Celtics often at epicenter of sports, racial issues in Boston – Boston Herald

Tristan Thompson was trying to be polite, all things considered.

In the unhealed wound that is Boston’s historically toxic mix of race and sports, truth escapes from even the most well-intentioned smile, like the one worn by Thompson a day after his good friend and former Cleveland teammate, Kyrie Irving, lit the River Charles on fire.

“The whole world knows it,” the Nets star had summed up about the city’s tarnished reputation, and expressed an impossible hope the crowd would leave him alone — leave the subtle racism at home, please. He had once told these same former adorers he wanted No. 11 hung from the rafters, before changing his mind.

Irving was about to play his first game in front of a TD Garden crowd — the first near-capacity gathering of the season — since joining the Nets. They booed and screamed the usual crude chants in his absence during Nets visits, and that was nothing compared to what they had stored up for his return.

So Thompson got caught in the middle. Where and when does passion for one’s team cross the line into racist hate?

“I mean, I think that’s what makes Boston fans special, not the racism part, but the part that they’re very into the game and they want to be the sixth man on the court with how they can get under our skin and taunt us and try to do that,” Thompson said.

“I’ve definitely heard guys say some crazy stuff, but I think that they’re just trying to do that to try getting into the player’s head and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. At the end of the day, my experience, personally, being a Celtic, nobody has said anything racial to me as a player. As a visitor, it’s a different story. But if they choose to use those kind of words to get a player’s attention, that comes from their home training and the lack of home training, as my mom would say.”

Marcus Smart had recounted two local brushes with racism — one involving a police officer during a traffic stop, the other about getting called a racist slur by a white mother he was attempting to aid — in a 2020 piece for The Players Tribune. When asked a day after Irving’s comments about what he has heard personally from the Garden crowd, the longest-tenured Celtic reluctantly shook his head and said he’s heard things directed at opposing players that had crossed the line.

“It’s kind of sad and sickening,” he said. “Even though it’s an opposing team we’ve had guys on your home team that you’re saying these racial slurs and you expect us to go out here and play for you.”

Smart loves Boston enough to stay, as evidenced by the four-year, $77 million max extension he signed last summer. But he’s troubled, like many other Black athletes who have come to Boston, by the city’s poisoned undercurrent.

The crowd was predictably brutal. They unloaded on Irving throughout Game 3, the Celtics’ only win of the first round series, and after he recovered from a subdued performance to score 25 in Game 4, he stomped on the leprechaun logo. Walking off, he got hit by a water bottle thrown by a 21-year-old from Braintree who clearly didn’t have that all-important home training.

Debate Irving’s motives all you want. Jaylen Brown certainly did while, just before Game  3, addressing the media in a Zoom conference, no questions allowed.

Brown took the issue beyond sports.

“I do think racism is bigger than basketball, and I do think racism is bigger than Game 3 of the playoffs,” he said. “I want to urge the media to paint that narrative as well. Because when it’s painted in that manner it’s insensitive to people who have to deal with it on a daily basis.”

Brown talked about education, the state’s lopsided proportion of Black incarceration, wealth disparity, and the lack of affordable housing and health care for people of color. To frame this as a fan issue was to completely miss the point.

“I think painting every Celtics fan as a racist would be unfair. However, Boston, we’ve got a lot of work to do, no question,” he said. “There’s a lack of resources there, lack of opportunity.”

Brown’s star is on the rise and, like his concerns and passions, encompasses something greater than basketball. He is, in the estimation of someone who became a symbol of Boston’s racial strife 45 years ago, already a civil rights leader, and someone whose influence will only spread as basketball returned to the Garden with the Celtics’ Oct. 22 home opener against Toronto.

“Jaylen is already a great civil rights leader,” said Theodore Landsmark. “He is part of the future of social justice leadership in America. Well beyond the world of sports. He is already demonstrating how having a voice and a platform can both raise issues and provide effective leadership to mobilize institutions to be transformative in racial justice.”

A fighter for equality

Landsmark grew up in Harlem but attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. He developed a love of hockey, became a goalie, and played on the club level at St. Paul’s and later at Yale.

The young attorney moved to Boston in 1973, and became a negotiator with local contractors in an attempt to secure more local jobs and contracts for the minority workforce in places like Roxbury and Dorchester.

He went to all the spots as a sports fan — Fenway Park, Boston Garden, Foxboro — and one day attended a Bruins game. A word he’ll only describe as a racial epithet was thrown at him by a fan, and he never went back, though he continued to tune in the Bruins at home.

But the experience didn’t turn Landsmark off altogether. He became a Celtics season ticket holder the year before Larry Bird came aboard — didn’t give them up until a year before Bird’s retirement — and notes that he has never heard racial abuse at a Celtics game.

