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How the NBA playoffs' Nets versus Celtics game is dredging up Boston's racist past

Whether Kyrie Irving meant to agitate the fans or provoke discussion, there’s something to be said about Boston’s particular brand of racism.
Image: Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets looks on during a game.
Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets looks on during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 20, 2021.David Liam Kyle / NBAE via Getty Images

Boston Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge probably said far more than he intended Thursday when responding to remarks by Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving in advance of his team's playoff game against the Celtics. The powerhouse Nets are up 2-0 and Ainge might have been better off doing some listening instead of talking ahead of Friday's game.

This is the town that treated the great Bill Russell horribly during his career with the Celtics.

Irving’s comments implied that Boston fans, in their boos and jeers at players, are known to spew racism. “Hopefully we can just keep it strictly basketball,” he said. “There’s no belligerence or racism going on, subtle racism, and people yelling s--- from the crowd.”

Ainge’s response was, “I never heard any of that, from any player that I’ve ever played with in my 26 years in Boston.”

That response made a lot of people wonder what exactly Ainge has chosen to hear, both as a player and an executive, over the last quarter century. After his remarks, Celtics guard Marcus Smart shared that he has heard racial slurs from the Boston faithful, saying, “I’ve heard a couple of things. It’s hard to hear that and then have them support us as players. It’s kind of sickening." Celtics coach Brad Stevens also gave a thoughtful response, validating and respecting Irving’s experience.

As for Irving, he’s proven himself to be a master at using news conferences he would clearly rather avoid to make certain people as uncomfortable as possible. Last week, he spoke about the importance of valuing Palestinian lives. This week, the fraught racial history in Boston sports.

There is certainly some personal history intertwined with the political here. Irving played in Boston for two years with high expectations and disappointing results, meaning he’s not exactly Mr. Popular in the city. He certainly seems to relish in tweaking this most tender and sensitive part of the white Boston sports fan's soul. Because if there is one way to get that demographic mottled with rage, it’s to bring up the city’s history of racism, and how that racism continues to be reflected in the world of sports today.

But whether Irving’s remarks are meant to agitate the fans or to provoke discussion (or both), there’s something to be said about Boston’s particular brand of racism, in a country full of cities with racist foundations and legacies.

Dorchester-born sports writer Howard Bryant probably said it best when he joined in the discussions that followed Irving’s remarks, tweeting that what differentiates Boston from the rest “is the deep history and acceptance of the idea the Boston = white. Nobody else has been allowed to speak. White Boston is encouraged to be the only Boston.”

This idea that “white Boston is encouraged to be the only Boston" has infamously cemented itself in sports culture. This is the town whose beloved Red Sox turned away Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. The Red Sox were the last Major League Baseball team to integrate, with the 1959 signing of Elijah "Pumpsie" Green.

This is the town that treated the great Bill Russell horribly during his career with the Celtics, when people broke into his home to vandalize and defecate. Russell once called Boston “a flea market of racism.” Throughout Russell’s remarkable run of 11 championships in 13 years, the team didn't average a sellout; not even close.

In 2004, MLB player Barry Bonds said, “Boston is too racist for me. I couldn’t play there. That’s been going on ever since my dad" — (Bobby Bonds) — "was playing baseball. I can’t play like that. That’s not for me, brother.” When the reporter suggested that the racial climate has changed in Boston, Bonds responded, “It ain’t changing. It ain’t changing nowhere.”

In recent years, there have been some shifts. One of the most outspoken NBA players against systemic racism has been Celtics All-Star Jaylen Brown, and he doesn’t seem to have suffered for it locally. Red Sox owner John Henry had the name of famed Yawkey Way changed due to the former Red Sox owner’s history of keeping the team strictly all white. So yes, there is a reckoning going on, even if it has met its fair share of resistance among the faithful.

It is highly possible that Irving is playing a psychological cat-and-mouse game with a city with which disdain appears to be mutual. Irving no doubt knows he has the luxury of this pleasure because his team is stacked and up 2-0 against the ailing Celtics.

While Boston is without Brown due to a wrist injury, Irving rolls into town as a finals favorite, alongside two future Hall-of-Famers in Kevin Durant and James Harden. Irving smells the end of this series and is acting accordingly, and if he can start an uncomfortable political debate or two, all the better.