Here’s where the story begins, and where it should have ended:
A talented, high-scoring small forward comes to the Garden with his team to face the Celtics. He’s a potential free agent at season’s end. Celtics fans, savvy as they are, send some cheers in his direction, letting him know that this might be a situation to consider. It’s all in good fun and good conscience, never intended as an insult to anyone currently on a rather likable roster.
Was the recipient of the cheers the Jazz’s Gordon Hayward, Tuesday night? Well, yes, as you may have noticed then, or perhaps become aware of with the ridiculous ancillary maelstrom that has occurred since.
Save for two differences, it’s identical to the situation that occurred last March when Kevin Durant came to Boston with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Those two differences: The cheers for Durant recurred much more often and were much louder than for Hayward. And, Durant is African-American, while Hayward is white.
Which is why this story continues, and why, in the days after the Celtics’ victory over the Jazz, it got tangled up to the point that what should have been an interesting basketball column — should the Celtics pursue Hayward? — is now a media issue of escalating annoyance levels.
It started postgame Tuesday when Jae Crowder — the Celtics’ current starting small forward, and generally a good and admirable one — acknowledged to the media that he was ticked off at the fans’ greeting for Hayward.
“I heard the cheering before the game. I didn’t like that at all,” said Crowder. “I think that was a sign of disrespect to me from the fans. That sparked a little fire in me.”
His fire sparked, Crowder proceeded to do exactly what you should not in those potentially flammable situations: He took to Twitter. Crowder, a big fan of writing in all caps as it turns out, retweeted a suggestion that he could return to the Dallas Mavericks, the team he played for before being traded to Boston in December 2014. He responded to another agitator who suggested he should love Boston as is or leave it that “I HAVE NO PROBLEM LEAVING IT!”
The Celtics did their best to snuff out the fire the last couple of days. “If I can get the crowd to cheer the starting small forwards every game, Jae would play his best. I like that,” joked president of basketball operations Danny Ainge on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Toucher and Rich” program Thursday. “Whatever it takes to get him motivated to play, I’m OK with.”
Then he turned more serious: “I’m not worried about Jae Crowder at all. He’s a true pro. He loves being a Celtic. He’s grateful for being here. He loves his teammates. His teammates love him. And I don’t really put much into it because it’s Jae, and what he does day in and day out is much more than a tantrum on Twitter.”
In the days before 24/7 coverage and social media, Crowder’s heat-of-the-moment frustration probably never becomes a story. The controversy-fueled sports media culture nowadays does not leave room for a temporarily frustrated athlete to blow off steam anymore. It was almost inevitable that this would mushroom into a larger issue, and lo and behold, it mushroomed into one of the most transparent and irresponsible themes imaginable: Boston sports fans are racist.
Heaven knows that awful images of Boston’s hideous racial past are only a Google search away. We’ve felt the shame of the sins of our fathers, for the unconscionable acts Bill Russell had to deal with, for how late Tom Yawkey’s Red Sox were to integrate, for so much more. But attempting to apply that history as a stereotype of the here and now — something Crowder himself did not do, by the way — is a tactic of an opportunist with no moral compass.
It happened at the start of the Patriots season when a New York writer of great imagination and little ability tried to make a big deal of out Jacoby Brissett being the first black starting quarterback in Patriots history. And it’s happened again with the Hayward situation, on websites that would benefit from a reference here that is never going to come, to a couple of high-profile talking heads on ESPN programming.
Bomani Jones, a co-host of Dan Le Batard’s “Highly Questionable” program, said on the show: “Is there another arena in the whole country that would get this charged about Gordon Hayward maybe coming as a free agent? Clapping for Kevin Durant is one thing. But if you put Gordon Hayward on the same level as Kevin Durant, you might be the city that had the Kevin Love welcoming tour when he wasn’t even a free agent yet.”
Jones also indicated on Twitter that Indiana might be the only other fanbase as interested in Hayward as Boston. You tell me what that means.
Then there was Israel Gutierrez on “Around the Horn”: “It’s Boston. They’re famous for having Larry Bird on their team. Gordon Hayward looks more like Larry Bird than other players in the league. So maybe there’s that Boston connection there.”
There’s room for nuanced discussion about race in Boston. That does not appear to be the intent of anyone involved here, and that includes Rich Shertenlieb from the “Toucher and Rich” program, who called Jones racist during a back-and-forth on Twitter Thursday morning. That wasn’t necessary. But what Jones and Gutierrez did — playing a semantics game in which they imply this is a race issue without actually saying it — is a special kind of pathetic.
The Celtics have a very likable team, and they have a good team. Barring the unexpected retirement between now and June of LeBron James and at least three Golden State Warriors, they are not yet a championship-contending team.
Why did the Celtics fans cheer Hayward, or Love, or Durant? Very simple: Because they are or were star- or superstar-quality players whose names were popping up in rumors. They can advance that quest to win an 18th title. Heck. Hayward-to-the-Celtics has been a daydream around here since the day Brad Stevens, whom Hayward played for at Butler, was hired.
The Celtics play the 76ers Friday night at the Garden. Jae Crowder — a player who already fits here, one with toughness, smarts, and poise, a Boston fan’s favorite attributes — will get a huge hand. All will be well, and that’s where this story will end. Too bad it got dragged this far in the first place.
. . .
Chris Berman, to paraphrase one of his many familiar catchphrases, is back, back, back and gone at once.
The 61-year-old sportscaster will remain with ESPN in an emeritus role, having signed a new multiyear extension with the network he has been a significant part of since a month after its launch in 1979.
But it will be in a greatly reduced role. Per a network announcement Thursday, he will no longer be the host of ESPN’s NFL studio programming, which includes “Sunday NFL Countdown,” “Monday Night Countdown,” and “NFL Primetime” following Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5.
He also will no longer anchor the NFL Draft coverage or serve as the play-by-play voice of the network’s Home Run Derby broadcast during baseball season.
The reduced role for Berman, a six-time national sportscaster of the year, has been rumored for months.
His enthusiastic style — which included frequent nicknames for players and the inclusion of song lyrics in his commentary — was fresh and innovative in its early years.
He became one of the most recognizable and popular personalities during ESPN’s ascent from a small cable network to a media superpower.
Chad Finn can be reached at email@example.com.