Kyrie Irving’s recent comments about racism in Boston have fans of the NBA’s Celtics extra resentful despite their adamant refusal to accept the reality that, yes, in case anyone thought otherwise, anti-Black racism is still very much a thing in that city.
Irving, who played in Boston for two unremarkable seasons, and his Brooklyn Nets teammates are set to play the Celtics on Friday night in Game 3 of their first-round playoffs series. The Nets easily routed the Celtics in the first two games.
After the second game Tuesday night, though, Irving — when asked — publicly expressed hope that his return to Boston isn’t tainted by fans being racist. And the response by Bostonians and local media has been very telling.
“Hopefully we can just keep it strictly basketball,” Irving said during the post-game press conference. “There’s no belligerence or racism going on, subtle racism, and people yelling [expletive] from the crowd. 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.”
Kyrie added about his claims of racism in Boston: “I’m not the only one who could attest to this . . . but it’s just, it is what it is. The whole world knows it.”
Where is the lie?
Surely anyone who objects is not suggesting that Boston doesn’t have a racist history, right?
First, a bit of context is necessary. Irving reneged on his promise to re-sign with the Celtics, bolting in 2019 to join the Brooklyn Nets, which has assembled a superteam of other perennial all-stars. Celtics fans claim that is the reason for their hatred of Irving. But, if that’s true, why the added resentment over his comments about potentially experiencing racism from in Boston? Why not just outright condemn racism instead? Unless…
But I digress.
From ancient to recent Boston sports history, racism has seemingly been omnipresent in Massachusetts’ capital city.
This writer was a victim of it many times over — especially racist road rage — during a 5-year stay in and around the city where Black people are largely second-class citizens restricted to blue-collar jobs — unless, of course, you’re part of Boston’s wide circle of Black professional athletes who earn outsized paychecks.
That type of financial security can provide for the kind of insulation that keeps people silent about — or oblivious to — the racism around them, with the latter referring to former Celtics player Kendrick Perkins, who went out of his way to try to undermine Irving’s legitimate concerns by making it about himself.
“I lived there for eight and a half years, and me personally, I never dealt with any type of racism while I was living in Boston,” Perkins said Tuesday following Irving’s comments. “That’s just me personally — I never dealt with it.”
Perkins added: “I also came back as an opponent of the Celtics … and still never experienced any racism. It’s always extra with him. I don’t even know why we’re surprised with this comment.”
But like Perkins said, that’s just his personal experience, and one that has been the polar opposite for some professional athletes visiting Boston in the recent past as well as at least one prominent Celtics player decades ago.
It was only in 2017 when the Boston Red Sox had to issue a formal apology to Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones after racist fans called him the N-word and threw a bag of peanuts at him during Monday night’s game at Fenway Park. That episode, in part, led to the MLB franchise releasing an official statement less than a year ago confirming that “racism is real” at Fenway Park.
That racist hatred has certainly been at Celtics games, too.
Now-beloved Celtics legend Bill Russell even said he was called a “baboon,” a “coon” and the N-word when he played at home games between 1956 and 1969.
And who could forget the anecdote in a Player’s Tribune article penned by Celtics player Marcus Smart about the racist fan who unknowingly called him the N-word after a game while wearing a Celtics jersey alongside a little boy? That was during the 2016-2017 season, but Smart shared the story just last year, months after the purported racial reckoning the country was already underway.
The headline of that piece was, “This article is not about basketball.”
Even still, two years later, in 2019, then-Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes that he was called the N-word by a fan but didn’t name the city.
Haynes later reported that the incident happened in Boston:
“During that game, there was a fan that muttered the n-word at DeMarcus Cousins. And I was told DeMarcus informed one of the team security guys, and they got a hold of the security team at TD Garden, they took care of the fan. And I was told, ultimately, that that fan was banned for the rest of this season and next year. So, he received a two-year ban.”
To be sure, that means that as of next season, that same racist fan will be welcomed back unconditionally into the same arena in which he reportedly called a Black NBA player the N-word.
In sharp contrast, during that same 2019 season, the Utah Jazz banned a fan for life because NBA star Russell Westbrook claimed he was spoken to in “racial” terms that were “completely disrespectful.” Absent of those claims was the N-word, yet that fan will never again be able to enjoy watching another Jazz game in Utah’s home arena.
Speaking of Westbrook, he said he experienced “disrespect” from fans in Philadelphia just Wednesday night when they poured popcorn on him, underscoring Kyrie’s concerns about his own treatment in a city with an equally if not more rabid fanbase that is looking for any reason to grow angrier with him.
Racism in Boston has been seemingly minimized by the national and local media and even among some Black residents.
The Associated Press has downplayed racism in Boston by referring to it as a “perception.” NBC Sports labeled racism in Boston as a “narrative” that needs to “evolve.” And the Boston Globe wrote that Kyrie is “the latest athlete to paint Boston as a city with racism issues,” as if there is any uncertainty about its existence.
To be fair, Boston has an acting Black mayor, a Black police chief and Massachusetts is only one governor removed from its first Black chief executive of the commonwealth. The Celtics were the first NBA team with a Black coach. Heck, Crispus Attucks sacrificed his life as the Black man became the first person to die in the Boston Massacre. The city’s Black history is real.
But where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And Boston — and especially its sports scene — has all but become the towering inferno of racism while using the state’s traditionally liberal-leaning politics to shield itself from that truth.
Just like in much of the rest of the United States, anti-Black racism in Boston is deep and goes back many, many generations. It isn’t exclusive to sports, either, and is systemic no matter how progressive Boston — an extremely racially segregated city — is known to be. Otherwise, how else can it be explained that as of 2015, Boston’s “household median net worth was $247,500 for whites — and just $8 for Blacks,” as the Boston Globe reported?
Just like it would not be prudent to deny Boston’s undisputed contributions to Black history in America, it would be equally as hasty to de-emphasize the role that racism remains playing in Boston.
The proof is in the proverbial pudding, as 8 in 10 Bostonians agreed that racism in the city is a serious problem, according to the results from a local survey released last month. Nearly half of all Black voters in Boston said they have been on the receiving end of racism in the past year.
Kyrie has always been outspoken, for better or for worse. After all, who can forget when he questioned whether the earth was flat?
But make no mistake: This time around, you can call Kyrie’s comments about racism in Boston gamesmanship. You can even call them inflammatory. But just don’t call them wrong.