Former Celtics stars Tom “Satch” Sanders and Cedric Maxwell have long heard remarks that the city they played in was one of the most racist — if not the most racist — in the country, especially during Boston’s busing crisis in the 1970s and ’80s.
But both players said that as black players, what they saw outside of Boston in that era was just as bad as anything they saw inside the city, if not worse.
“There isn’t a city is in America that during those times, and even now, that you can’t find racial situations currently,” Sanders, an NBA Hall of Fame forward, said Saturday in a panel discussion titled “Being a Black Celtic” during the National Association of Black Journalists’ convention in Boston this week.
“Los Angeles was my worst experience,” Sanders added. “Cops pulling guns on us [as we were] walking on the street [or] driving the car. People talk about Boston, [but] you’ve got to be kidding me. LA was the worst place I’ve ever been in during those particular times.”
Maxwell, who played eight seasons with the Celtics (1977-85), echoed that point.
“I don’t think Boston has a monopoly on racism in the United States, but the perception is that Boston is the most racist around and that’s not the case,” he said.
The stigma is tied to protests and rioting after the court-ordered desegregation of Boston’s public schools, which was carried out by forced busing.
The violence was crystalized in an historic photo snapped in 1976 of a black man being attacked on City Hall Plaza by a white anti-busing protester who wielded an American flag.
Randy Auerbach, the daughter of Celtics’ patriarch Red Auerbach, recalled that photo as she reflected on the city.
“Growing up in D.C., which was predominantly a black city . . . I came to college in Boston thinking it was a very liberal town . . . and knowing that only because the Celtics essentially were integrated and a special team,” she said.
“It never occurred to me that the city was so segregated and racist. And I remember that photo. I left college [in Boston]. I went back to D.C. because it was so alienating from what I had come from.”
She said her father was aware of the Boston’s perception as a racist city.
“He didn’t talk about it a lot,” she said, “but I know it left him with a very heavy heart, because he hated injustice, in any sense, in any area.”
Sanders, who played for the Celtics from 1960-73, said it’s often lost in the discussion that the Celtics were the first NBA team to draft an African-American player (Chuck Cooper in 1950); were the first NBA team to have an all-black starting lineup, and were the first team to have a black head coach (Bill Russell).
“From my perspective, there was an awful lot of ignorance out there, and unfortunately, I’m talking about my family members, friends, neighbors — people who obviously could not see and clearly did not believe what they read,” Sanders said.
“I spent all these years talking to these people about when I was in Boston, [and] on that particular team, in that particular organization, we had at a minimum of four black players when the rest of the league had maybe one on each team, maybe two.
“So here you’re talking about an organization that had so many firsts, and not only that, the firsts were not involved with a matter of numbers; it was a matter of [Red] Auerbach saying, ‘I want to win every game, and since I want to win every game, I want the best players out there that can take me to that particular goal.’”
Sanders said he also heard the perception that the 1980s Celtics were known as Larry Bird’s team because Bird was white.
“All of the people, and in particular far too many blacks, kept saying to me, ‘Satch, Larry Bird?’ ” Sanders said. “I said, wait a minute. Do they really expect the Boston Celtics to turn away from one of the best players to play the game and say, ‘You’re white and can play, but we won’t take you.’ I’ve never heard such ignorance, and I spent a whole lot of years in the NBA, listening to guys talk that talk, players talk that talk.”
Maxwell agreed that white athletes received the benefit of the doubt more often than black athletes, and he pointed out that Russell only recently received a statue last year while other white Boston professional sports stars have had statues for years.
“But again, I think that could be in any city,” Maxwell added.
Maxwell also referenced Clippers owner Donald Sterling, whose racist remarks were caught on tape, leading to his ouster and worldwide outrage.
“The reality is, what Donald Sterling says [and] has been saying, don’t be surprised or foolish enough to think that some other owners might not have said that or, on the counter side of that, that black players haven’t said that about white owners,” Maxwell said.
“People want to say, ‘Oh, Donald Sterling is the only one who has ever said that.’ Well, he’s the only one who has been caught saying that.”Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.