So much of life is the interplay of familiarity and surprise, and so much of life’s savor lies in how they can complement each other. Take as two examples of familiarity basketball and libraries. Their interplay surely qualifies as a surprise. It’s a a big one, even bigger than the atrium of the Boston Public Library’s Johnson Building, in Copley Square, where that interplay is now going on through Jan. 30.
Boston Celtics fans of a certain age are well aware of a particular form of basketball familiarity. The team’s winning championships was a familiar, even regular occurrence — eight straight, between 1959 and 1966, with 10 others, the first in 1957, the most recent in 2008. Banners representing those championships, as well others with players’ retired numbers, hang from the rafters of the TD Garden and formerly did so at the Boston Garden.
For many Bostonians, entering the Johnson Building is a familiar experience, too. And it’s not just Bostonians. The BPL is the officially designated Library for the Commonwealth, which means that any adult in Massachusetts has borrowing privileges.
The expertness of the award-winning renovation by William Rawn Associates, completed in 2016, made the Johnson Building so inviting it’s become, if anything, even more familiar.
The entry area is both airy and bounded, another kind of interplay. Off to one side is the Newsfeed Café, with its WGBH satellite studio. On the other is a selection of new books on trolleys and an information desk. Curved wooden panels hang not too high overhead, making the space less imposing. They also make all the more striking the contrast with what’s a few steps away: the library’s three-story atrium.
As always, entering the atrium effects a sudden, newfound sense of vertical space and general expanse. Also as always, it’s both exhilarating and a little disorienting, but in a good way — the way that stepping outdoors can be, only here the sensation comes from stepping farther indoors, and that’s part of the disorientation.
Another part of the disorientation is how bare the space is, almost ostentatious in its austerity. Yes, there’s something Puritan about that, but in a slightly grandiose way. The atrium seems all the barer after the fullness of the entrance hall. One’s orientation there is lateral, looking around: taking in displays and signage and desks and other people. One’s orientation here is vertical, looking up: taking in the unimpeded volume that rises toward nine ribbed skylights overhead.
The one bit of visual relief is the large US flag hanging at the top of the southern wall. But something else is hanging there, too, something unexpected and incongruous — except that, on reflection, the something else is fitting. It’s those Celtics banners, 17 for championships, three for retired numbers. Five banners hang on each side, as nicely proportioned as a basketball court. They’re on display in this shared public space in observance of the team’s 75th anniversary.
Hanging down from on high, the banners are like two-dimensional, rectangular angels — speaking to triumphs past, extended continuity, shared fealty and passion. They’re 8 feet by 10 feet. Except for the 2008 banner, and the third retired-numbers banner, they all hung in the old Boston Garden. Replicas, 10 feet by 15 feet, currently hang in TD Garden. Those banners are larger to better fit the newer arena’s larger space.
Viewed as artifacts, the banners are strikingly simple: green sans-serif letters on a white background, a narrow green border around each edge. The top line: BOSTON. Second line: CELTICS. Third line: the date of the championship. Fourth line: WORLD. Fifth line: CHAMPIONS. No logos or symbols or design flourishes of any sort. Oh, wait, between the second and third lines a small logo bearing the letters NBA, for National Basketball Association, appear. The home office has to be acknowledged.
That’s it. Plain vanilla. No glitter or gilt or flashy colors. Contrast this with Los Angeles Lakers banners. The Lakers, sigh, also have 17 championships. Theirs have purple letters on a gold background, some semi-swooshy typefaces, and a thin, shield-shaped outline around the letters. The banners are pretty fancy — and very LA.
The Celtics banners being so unadorned is in keeping with the team’s traditional style: no-frills uniforms, no-frills play (fast-break offense, emphasis on defense, team over individual). The Lakers banners are a visual counterpart to the team’s “Showtime” nickname. The look of the Celtics banners convey a very different message: game time, not Showtime.
Seen in strictly design terms, the Celtics banners are almost shockingly, even arrogantly, rudimentary. This actually makes practical sense. Large as the banners are, their distance from fans means that fewer, simpler details make them easier to register.
