship rebranded the minors from the D-list sounding D-League to the more aspirational G League, part of a comprehensive effort to formalize, streamline, and promote the game at its developmental level. In 2018, the NBA outlined what it called its “Professional Path”—a program in which elite players can make their way to the draft via the G League without a necessary stop in the college game or a trip abroad first. Organizations and prospects alike have demonstrated a commitment to leaning into this new direction: At the start of the season, for example, the Celtics hired Allison Feaster, a retired WNBA veteran, as their director of player development; her previous role had been as manager of player personnel and coach relations for the G League. And last week Jalen Green, the top high-school-aged hoops prospect in the country, announced his intentions to forgo the trodden labyrinths of college basketball to whack his own path through the green shoots of the NBA’s newly intriguing lower echelon. (In addition to everything else, this choice wound up highlighting Bradley Beal’s sense of humor.)

Fall wasn’t the type of phenom for whom it made sense to forgo college; he spent four years at the University of Central Florida before seeing time in the G League. But he still represents the broader potential of the whole operation. Interest in the Red Claws surged this season as fans jumped at the attractive chance to see Fall and Waters in a homey, memorable setting. The establishment of two-way contracts in 2017, as well as the use of G League teams as direct NBA affiliates, means that minor leaguers like Fall aren’t instant journeymen, but rather valued assets of the broader big league organization.

Which is why, recently, Feaster included Fall in an update about how Celtics players are handling the quarantine: He has taken up Spanish, she told the Boston Herald. The big guy did a soothing live read on Instagram of Clifford the Big Red Dog, a character with whom he shares a large frame and a cheerful, beloved spirit.

For Boston sports enthusiasts, rooting for those guys on the Maine Red Claws sounds a lot like second nature. This is a fan base, after all, that proudly concerns itself with athletic minutia like the hyperlocal college hockey tournament called “the Beanpot” or Cape Cod summer baseball. But this season’s major league reception of Fall stood out even by these obsessive standards, because it wasn’t just a buncha happy Massholes paying attention, it was the broader NBA apparatus. As the league takes its shot at professionalizing its lower ranks, the truth will lie in the trajectory, and so far the attempt is looking good. By providing a fun glimpse into the NBA’s vision of its organizational future, Fall proved to be a whole lot of fun to rally around in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it present.