No matter how you feel about former Boston Celtics point guard and current fan opponent No. 1 Kyrie Irving, his recent words picking at the unhealed scab of race relations in Boston sports are not based in imagined realities we can simply ignore.
The now-Brooklyn Net star had some choice words after his team crushed his former franchise on Brooklyn’s home court, words which bothered, rankled, rang false, or irritated — and for many, rang true. Those words almost casually planted a finger on the third rail of Boston sports, namely the history of racism in one of the nation’s supposedly most progressive cities.
“It’s not my first time being an opponent in Boston,” began Irving in response to being asked about what he expects from their being fans in the building for the first time since his departure to Brooklyn in 2019.
“I’m just looking forward to competing with my teammates,” he added.
“Hopefully, we just keep it strictly basketball — [and] there’s no belligerence or any 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’ve just got to focus on what we can control.”
Asked if it was something he’s experienced in Boston before, the Duke product deflected the question, saying “I’m not the only one that could attest to this.” A question he has evidently answered in the past — though as is the nature of reality, things could have since changed. https://twitter.com/ChristianArcand/status/1397568683401261059?s=20
And, despite the rich history of the Celtics organization combatting racism dating back well into the 1950s to the present, he isn’t wrong — but the choice of words perhaps caused some to doubt their sincerity. In fact, Irving’s words quickly drew a rebuke from fellow Celtics alumnus and current NBA commentator Kendrick Perkins while discussing the loss and postgame commentary on NBC Boston Sports. “I lived there for eight and a half years, and me personally, I never deal with any type of racism while I was living in Boston. That’s just me personally — I never dealt with it.” https://twitter.com/NBCSCeltics/status/1397391559792996352
“I also came back as an opponent of the Celtics,” he explained. “I played with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Cleveland Cavaliers and still never experienced any racism.” “It’s always extra,” noted Perkins with regard to Irving’s comments Tuesday night, but also alluding to his polarizing persona when interacting with the media. “It’s always extra with him.” https://twitter.com/usatodaysports/status/1397556881518907392?s=20
“I don’t even know I was surprised by this comment,” said the former Celtic center. “Just think about it.”
“In New York yesterday, I mean the other night, the fans were chanting “eff” Trae Young. That doesn’t mean that they’re racist — they’re just ruthless, and they’re just cheering on a team. Do we expect anything less than Kyrie to be extra about it?”
Perkins evidently did not buy what Irving insinuated based on his own life experiences as a Boston Celtic and in the NBA playing in Boston more generally. https://twitter.com/TheCelticsWire/status/1396465944730521601?s=20
“While I was playing, we haven’t heard of any incidents of racism going on in my generation where they had a problem with fans in the stands being racist towards any African American athlete that has come into the Garden,” he suggested. Unfortunately for us all, this is not representative of the truth — nor of many people’s experiences. A fan was indeed ejected from TD Garden as recently as in 2019 for allegedly using a racist slur against DeMarcus Cousins, and that’s far from the only incident in recent Boston sports history of race becoming an issue for athletes both on visiting and home teams. https://twitter.com/SInow/status/1111713888083435521?s=20
It isn’t just limited to basketball, either. In the NHL, a person of color scoring a game-winning goal has been enough to generate death threats on Twitter in 2014, and in MLB visiting outfielders have been taunted with racial epithets at Fenway Park just three years later. And the team’s longest-tenured Celtic Marcus Smart could tell you stories that would make your blood pressure spike of his own experiences in the city he fights for like few NBA players do. Even after experiencing such horrid acts. https://twitter.com/smart_MS3/status/1318175177620992002
The point of this article isn’t to suggest Irving wasn’t being inflammatory. He was, and his past history of confrontational media engagement has eroded much of his credibility on very real issues as a result of past such engagements on issues mattering far less. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take those words at face value, regardless of who they come from. He may indeed be using those words as a shield to deflect from the pressure he may perceive as unwanted negative attention. The same negative attention that ultimately changed his mind about returning to Boston in the first place. https://twitter.com/MarcJSpears/status/1233760193005019137?s=20
Both Irving and the issue of racism in Boston sports are not easily reductive, and while we may not enjoy how media engagement with both can often take shape, they are twin, entangled issues that need more care than they are given in their respective spheres. One is of course considerably greater in importance, but however you feel about the former Celtic, they are not inseparable either. https://twitter.com/CTabatabaie/status/1397580059284754438?s=20
As my co-host of the “Celtics Lab” podcast Cameron Tabatabaie tweeted on the emerging discourse of the Nets star’s comments, “being flagrantly racist is a much bigger breach of the social contract than giving a weird press conference or trying to duck boos” “Even if it doesn’t intrinsically feel that way from a gut check.” This post originally appeared on Celtics Wire. Follow us on Facebook! [lawrence-related id=51117,51105,51063,51004] [listicle id=51087]