The simplicity serves a further purpose. It underscores that the banners are declarative rather than exclamatory. Banners are necessarily silent. These are also quiet. The opposite of triumphalism, they’re a reproach to the bellowing of “We’re number one, we’re number one” and wagging of oversize foam index fingers. There’s no need to raise either voice or finger when you can make a simple, unarguable statement: “We are number one.”
The banners aren’t as far away here as at the Garden. Go up to the second floor and they’re almost just a stepladder away. Sit at one of the desks along the north, east, and west sides and you’re directly under the banners. You can’t reach out and touch them, but they feel almost that close.
Being nearer the banners you notice variations amid the uniformity. The second retired-numbers banner has a set of letters, too: “Loscy,” for Jim Loscutoff. Some of the banners are markedly darker: the first two retired-number ones (the first especially), the championship banners for ‘62 and ‘64 quite notably, but also ‘65, ‘66, ‘68, ‘76 (which looks kind of dingy, actually), and ’86. The two long sides of the ‘63 banner seem to be buckling a bit, ‘62 is smaller than the rest, both ‘60 and ‘08 are blank on one side.
Other than “Loscy,” you have to look closely to see these differences. The banners are meant to be about constancy: not just in design but also achievement. With that constancy also comes an implicit message of change — again, the interplay of familiarity and surprise — new players, coaches, seasons. This, too, is very much a civic message. Teams change, and so do the cities they represent.
There are stand-alone displays on the atrium’s ground floor with text and a photo about five of the championship seasons. (What, you thought a library wouldn’t be giving information along with spectacle?) The first championship team had just one Black player — though what a player, Bill Russell, the greatest team athlete in the history of American sports (not just 11 NBA titles but also two NCAA basketball championships and an Olympic gold medal in basketball). With the 2008 team, every player but one was Black. More important, so was the coach, Doc Rivers. That’s a vast change. Think how vastly Boston changed in those 41 years, too.
Banners lack the civic stature of the flag, but they’re like it in signifying unity and commonality (which is like unity, but somewhat different). Also like a flag, being made of fabric makes banners more appealing, more “natural.” Natural is a relative term. The banners were originally made of cotton. With the ‘74 championship, a switch was made to nylon. Because several banners needed replacement over the years, only five of those hanging are cotton.
Banners are also like the flag in being tangible. “Say it! No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams wrote in his epic poem, “Paterson.” These banners are thing-ness from above. Even if we never touch them, we know they are tactile. That tactility assumes even greater value in a digital age. Also, in this particular setting, there’s the pleasing sight of fabric against stone. Fabric is a product of civilization, as stone is of nature, and digitization of science.
The presence of the flag — more fabric, another simple design — reminds us of the civic aspect of this space. The ubiquity of the Stars and Stripes can be a problem, though. How often do the ideas its own red-white-and-blue thing-ness embodies register, let alone their meaning? That’s a case of familiarity robbed of surprise.
It’s very strange, this business of rooting for sports teams, the kind of loyalty it can engender. It’s very different from, and a far lesser thing than, being a citizen. But it is a kind of civic activity: something shared with so many of those around us, a form of identity, a source of pride. That’s why seeing these banners hanging in a public space — a quintessentially civic space — is so satisfying. It’s not just about a team, even a team as admirable as the Celtics.
Admirable is not a term used lightly, and it isn’t owing to all that winning. The Celtics were the first NBA team to draft a Black player, the first to have an all-Black starting five, the first to hire a Black coach (Russell). The irony is that being racially enlightened did so much to help the team’s success — whereas another Boston team had for many decades the opposite experience. The Red Sox, the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate, didn’t suffer the Curse of the Bambino. They suffered the Curse of Jackie Robinson. But that story is about an absence of pennants rather than an abundance of banners.
Being a fan, the saying goes, is like rooting for laundry — you know, fabrics. And this laundry on display at the BPL is even less meaningful than uniforms are, since no one wears a banner. It’s all for show, not for use. But that’s also to say they’re a symbol, a symbol of something larger, and the sight of these 20 pieces of fabric hanging in a space open to all — a space belonging to all — may look surprising but it feels familiar. It feels right.
And if you go to the BPL to take a look, hey, why not think about checking out a book?
Stan Grossfeld of the Globe staff contributed to this article.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.