The Black Man/Celtics Dynamic

By Vincent Thomas

When a dude like Kevin Garnett gets traded to a Celtics squad that already features Paul Pierce and just recently snatched up Ray Allen…and these kats are coached by a good dude like Doc Rivers…well, that’s the kind of chain of events that will place a good deal of adult black males in a quandary. It’ll make you call your Pops, email your boys or ask your barber: “Yo, can we openly root for the Celtics now? I mean, KG is my guy and all, but it is the Celtics.”

I spent my childhood and teenage years despising the Cs with my Pops and every other black male in my life. Call it male bonding. But when the KG trade went down, I started hedging. This summer, right around the time of the trade, I called Pops to kick it about the trade and the unexpected new dilemma. I asked him if he were ready to proactively support Boston. Years of organizational ineptitude and tragedies had rendered Boston much more innocuous in his eyes, but after mulling over the KG Quandary he paused and said, “I’m saying I’ll pull for them now, but we’ll see what I’m saying the first time I see them dudes running up and down the court in that ugly green.”

To understand why such meaning could/should be attached to the new Celtics, you must understand — truly — why the Celtics were the recipients of such rancor from the black community to begin with. It’s not as black and white as rooting for a black team or white team. It is so much more complex and layered than simply saying, “Those Celtics were Bird and McHale’s team. This one is led by KG, Pauly and Ray; so we can pump with this squad.” That is an explanation both simple and simple-minded to the point of quasi-bigotry.

J.A. Adande wrote a piece for last month that broke down a perceived stereotype of the Celtics organization. It was full of insight and did well to remind folks that the Celtics organization was actually socially progressive and a vanguard for the modern black athlete, not some historic purveyor of Jim Crow sports; it even made the prescient point to ponder if Len Bias had not died, would this discussion even exist. He cited some pop culture instances where prominent blacks (Spike Lee and Chuck D) ished on the Celtics. He said those sentiments were, “rooted in ignorance.” Problem is, Adande is dead wrong on that front. At that time — the 80s and 90s — these sentiments were actually warranted from a sports fan and black man perspective, since it was never really about history.

The C’s post-1979 ‘hood-rep was the product of a perfect storm: black pride, league popularity, new media, an old city, the C’s racial make up, the team’s team prowess, and Celtic victims.

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We like to downplay how much commonality, fraternity and identity plays into what sports, teams and players we root for. Geography is only a portion of what matters. It is entirely acceptable for rural American folk to root extra hard for Brett Favre if they feel he typifies the ethos, image or ideology they personally subscribe to; or because he might look, talk and act like their son, brother, father or best friend. To admonish one for that is to basically ask them to not act like a human. There’s a flip side to this, though. When a sport becomes disproportionately populated with a certain race, that same human inclination can cause those fans that aren’t “identifying” with the players to lose interest.

Once Russ, Wilt, and Big O really hit the scene in the 60s, it began a slow transformation that was fully realized by the 70s when the NBA became known, perhaps for the first time, as a straight-up “black league.” It’s no wonder, then, that during this time, the league was a distant third behind MLB and the NFL, in terms of league popularity. In fact, it could easily be argued that during this period — especially during the 70s when ball players had coke nails and rocked full length minks — the NHL trumped the NBA in many cities. George Gervin — as nasty as that finger roll was — was not the homogenized, mega-watt star of a Michael Jordan. He was, you might say, a sho-nuff brotha. As we saw in the post-Jordan era, this kind of league can lose the general fan, since the general fan is a general American and a general American is Caucasian. This, however, didn’t matter to the ‘hood, where basketball and the NBA was always apart of the fabric and it became more pronounced as more black ball players reached stardom and dominance. The NBA was Our League.

Then an interesting thing happened. Bird, Magic and David Stern arrived and here comes the 80s and the NBA’s popularity boom. This happened as cable was coming in to its own and a new intensified coverage of the NBA came along with it. Although the Lakers and Showtime were crazy popular, the ‘hood sure had its issues. “Here ‘we’ are, dominating the league for a couple decades and the league was only making moderate noise. Now it’s the latest craze and who is getting all of the love? The Celtics, of course.” Blacks surmised that the Celtics were cast as the league, media and national Great White Hype collective. Firmly planted in the league’s Golden Age, the new Celtics worship was deafening, annoying and hate-inspiring.