But Landsmark was not surprised by his Bruins experience — not for the man who, in 1976 while hurrying to meet a contractor in Government Center, ran smack into the middle of an anti-busing demonstration.

In a moment immortalized by Boston Herald photographer Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning shot, Landsmark was attacked by a group of protesters led by Joseph Rakes, a flag-wielding teenager from South Boston. Two other youths had already knocked Landsmark to the ground — he was being helped to his feet when Rakes took aim and swung the pole within inches of Landsmark’s face — and ultimately Rakes and three others faced charges for assault.

Landsmark declined to press charges. Instead, his broken nose and face bandaged, he called a press conference two days later to point a finger at the woman he considered the real instigator behind the mob — Louise Day Hicks, Boston City Council president, former chairwoman of the Boston School Committee, and the head of a virulent anti-busing group called Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR).

Landmark’s image moved atop the growing list of photos and video from Boston’s busing crisis — scenes of crowds throwing rocks at buses carrying Black children into South Boston, motorcycle police escorts for the daily school bus caravans, the photograph of a police sniper and his spotter on the roof of Charlestown High School on the first day of school in 1976.

But instead of finding a friendlier place to live — he never expected to stay when he moved to Boston — Landsmark put down roots. He went on to work in the mayor’s office. In 1980, appointed by Gov. Michael Dukakis, he became the first African-American to sit on the MBTA’S board of directors. He moved on to academia, became president of the Boston Architectural College, and taught at MIT and Harvard. He’s currently a professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University, where Landsmark is also director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

“A lot of people have asked me why I didn’t leave, and the short answer is I recognized the career opportunities, and the opportunity to address some of the civil rights concerns I had prior to coming to Boston,” he said. “I had been to Selma (Alabama). I had been to Atlanta for Martin Luther King’s funeral.

“There were marchers out front (in Selma), and then there were a bunch of young people like me behind the scenes making sandwiches, making phone calls, fundraising, doing support for the marchers.”

One night Landsmark got lost in Selma.

“I spent part of the night hiding in the bushes because there were night riders riding around looking for so-called agitators to beat up and murder,” he said.

In contrast, though, Landsmark never felt uncomfortable going into Southie, where during busing the South Boston Marshals, a local version of those night riders, once patrolled the streets looking for outsiders.

“I was a Boston resident. I’m a stakeholder here,” he said. “Like many people who live here, I consider myself now to be a Bostonian who tries to contribute positively to the life of the city.”

And now, when he hears about a race-infused incident triggered in the midst of a white majority crowd at a Boston sporting event, Landsmark shrugs.

“The audiences are white at the symphony, the ballet, the art museums, many of the concerts,” he said. “But in those venues by and large racists haven’t felt as comfortable yelling racial epithets at people of color who are also part of the audience and also purchased tickets to those events.”

‘It’s a tough town’

Doc Rivers, a nostalgic creature of habit, cherishes his returns to Boston each summer, when the 76ers coach has fun winning money from his local friends on the golf course — nothing about how much they take off HIS hands — and brings his appetite to Abe & Louie’s and Scampo.

They make special arrangements for him at both places, and in the latter Rivers is barely through the door when the queen of Boston’s place in the fine dining universe, Lydia Shire, meets him at his table. She gives Rivers a bear hug, takes the menu out of his hands and says relax, “I’m making something special for you.”

Boston has a parade of sports heroes who can forever eat for free, but when one of them is Black, the experience requires a second thought. Red Auerbach set the bar high for the NBA, making Bill Russell its first Black head coach, and putting the first all-Black starting five on the floor on Dec. 26, 1964. But Russell was an increasingly reluctant Bostonian. He ran into obstacles with real estate agents trying to purchase a home in the suburbs — in one instance residents in a North Shore neighborhood started a petition to prevent the Celtics star from buying a home there. After eventually moving to Reading, he returned home one night to find that vandals had defecated in his bed and scrawled a racist slur on the wall.

He loved being a Celtic — loved most of his teammates — and only accepted having his jersey retired after Auerbach agreed to make the pre-game ceremony private, shutting out the public Russell disdained.

Boston’s reputation as an inhospitable place for Black athletes grew from there. Before Rivers accepted Danny Ainge’s offer to come aboard as Celtics coach in the summer of 2004, he got calls from friends in the league, all with the same question.

Are you sure?

“I won’t share who, but it was just that. It was funny,” he said. “It would start like, I think this is a great job to take, it’s the Boston Celtics, but you do have to understand it’s a tough town. There is a racial component. The biggest concern I’d say they had was that I wouldn’t be very successful in bringing players to play. I openly said my goal was to change that narrative, which Danny and I were very successful at doing.

