Celtics fans have been waiting more than two years to let Kyrie Irving know how they feel about his departure from Boston. But with one strong, sweeping comment Tuesday night, Irving ensured that the spotlight would remain on TD Garden’s supporters as much as it glared on him.
After the Nets’ dominant 130-108 win over the Celtics on Tuesday that gave them a 2-0 lead in this opening-round playoff series, Irving was asked what he anticipated from Boston’s fans when he made his return for Friday night’s Game 3.
Irving, who spent six years with the Cavaliers before being traded to the Celtics in August 2017, pointed out it would not be his first time in the city as an opponent. Then he shifted his focus toward the reception that figures to be quite chilly, and said that he hopes it does not cross a line.
“I’m just looking forward to competing with my teammates and hopefully we can just keep it strictly basketball, there’s no belligerence or any racism going on — subtle racism, and people yelling [expletive] from the crowd,” Irving said. “But even if it is, it’s part of the nature of the game and we’re just going to focus on what we can control.”
When Irving was asked whether racist comments had ever been directed at him in Boston, his answer was both vague and indicting.
“I’m not the only one that can attest to this,” he said, before putting his palms in the air. “It is what it is.”
In the 2018-19 NBA season, then-Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins accused a fan at TD Garden of mouthing a racial epithet at him during a game. The Celtics launched an investigation and were unable to corroborate Cousins’s story, but the fan — who was a minor — received a two-year ban and lifetime probation from TD Garden events.
That March, Irving passionately addressed the situation while saying that he had not been a target of racial remarks in Boston before.
“As an opponent, I’ve never heard anything like that,” he said. “But I can only go off hearing stories, and when you hear something like that, especially people of color, I gravitate towards being on anyone’s side, as long as it’s the right side. And, really, it just matters, just treating people with respect. That’s really what it comes down to.”
The Celtics had a scheduled day off Wednesday, and a team spokesperson said there would be no official comment from the team related to Irving’s statements.
Coach Brad Stevens was asked about Irving’s remarks during his contractually obligated appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub Wednesday afternoon. He said that Irving never spoke to him about being a target of racism in Boston, and he was unsure about the context of Irving’s recent comments.
“But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” Stevens said, “and I think those things should always be taken really seriously.”
Stevens said the Celtics, the NBA, and TD Garden are “very alert to making sure that our fans don’t cross the line. I think that that’s really important and people shouldn’t ever feel like they’re being discriminated against.”
Before the 2018-19 season began, Irving stood on the TD Garden floor at an event for season ticket-holders and said he intended to re-sign with the Celtics at year’s end. He also filmed a Nike commercial at TD Garden in which he referenced having his No. 11 retired by the franchise someday.
But that season went sour for both Irving and the Celtics. The Bucks ultimately knocked the Celtics out of the conference finals in just five games, and two months later Irving and his close friend Kevin Durant signed with the Nets.
After Irving appeared to give a half-hearted effort in the playoffs and then went back on his word, he became the prime target of angry Celtics fans. In November 2019, a shoulder impingement kept him out of the Nets game in Boston, and he did not travel to TD Garden with the team.
That did not stop thousands of fans from voicing their displeasure, with constant derisive chants of “Kyrie sucks” and “Where is Kyrie?” flowing through the Garden. That night, Irving posted a lengthy Instagram story in which he addressed the vitriol.
It said, in part: “This game of sports entertainment matters more than someone’s mental health and well-being right? Or the real life things that happen to people every day but they still have to perform for the NBA and its fans? RIGHT?”
The Celtics’ next official home game against the Nets came during the NBA’s restart in the Orlando bubble last summer, and their lone Boston matchup this season — on Christmas — came while fans were still restricted from attending games because of COVID-19.
So Friday’s game is set to be Irving’s first in Boston with fans since his departure. It already figured to be charged with energy, but now the actions and words of the crowd will certainly be under more of a microscope.
Boston continues to grapple with a history of racism that has sometimes become intertwined with its professional sports teams. Celtics legend Bill Russell was open about his experiences as a Black athlete in the city, and famously referred to it as “a flea market of racism.” In 2017, Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said that during a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, a racial slur had been directed at him and peanuts had been thrown at him.
That was followed by the alleged incident involving Cousins at TD Garden one year later. After that accusation came to light, longtime Celtics guard Marcus Smart told the Globe that he had dealt with a racist interaction at TD Garden earlier in his career. He declined to go into detail, saying simply, “It was a long time ago.”
“I’ve dealt with a lot of things, here in my own city, and out of this city,” Smart said then. “I get it. I’ve seen it. I’m not surprised, and it has to be fixed, plain and simple. Obviously as a player and being in that situation before, I can understand. It’s hard to go out there and play. You focus on [basketball] and you’ve got people just out there just being really ignorant. Real, real ignorant.”
In March 2019, a Jazz fan received a lifetime ban from Utah’s games after directing crude language toward then-Thunder star Russell Westbrook. At the time, Irving said those interactions with fans were nothing new.
“It happens so often,” Irving said. “Just most of the time, it doesn’t get documented. This one is the first time it actually got caught on camera.”
Last week, Westbrook came to TD Garden for the Wizards’ play-in game against the Celtics. He was serenaded with an expletive-laced chant throughout the night.