By 1986, Bird had won three straight MVP awards, the Celtics had three titles, the media was anointing Larry Legend and his squad as deities and in a “black league” you wondered if the degree of the adulation had something to do with the team’s composition.

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You gotta admit, those Celtics squads — especially from the mid to late 80s — were downright NBA aberrations. It almost looked weird. You would be hard-pressed to find a Playoff squad that rotated in three white players for more than 15 minutes a night by that time. The Celtics, on the other hand, would feature five, sometimes six white players in a nine-man rotation. And they were so good as a team and so tough to beat that it irritated the folks in black neighborhoods. They had made the NBA “theirs” and here comes a team full of Birds, Mchales, Waltons, Ainges and Jerry Sichtings and Scott Wedmans. There was nothing The Chief or freckle-face DJ could do to put lipstick on that pig, no lily to gild right there. Some of the media coverage played into racial stereotypes. Boston was portrayed as smart, tough, and industrious. To let writers and announcers tell it, the Celtics used skill, resource, fortitude, guile and toughness to outwit and outplay the predominantly black squads that relied solely on athletic gifts. (Interestingly, though, this enterprising squad’s coach, KC Jones, a black man, never hoisted the Red Auerbach Trophy as coach of the year.) Some of these perceived slights or biases were just that — perceived…drummed-up umbrage. Still, it resulted in deep, pervasive, long-lasting backlash within the black community. (And from players, too. When Dennis Rodman, later cosigned by Isaiah Thomas, said that Larry Bird wouldn’t be lionized if he were black; that was not essentially a knock on Bird, it was indictment of the American media and public.)

And if folks are being honest, you can’t discount jealousy. The Celtics’ victims were always ‘hood-heroes. Boston stayed droppin’ hammers on Dr. J, Mo’ Malone and the Sixers; or young Zeke and the Pistons; or Bernard and the Knicks or whatever team that had large African American followings. Only the Lakers were consistently formidable. The hate increased when your squad traveled to Boston, hit the parquet floor almost destined for a loss and your boys were at the mercy of that rabid, intimidating Celtics crowd of the working class whites that gave Boston its edge and reputation. They don’t make crowds like that anymore. Everything is too sanitized, family-friendly and corporate. A genuine crowd of maniacal hoops fans is a rarity. And, back then, something about their appearance and the city’s reputation of tense race-relations led many black fans and viewers to believe that the city of Boston was rooting just a little bit harder for this team, the Great White Hype collective, as a last bastion.

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When all these elements converged you had a team that, in the span of about 10 years, developed a ‘hood-rep only rivaled by, perhaps, the Duke Blue Devils of the 90s. So, what is a black man to do when The Big Ticket, The Truth and Jesus Shuttlesworth were set to get after a championship with Doc Rivers at the helm? You can’t root against that squad, can you? But how can you root for the Celtics?

Well, the fact of the matter is, it was never really the Celtics to begin with and the circumstances that induced the hate back then are no longer so conspicuous. Times have changed. Although irony doesn’t even begin to describe the coincidence of Brian Scalabrine suiting up for the Cs, the squad looks like most of the league, so there isn’t even room for the media to anoint them as a Great White Hype and slurp them incessantly. The three stars are hardworking, class-act dudes that deserve a real shot at the ring. And real-talk: the Celtics have been so hapless, invisible, laughable and corny for the past 15 years that any mystique residue is long gone. The Celtics-hate was never really about the franchise to begin with, right?

Leading up to last Sunday’s Lakers-Celtics game, I was only moderately concerned about the early-season litmus test implications for both squads. I was consumed, however, with anticipation of how I was going to process this new Celtics team at odds with my Lakers. I wondered what degree of nausea and disdain I’d emote. Turns out that I met pretty much everything with basic ambivalence. None of the classic feelings/thoughts associated with hate were present as I watched the Cs debo L.A. to a 110-91 vic. I was even applauding them…a bit. It was a watershed moment.

So consider this an invite to all brothas holding out on Celtics fandom. It’s aight, now. The Celtics and us — we’re good.

Vincent Thomas is a columnist for SLAMonline and a frequent contributor to SLAM magazine.