There are times in life when the best course of action involves keeping your big fat mouth shut. The wise man knows that if you have a big fat mouth, its default condition should be clamped shut. Then again, the wise man almost by definition does not have a big fat mouth. Generally it is the foolish man who has a big fat mouth, and therefore is prone to allowing words to issue from it. This is a mistake. Danny Ainge, president of basketball operations of the Boston Celtics, makes this mistake very often, and he did it again this week.
Kyrie Irving, one of Ainge’s former players, will be visiting Boston Friday night as a member of the higher-seeded Brooklyn Nets. After the Nets smushed the outgunned and undermanned Celtics to take a 2-0 series lead Tuesday, Irving told assembled media he hoped there’d be no “belligerence or any racism going on, subtle racism and people yelling shit from the crowd” when the series shifts to Boston. This will not be the first time Irving has returned to Boston as an opponent after a largely disappointing two-year stint with the Celtics, but Game 3 of this first-round series will be his first playoff visit as a Net. Celtics playoff crowds are famously, notoriously raucous, and Boston is, well, Boston.
Irving would not be the first or hundredth black athlete to have experienced Boston’s unhealthy racial dynamics. Celtics greats have not been spared: Bill Russell wrote in his autobiography about having his house vandalized and spray-painted with racist slurs; Deborah White told The Undefeated about burning crosses left in the yard of her husband, the late Jo Jo White, during his time in Boston; and the beloved Robert Parish, Ainge’s former teammate, considers Boston “a white town that appreciates its white players.” Of course it’s not all basketball, and not all so far in the past: Former Boston Red Sox player Kevin Youkilis said his black teammates were the targets of racism at Fenway Park. Irving hasn’t gone in on this before, at least publicly—when Marc J. Spears published his piece in The Undefeated last year, seeking to dispel Boston’s reputation as a particularly difficult place for black people to live and work, the best he could get out of Irving was an ambiguous platitude about Boston being “really a major city”—but it’s not hard to believe he’s had his own ugly experiences, both as a visiting superstar and as the figurehead of an underperforming home team.
Despite all this, there is one former Celtics player who insists he has never even heard of any player he’s ever worked with in his decades-long tenure with the team having to deal with racism. That would be Ainge, who appeared on Boston sports radio Thursday, speaking with no small amount of skepticism about Kyrie’s comments:
“Um, I don’t know. Listen. I think that we take those kind of things seriously. I never heard any of that, from any player that I’ve ever played with in my 26 years in Boston. I never heard that before from Kyrie, and I’ve talked with him quite a bit. So, I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter. You know, we’re just playing basketball. Guys can say what they want to say.
I think that our players, and players that have played here in the past, all have their own experiences to share. And, you know, it’s just one player. But quite honestly I’ve never heard any of it. I’m not saying the city of Boston, I’m saying the downtown, er, the TD Bank Garden, I think our fans are very respectful.”
It takes a certain type of personality to hear a black person express hope that they are not subjected to racism by a crowd of sports fans and reflexively leap to the defense of the sports fans. It also takes a certain kind of perspective to advance your own lack of insight into a problem as evidence that it must not be a big deal. At any rate, before opening his extraordinarily big fat mouth, Ainge should’ve at least checked with the players on his own team. Marcus Smart, the longest tenured active Celtic, was asked about Celtics fan behavior later in the same day:
“Yeah I’ve heard a couple of ’em. You know, it’s kind of sad and it’s sickening because, you know, even though it’s an opposing team, you have guys on your home team that you’re saying these racial slurs and you expect us to go out here and play for you. It’s tough.”
This is especially embarrassing for Ainge because just eight months ago Smart wrote extensively about this subject, including the story of the time he was called a racist slur by a Celtics fan wearing a Celtics jersey directly outside of The Garden following a Celtics game, in a first-person essay published by The Players’ Tribune. Seems like Ainge would’ve heard of at least one Celtics player experiencing racism from Boston fans if he had bothered to read a story his own player wrote for a national publication! How awkward.