“I hate hearsay stuff because none of it happened to me. But I trust everyone who said that it happened to them. Taking a job, for me, there were definitely calls that ‘You have to understand what you’re getting into.’

“I’m a historian, and so I was immensely aware of everything. But I didn’t hesitate wanting to coach the Boston Celtics because I was Black. I had no hesitation. I wanted to coach them because I was Black, and I wanted to coach them because they were the Boston Celtics. The history of the Celtics is so anti-race if you know what I mean. To Red, if winning was a color, that’s the color Red saw.”

Though Kevin Garnett was rumored for a long time to not want to come to Boston because of its racial track record — and specifically the travails of his idol, Russell — Rivers sees it differently.

“It wasn’t racial — nothing to do with race. KG’s take was, we’re not good enough,” he said. “I can’t talk for KG, but maybe back in his mind, ‘I’m not coming to a place unless they’re good enough to win. So I’m not going to go to Boston and deal with any of that other stuff.’ I can tell you I never heard him say that. But for him it was all about winning. Nothing to do with anything else.

“Obviously once we got Ray (Allen), Kevin wanted to come here. So I would go so far as to say it had nothing to do with race.”

Rivers certainly absorbed his share of grief from the Garden crowd, especially during the struggles that preceded Garnett’s arrival. But for Rivers, anyway, the taunts never turned racial.

“I heard Fire Danny, Fire Doc. I’ve often said about Boston, and this is a non-racial thing from a player perspective and a coaching perspective — they want you to do well,” said Rivers. “If you do well, you are one of them, and one of them does not mean race. Boston is one of those towns where either you’re from Boston or you’re not. If you’re not from Boston, then you have to earn it like you are now a made man. You become part of Boston.

“I’ve played and I’ve coached and I’ve been a lot of places. It doesn’t go a week without someone walking up to me from Boston and just saying thank you. Or thanks for what you did for our city. The pride of that city is unmatched.

“Now, the history is there as well.”

Differing experiences

Professional athletes, through their status and wealth, are often insulated from the daily travails and injustices faced by their fans — especially those of color. Cedric Maxwell was a Celtics rookie in 1977 — eight seasons not only after Russell’s last as a Celtic, but as a Bostonian — and admits he never experienced the racial abuse outlined by Irving and other visiting players.

“I was during that era,” he said of the busing crisis. “And I never heard one thing towards the Lakers, the 76ers, people who were our archrivals. Now, you suck, I hate you, da-da da-da. It was because they were on the opposing team.”

Irving’s stomp on the leprechaun triggered outrage from Celtics alumni, notably including Garnett and Glen “Big Baby” Davis. Irving’s comments, while reopening a worthy conversation, sounded self-serving.

“This is what I hate. I hate hearsay. Oh, somebody told me that this happened to them,” said Maxwell. “I’m not naive to think there aren’t some bad people in Boston. But playing here for eight years and broadcasting for 26 years, I can honestly say I’ve never heard anything racial in the Garden when the Celtics have played.

“You’d have to ask someone with the Bruins. But Kyrie played a card I don’t think should have been played. When people were chanting I didn’t like it when they said ‘Kyrie Sucks,’ and I definitely didn’t like it when they said ‘F-Kyrie’, because of the disrespect to the fans and the younger kids in the audience. But by chanting that, they weren’t chanting that because Kyrie was Black. They didn’t like Kyrie. When Gordon Hayward went back to Salt Lake City, were they on him because they were racist? Or they just didn’t like him?”

And yet the undercurrent remains. Dr. James Cash, a limited partner in Celtics ownership, knew the bitter taste of racism well before he ever moved to Cambridge to teach at Harvard in 1976. The 6-foot-6 center was the first African-American athlete to compete in the Southwest Conference while at Texas Christian in 1966, and required extra security while on the road with the team. He knew better than most how taunts from crowds could take a brutal, racist turn.

Racism still existed, in somewhat subtler form, in Massachusetts, with one inflamed exception. Cash’s move coincided with the busing crisis.

“Most venues for professional sports were very inhospitable during the 70s to 90s,” Cash wrote in an email. “When walking through Fenway Park, women would clutch their purses as I walked by, and ushers would always ask to see my tickets for the seats I had purchased (so my legs would fit!), while totally ignoring others around me.

“Having grown up in a totally segregated environment during the civil rights movement of the 60s none of the events surprised me. However since I believed racial hatred was confined to the South, it was an awakening about how pervasive racism was in the country. My personal experiences with both Boston and Cambridge police were no different from what I had experienced in Texas. Both my wife and I had ‘driving while Black’ experiences, when seen in cars and neighborhoods that were thought to be “unusual!”

