Kyrie Irving’s Return to Boston Reignites Racism Issue

The Nets’ guard spoke about hearing racist comments from fans at Boston home games.
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BOSTON — Kyrie Irving is back in town on Friday. He will bring Kevin Durant, James Harden … and a decades-long debate about racism in a city with a nasty history of it with him.

In case you missed it (and at this point, how could you?), Irving, the ex-Celtic, made waves Tuesday when he suggested he had experienced racism in Boston. Irving declined to cite specifics, rather imploring fans at TD Garden to keep it “strictly basketball, there’s no belligerence or any racism going on, subtle racism and people yelling s--- from the crowd.”

O.K. …

This is not—I repeat, this is not—a column debating or defending the history of racism in Boston. I grew up in Boston. I know—it’s bad. Bill Russell, the greatest Celtics player of all time, was on the receiving end of some abhorrent racism in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1990, Dee Brown was detained by police at gunpoint for (supposedly) resembling a robbery suspect. As recently as 2016, Marcus Smart recounted being called the n-word while driving home from a game.

On Thursday, Smart was asked about his experience with racism in Boston.

“Yeah, I’ve heard a couple of [racist remarks],” Smart said. “It’s kind of sad and sickening. 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. It’s tough.”

Arguing Boston’s status as a racist city is pointless. Advocates on either side are too entrenched. Evidence is always anecdotal. Kendrick Perkins, a Celtics center for 7 ½ seasons, says he didn’t experience racism in Boston. “I never dealt with it,” Perkins said on NBC Sports Boston. “I also came back as an opponent of the Celtics. I played there with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Cleveland Cavaliers and still never experienced any racism.” Others will point to P.K. Subban, the Montreal Canadiens player who highlighted racist tweets from Bruins fans, or Adam Jones, the Baltimore Oriole outfielder who accused Red Sox fans of hurling racial slurs in his direction.

If you believe Boston is racist, no one can change that opinion.

If you believe it isn’t, well, ditto.

Irving may have experienced racism in Boston. It’s worth noting, however, that when he was asked, point-blank, about it he said it never happened. In March 2019 the city was reeling from accusations from DeMarcus Cousins that a fan used racist language toward him. Irving was asked about his experience in Boston. His response: “I myself can only speak for playing here as an opponent. I’ve never heard anything like that.”

I’ll admit—this is personal for me. I understand Boston's history. But I also believe racism, like many things, is generational. The prejudices of those from the 1950s can’t simply be transferred onto the millions living there now. And Irving, after dropping that bomb, declined to cite any examples, just adding “the whole world knows it.”

It was the kind of vague response that prompted Perkins to say that, with Irving, it was “always extra.”

Look: Irving absolutely could have experienced racism in Boston. Fans, as was highlighted this week, can be awful. In Philadelphia one dope poured popcorn on Russell Westbrook. In New York a Knicks T-shirt–wearing moron spit on Trae Young. The father of Grizzlies star Ja Morant recounted a fan in Utah telling him, “I'll put a nickel in your back and watch you dance, boy,” per ESPN.

Every city has its share of bottom-feeding fans.

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Make no mistake: Irving will face an angry mob this weekend. To Boston fans, Irving is a liar, a player who (unpromptedly) told them he was re-signing with the team in 2018 only to bolt for a division rival less than a year later. To them, Irving is the player who returned to a team that came within one game of the NBA Finals in ’18 and sabotaged it to the point it became second-round fodder in ’19. Who feuded with teammates, particularly the young ones. Who couldn’t make it work with Brad Stevens.

It won’t be an entirely rational response, but when is it? In 2010, LeBron James was mercilessly booed in his return to Cleveland after making the decision to move to Miami as a free agent. Durant, once a folk hero in Oklahoma City, was vilified upon his return in ’17. Fans don’t cheer for players—they root for the laundry. When you cast a jersey aside, they come for your head.

It will be years, decades maybe, before Boston can beat back its dark history with racism. It may never. In the meantime, Celtics fans will boo Irving every time he touches the ball on Friday. Not because he is Black. But because he is good, the Nets are better and when Irving is done battering the Celtics, the Nets will be among the favorites to win a championship. In Boston, they hate Irving—while privately wishing he were still around, doing it for them. 

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