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Fair or not, Boston will be judged on how it treats Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets.
Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets.Sarah Stier/Getty

Kyrie Irving wanted to put Boston on alert and he did with his statements following the Nets’ Game 2 win over the Celtics. He wants the TD Garden crowd to avoid volatile and potentially racist chiding when he returns to his old home court Friday night.

The comments added an unfortunate element to this already disheartening series. Irving suggested he’s heard racist remarks from fans in Boston before and did not want to be a target. He painted Boston fans, at least some, as out of control or belligerent, willing to scream any remark to pierce the psyches of opposing players, especially ones like Irving, a former Celtics who reneged on a promise to re-sign with the club.

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Friday is going to serve as a critical moment for the perception of Boston and its progress with race relations. Whether it’s fair or not, the national sports landscape will judge Boston on its behavior on Friday. It’s a monumental stage for the city, a stage it didn’t ask for.

Will there be some rogue fan emerging with racist remarks to justify Irving’s concerns? Will Irving prove that Boston isn’t as progressive as it likes to believe it is?

There is an ugly history, of course. In 2017, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones claimed a Red Sox fan yelled racial remarks and threw peanuts at him during a game at Fenway. The Sox issued a formal apology. Seven years ago, Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban was pelted with racist tweets after he scored the winning goal in a game against the Bruins in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Bruins president Cam Neely admonished the fans who made those tweets.

Irving was already going to be serenaded with boos, jeered when he was introduced and each time he touched the ball for the Nets, but he sought to protect himself from anything more severe by tapping into Boston’s sensitive and painful racial history.

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Kyrie Irving and the Nets come to Boston with a 2-0 series lead.
Kyrie Irving and the Nets come to Boston with a 2-0 series lead.Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

It was an attention-grabbing act because Irving wanted to control the narrative. He made headlines a few years ago when he asked why humans just assume the Earth is round. He stood on that island for years before finally admitting he didn’t really believe the Earth had an edge but that he just tossed out the thought to make people think beyond the surface.

It was clever. Irving said science teachers were e-mailing him to stop his “Flat Earth” campaign because their students were convinced he was right. So he did, and he laughed about it.

He was laughing again Tuesday night, when he dropped the verbal torpedo that has detonated in this city and will until game time Friday. He is causing Boston to again look at itself in the mirror and assess its treatment of people of color and professional athletes.

Irving has proven to be protective of his athletic brethren. He has anointed himself to speak for those who have been victimized or underrepresented, and he again sought to turn himself into a victim by foreshadowing a racially charged reception when he steps onto the floor Friday.

His decision to put the city on notice for any potential divisive and racist statements was fair only if he was sincere. Did Irving really expect to be pelted with racial epithets once he walked through the tunnel to the floor Friday? Was he ever confronted with racism while he was in Boston? He has never described those incidents, but he fully realized the sensitivity of race in Boston is a powerful and contentious issue.

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Asked Tuesday night if he had experienced racism in Boston, Irving said: “I’m not the only one that could attest to this, but it is what it is.”

Boston has attempted to distance itself from its checkered racial past for the last few decades. The city has a Black woman who is the acting mayor in Kim Janey, and six people of color running for the office in November. Many local businesses have assessed their diversity or lack thereof since the murder of George Floyd a year ago.

Kyrie Irving certainly appeared happy when he and Gordon Hayward were introduced to Boston in 2017.
Kyrie Irving certainly appeared happy when he and Gordon Hayward were introduced to Boston in 2017.JohnTlumacki

The city is trying to make a delicate transition to a more enlightened and racially inviting place than in the past. It’s not that Irving is speaking nonsense when referring to racial issues in the city, but the question is whether he sought to work to change his reality by pointing out these incidents when they happened.

It’s difficult for Boston and the Celtics to take action on fan behavior when they have no idea what happened and when it happened, only vague references by Irving followed by laughter and then the Nets’ media representative calling for the next question.

We are longing for more information. What was Irving’s experience in Boston? Was that one of the reasons he abruptly departed for Brooklyn and mentally checked out for the Celtics toward the end of his final season? Did the words and experiences of legends such as Bill Russell, who was damaged by a series of racist events in the 1960s, affect Irving to the point where his sentiments changed about the city?

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As usual, Irving leaves us seeking more answers with his statements. It was his full intention to cause this debate over the next 48 hours, to make every Celtics fan think twice before saying something potentially insulting.

There’s nothing wrong with boos, jeers, tasteful remarks that don’t include expletives, and signs that may be potentially funny. This is what sports are all about, heroes and villains, players coming back to face their former team after the relationship ended on unsavory terms. Former Boston superstars returning to TD Garden or Fenway or Gillette in a new uniform and fans who were so loyal to them showing their displeasure is part of the sports fabric.

Irving cannot control that narrative. There was no way he can stop the negative reactions, but he personally has drawn the line on what will be acceptable or tasteful behavior. The question on Friday is whether Boston will respectfully cheer against a sports villain or revert to some of its previous behavior.


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.