But much like Landsmark, the Cashes chose to invest in their community.

“However, we also found large numbers of very diverse organizations and groups that caused us to feel very comfortable in those environments,” said Cash. “My wife became President of a local A Better Chance program, and served on the Board of Mt. Auburn Cemetery, among other things. The bottom line is you allocate all your time and emotional energy to those environments.”

The Celtics, like every other NBA organization, emerged from the 2020 Orlando bubble with a series of social initiatives designed to put issues like social inequality, voting rights and policing on the front burner of their local community. It’s only a start, and as Brown intoned last spring, Boston has a lot of work to do. But the so-called Celtics United initiative, with its six pillars of emphasis and a $25 million, 10-year commitment by the team, has Cash thinking forward where his adopted home is concerned.

“Similar to people, cities can have reputations that are not 100% accurate,” said Cash. “We have a reputation, primarily based on past events, that require people to come and experience Boston today, to change those perceptions. I doubt that many athletes know we have a Black female mayor, as I type these comments. While that doesn’t automatically change the lived experiences of many people in the city, it chips away at the traditional Reputation!”

‘Your reputation is earned’

But it never takes much for the old images to come flowing back — Dee Brown, face down on a Wellesley sidewalk before local police put away their guns in a case of mistaken Black man identity in 1990; Orioles center fielder Adam Jones reports hearing the “N-word” multiple times during a May 1, 2017, game in Fenway Park; a Garden fan is banned two years for directing the same slur at Golden State’s DeMarcus Cousins during a game in January 2019.

Irving, asked by the Herald after the game about Boston’s “checkered” racial history, said at the time, “I myself can only speak for playing here as an opponent, I’ve never heard anything like that.

“But I can only go off of hearing stories. When you hear something like that, especially people of color, I gravitate toward being on anyone’s side, as long as it’s the right side. And really it just matters is treating people with respect. That’s really what it comes down to.”

By last spring Irving had modified his view, or was more willing to share it.

“The reputation was earned,” Rivers said of Boston’s weight. “And it takes longer to change a reputation. It takes a thousand good acts to change one bad act. Danny and I started as proof that Black players will come and enjoy living here.

“When Kyrie stepped on Lucky there were a lot of players who took offense to that, including Black players — KG. There’s truth that the players who have been there and embraced it, and the players who keep coming back and enjoy living in Boston. But every time one person says something or does something, it reminds you of the past. You have to live with your reputation. That doesn’t mean you have to BE it. You have to live with who you are, but that doesn’t mean that’s who you are.

“Your reputation is earned but it’s not the way you have to live the rest of your life. It’s just the way it is. The city of Boston has had actions — the busing, Bill Russell. But it doesn’t make out who you are.”

The struggle continues

According to Landsmark, “a lot of efforts” were made to bring him and Joseph Rakes together over the years, though his flag-wielding assailant was never interested. But another of the four charged after the incident — Landsmark can’t recall who — visited him at City Hall one day and offered an apology. The man pulled out a picture of his young son and told the attorney that he wanted his own child to follow a better example. It wasn’t the first time someone had apologized. Two women who witnessed the incident also eventually approached Landsmark to express their regrets.

But Landsmark doesn’t believe racism has somehow dissipated. White flight in the 1970s, mainly triggered by busing, especially into enclaves on the South Shore — the so-called Irish Riviera — simply pulled the epicenter of these racial attitudes south.

“I had a number of Irish friends who would take me down to those communities. We would go, head out on the beaches, look at the historic houses, go to clam shacks and stuff like that, and it was quite clear to me that all of the roots that produced that football team in Duxbury were being planted then,” he said of the high school players’ disgraced tradition of chanting “Auschwitz” as a play call. “The white flight was not being dispersed to Wellesley, and it wasn’t going up to Hamilton. Everyone was moving down to that area of the South Shore where they could continue to lead a life separated from people of color.”

Landsmark’s historic image, like the story of Bill Russell, won’t fade against that backdrop. He and Stanley Forman were reunited during a 2020 Antiques Road Show production, and were brought together at the site of the 1976 attack. Roughly two blocks away is the statue of Bill Russell at City Hall Plaza.

A producer tapped Landsmark on the shoulder and wondered why it’s not his statue, as opposed to a sports legend’s, marking this tender spot in the city.

“I kind of feel a connection to Russell, but we’ve never met,” he says now. “He is a true hero in Boston.”

Celtics often at epicenter of sports, racial issues in Boston

Christin Hakim

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