Boston and race. It’s an ever combustible combination.
Through the years our city has been sometimes defamed or properly shamed by Thomas Yawkey’s decades of institutional racism at Fenway Park, court-ordered school desegregation of the 1970s, a shocking photograph of Theodore Landsmark being attacked with a flagpole in Government Center, and so much more.
In this century more than a few professional athletes have charged that the Hub is uncomfortable for Black people and former Celtic guard Kyrie Irving — who lied to Boston fans and quit on the Celts in 2019 — put a match to the dry tinder in advance of his first trip back to TD Garden.
“Hopefully, we can just keep it strictly basketball, there’s no belligerence or racism going on — subtle racism — people yelling [expletive] from the crowd,” Irving said Tuesday, then added, “I’m not the only one that can attest to it. The whole world knows it.’'
The Celtics got revenge on the parquet floor Friday, beating Kyrie and the Nets, 125-119, in Game 3 of their first-round series. Irving, who was booed all night, scored only 2 points in the first half and finished with 16 points on 6-for-17 shooting.
A COVID-limited “crowd” of under 5,000 booed Irving with gusto every time he touched the ball, but there was nothing particularly remarkable. There was no anti-Kyrie signage. There were no ugly scenes near the Nets bench. At least, not that we could hear. The worst treatment was a “[Expletive] you, Kyrie!’' chant which first broke out midway through the third quarter. The Nets still lead the series, 2-1, but the Garden will be full for Game 4 Sunday night.
“It’s basketball,” Irving said. “I’ve been in a few environments in my life. If it’s nothing extra, I’m cool with it.’'
Kyrie was booed when he was introduced, booed when he first touched the ball, and cheered when he missed a jumper less than 20 seconds into the game. The first “Kyrie sucks!” chant broke out with 10:42 left in the first. Celtic management flashed a gigantic “Code of Conduct” message on the Jumbotron during a timeout late in the first quarter.
Riding a big night from Jayson Tatum (50 points), the Celtics led by a point after one quarter, by 4 at the half and by 12 at the end of three quarters.
It’s been a largely bad stretch for the Celtics since the completion of their 36-36 regular season. They were competitive in the first playoff game against the star-laden Nets (Irving teams with superstars James Harden and Kevin Durant), but were routed in Game 2 and some local fans gave up on Boston’s prospects for 2021. Now there is faint hope.
It was Irving’s remark about our town that got the juices flowing before Game 3. Boston simmered quietly for three full days while the national narrative focused on past episodes of Boston sports and race. We were reminded again of Orioles outfielder Adam Jones claiming he heard the N-word from fans when he played at Fenway in 2017. In 2014, Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban was a target of racial tweets after the Canadiens knocked the Bruins out of the playoffs. Two years ago the Celtics banned a fan after he uttered some race-baiting garbage in the direction of Golden State’s DeMarcus Cousins.
Making things even more problematic, present-day Celtics Marcus Smart and Tristan Thompson both said they’d been subjected to racial remarks by Boston fans.
“It’s kind of sad and sickening,” said Smart. “Even though it’s an opposing team, we’ve had guys on your home team that you’re saying these racial slurs and you expect us to go out here and play for you. It’s tough.”
Celtic star Jaylen Brown (out for the year with a fractured wrist) put a different spin on the situation, saying, “I know not every Celtics fan is a racist. We have a lot of fans from all walks of life and all colors. Painting every Celtics fan as a racist is unfair, but Boston, we have a lot of work to do.”
Brown, who is not a big fan of Irving, added, “It bothers me if the construct of racism is used as a crutch or an opportunity to executive a personal gain. I’m not sure that’s the case, but racism is bigger than a playoff game.’'
Whoa. Shot fired there. Brown was speaking for a lot of Boston sports fans who believe Irving raised the race issue to protect himself from traditional jeers when he returned to the parquet floor. No one but Irving knows the motivation behind the timing of his charge, but Brown officially called him out in his pregame remark.
Elsewhere in NBA America, there’s been a surge of inappropriate behavior toward visiting players, all of them Black, or biracial. A Knicks fan at Madison Square Garden spit in the direction of Atlanta guard Trae Young. In Philadelphia, a fan dumped popcorn on the head of Washington guard Russell Westbrook. In Salt Lake City, fans were ejected after verbally abusing family members of Memphis guard Ja Morant.
Kendrick Perkins and Cedric Maxwell, two former Celtic champions, who are also Black, came to the defense of the city and its fans.
“Boston does not have a patent on racism,” Maxwell said before Friday’s game. “I’m surprised people are reacting like this. Dominique Wilkins just had trouble getting seated at a restaurant in Atlanta. Get the hell out of here with this [expletive].”