There are any number of reasons why it’s easy to goof on Bill Simmons, and all of them are honestly pretty solid. Many of these have to do with the way he acts—grandiose and aggrieved and prickly-petty and, now that he’s ascended to demi-mogul status, prone to dilatory rich-guy extemporizing on The Future Of Apps. Fewer of those have to do with what Simmons has actually made, which amounts to enough Extremely Of Their Time columns and mailbags to stretch from Brookline, Mass. to Saturn and some mostly pretty good websites and sports-related documentaries. He has proudly refused to evolve as a writer and has definitely not seen a new movie of any kind since Rounders came out in 1998, but you have to hand it to him—the man has come up with some good stuff. None of that good stuff, though, has been a chant.
Which is fine! Coming up with chants is for children and drunk guys named Kevin. It is, to pick an example at random, not nearly as impressive an achievement as building a long and successful career in sports media. But it’s worth mentioning here because Simmons just fucking loves coming up with chants for fans to do at sporting events, and also because these chants are always extremely bad. On Wednesday, Simmons blessed the streets with some new shit, which Celtics fans could use to rattle LeBron and the Cavaliers when the Eastern Conference Finals returns to Boston tonight.
As usual, people loved them very much.
And here is where I should tell you that, while everyone had a great time thinking about 19,000 turnt-up Boston fans chanting “you’re a baby” at LeBron James, I think that I especially enjoyed it. This is because I have long been fixated upon and fascinated by Simmons’s inexplicable fondness for coming up with wince-inducing fan chants.
I return periodically to the moment I first fell in love with The Simmons Chant. It was back in the summer of 2008, when Simmons was still writing for ESPN’s Page 2. In a long piece on the NBA Finals matchup between the Lakers and the Celtics, in a section headlined “THE BROOKS POST-‘SHAWSHANK’ AWARD FOR ‘MOST FLUSTERED OUTSIDE HIS ELEMENT,’”(he’s also never been great at coming up with names for made-up awards) Simmons made his demand:
Speaking of fans, here are three chants that I want to hear at the new Garden on Tuesday night:
1. “Se-ven-teen! Se-ven-teen! Se-ven-teen!”
(I want to hear that for the entire 30 minutes leading up to the game. I don’t have to explain what it means.)
2. “Over-rated! Over-rated!”
(That’s for every time Kobe shoots a free throw. I just think it would bug him and potentially cause him to jack up 20 jumpers in a row. By the way, that choice narrowly edged out “Pierce is better!” and “No one likes you!”
3. “We can smell it! We can smell it! We can smell it!”
(Only if we’re up double digits in the fourth quarter. And only then.)
“We can smell it! We can smell it! We can smell it!”
Enhance again, but this time imagine tens of thousands of people lustily chanting these words as one, over and over again:
“We can smell it!”
It’s clear what Simmons is going for here. Or actually that is not quite right, but it’s almost possible to make some guesses as to why this would seem like something worth doing, to him. In its plummy and underworked dorkiness, “We Can Smell It” is a perfectly Simmons-y phrase, and if it is honestly not great as a collective gloat it is at least earnest and in his voice. But it is also difficult enough to parse—the “it” is victory, that much is clear—and easy enough to imagine that it achieves a certain majesty. The “We Can Smell It” chant is an idea that, while howlingly shitty in theory, would be inestimably and impossibly worse if put into effect. Simmons had fantasized in print about various chants before—in a 2004 mailbag he dreamed of Red Sox fans chanting “Year Two-thousand” at Yankees fans as revenge for years of “1918” chants at Yankee Stadium, going so far as to chantsplain it to skeptics:
Janet (Miami): I don’t get the YEAR TWO-THOU-SAND! chant... isn’t it 2004? Don’t Sox fans know this?
Bill Simmons: Okay, since you’re a girl, I’ll walk you thru this: The Yanks chant “1918!” during Red Sox games because we haven’t won a World Series since 1918. So if we beat the Cardinals, that chant becomes moot. And since the Yanks haven’t won a title since 2000, Sox fans would be returning the favor with a “YEAR TWO THOU-SAND” chant, hence, turning the tables on that 1918 chant and causing every Yankee fans to pull their mustaches in frustration.
But nothing before or since, at least to my mind, has touched “We Can Smell It.” It would have been a logical place to quit.
You will not be surprised to learn that, in the years after the “We Can Smell It” chant took the sports world by storm, Simmons did not quit. He instead continued to lean into his self-appointed role as Chantmaster General of Celtics Nation. He’s been at it long enough, in fact, that some of the devastating chants he devised for Wednesday night read as references to some of his earlier work. In a 2010 column, under a section headlined “THE SQUAD 66 AWARD FOR ‘BEST CROWD-RELATED IDEA THAT COULD POTENTIALLY CHANGE THE WAY WE WATCH GAMES,’” (who the hell knows) Simmons wrote:
When LeBron shot his first set of free throws during Game 3 of the Boston series, I was disappointed that the Boston crowd didn’t chant either “You’re a fa-ker! You’re a fa-ker!” (to tweak him about his injured elbow) or “You’re gonna leave! You’re gonna leave!” That’s when I realized something: Thanks to Twitter, we could mobilize crowd chants almost to the minute during playoff games.
And so Simmons did just that. He launched the account @CelticsChants in May of 2010, followed his own Twitter account and no others, and went on through that postseason to suggest various chants that fans could do to rattle the visiting Orlando Magic.
Setting aside how poorly that second tweet has aged, I think we can all agree that “W-N-B-A” is a collection of letters that is all but impossible to chant in any sort of cohesive rhythm. That’s a problem, as far as the effectiveness of the chant goes, and also given that the entire point of a chant is to be something that can be, uh, chanted. But while you can knock the conception and the execution, you can’t knock the... you know what, how about a new paragraph.
As a general rule, no one should be judged by the things they tweeted back in 2010, when Twitter had 77 people on it and every third tweet was “Getting a sandwich :)” But there is something compelling about the dream that this account represented, which amounts to Bill Simmons using Twitter—and the on-site facilitation of his buddy J-Bug—as a remote control over thousands of Celtics fans, so as to better shape the game experience to his designs. It is a weird thing to want, really, but it is also weird in the same corny and bossy and self-impressed ways that Simmons is weird. The account petered out at the end of that postseason, and is now just another ghost ship bobbing around on Twitter’s boiling and fetid seas.
But if the dream of @CelticsChants is dead, Simmons has clearly not abandoned his dream of being recognized as a chant auteur. It may not happen for him tonight, both because his ideas are so honkingly doofy and because “chant auteur” is not strictly speaking a thing that exists. But any sufficiently big idea deserves to be considered on a longer timeline and a broader continuum. Simmons’s chants may not ring out at the Garden on Wednesday, but it would be foolish to dismiss that possibility in the future. Turn your nose to the wind and look to the horizon. Breathe in. Can’t you almost smell it?