The president of an NBA franchise long associated with being the whitest team in the league has abruptly stepped down just one week after making questionable comments on the topic of racism.
While the decision for Danny Ainge to retire from his lofty post with the Boston Celtics is not necessarily linked to his recent and inexplicable insistence that he never heard players talk about racism in Boston, the timing of his departure can’t be overlooked, even in the hours after the team ended a season that fell well short of expectations.
Ainge attributed his decision to retire to health issues.
The Celtics were routed in Game 5 Tuesday night to lose their first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, which is led by Kyrie Irving, who played two seasons for Boston and called out the city’s reputation for racism during a post-game press conference last week.
During that fateful interview, Irving said he hoped he and his teammates would not be exposed to the “racism” he said Boston was known for when they played against the Celtics in TD Garden.
“Hopefully we can just keep it strictly basketball,” Irving said on May 26. “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.”
“I never heard any of that, from any player that I’ve ever played with in my 26 years in Boston,” Ainge said, suggesting he doubted Irving’s truth. “I never heard that before from Kyrie, and I talked to him quite a bit. So, I don’t know.”
Making matters worse for Ainge was the well-documented instances of Black Celtics players recounting being victims of racism in Boston. That includes people from Celtics legend Bill Russell — who said he was called a “baboon,” a “coon” and the N-word when he played at home games between 1956 and 1969 — to current star player Marcus Smart — who wrote in the Player’s Tribune in 2017 about the racist fan who was walking with a little boy when she unknowingly called him the N-word after a game while wearing a Celtics jersey.
In a related situation, then-Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes that he was called the N-word by a fan in 2019 but didn’t name the city. Haynes later reported that the incident happened in Boston. The fan was banned for that season and the next one, which means that as of next season, that same fan will be welcomed back unconditionally into the same arena in which he reportedly called a Black NBA player the N-word.
It was in that context that Irving and the Nets lost Game 3 in Boston, where there was none of the aforementioned racism on display, much to Celtics fans’ delight. But after Irving scored 39 points in a Nets victory in Game 4 Friday night, a Celtics fan was seen on video throwing a water bottle at Irving that narrowly missed his head. Irving chalked that up to “underlying racism” in Boston.
The Nets won Game 5 in Brooklyn on Tuesday night.
By the next morning, Ainge had abruptly ended his decades-long run with the Celtics.
One of the NBA’s flagship franchises, the Boston Celtics have long had a reputation for favoring white players in a league that is more than 74% Black. But a closer look at history shows that the Celtics don’t deserve that bad rap and have always been on the cutting edge when it comes to race in the NBA, including selecting the first Black player drafted, having the first all-Black starting five and the league’s first Black head coach, among other racial milestones that are nothing to sneeze at.
With that said, Irving’s comments may have revived the racist image that Boston the city has been desperately trying to shed. And as the Celtics come off a disappointing season and will likely look to rebuild and reload the team, Ainge’s presence could deter free agents being courted by the franchise from signing with them. And when you consider that the scenario has unfolded as the country is in the middle of a widespread racial reckoning, none of the above is a good look.
Ainge has long been seen as the strategic mastermind who ensured the Celtics would routinely be in contention for a championship through a series of behind-the-scene power moves. But the past two seasons have ended much earlier than Celtics tradition is comfortable with, a fact that also likely prompted Ainge to step down.
Even with all that baggage, including that of the racial variety, chances are pretty that Ainge won’t remain away from the NBA for too long, as another team is sure to snatch up his talents sooner or later.