"Two great whites, Bill Walton and Dave Cowens, jump center."
That's a photo caption from The Selling of the Green (HarperCollins, $20), a new book about the Boston Celtics and, to a lesser extent, professional basketball.
Few white players in this alleged exposè get off as easy as Walton and Cowens. According to the authors—New York Times sportswriters Harvey Araton and Filip Bondy—the NBA's white centers are "immobile goons and geeks." NBA expansion teams are "repositories for white stiffs." White coaches are "clipboard coaches" and "technocrats."
The book's subtitle, The Financial Rise and Moral Decline of the Boston Celtics, conveys its thesis. We learn that the Celtics' Red Auerbach isn't so smart after all, because he leaned on a scout's advice in drafting Larry Bird; that Celtics opponents were annoyed when Auerbach lit up his famous victory cigars; and that the visitors' locker room at Boston Garden resembles a drunk tank. For these reasons, we're told, the Celtics are "one of the most despised franchises in all of professional sports."
Unfortunately, to turn this layup of an indictment into a slam dunk, the authors have to make the case that there are too many slow-footed guys playing basketball these days. "Slow-footed," if you don't know, is the current euphemism for honky, as in "the slow-footed Bird." In the Araton-Bondy lexicon "flawed," "valueless," "fading," "untalented" and "undeserving" are modifiers used to characterize whites, while "street smart," "respected," "joyous," "articulate" and "sensitive" are modifiers used to characterize blacks.
Is this reverse racism? The slow-footed Bondy and the pale, bespectacled Araton recoil at the idea. We're not the racists, they protest. We're exposing the racists! "How do you explain the recent [racial] balance of the Celtics," one of them asked during a recent radio interview, "in a league that's 72 percent black?"
One explanation—the authors'—is that the Celtics have tried to broaden their appeal in racially divided Boston by maintaining a racially balanced team. (Araton and Bondy don't put it that politely, of course. They call it pandering to "the local yokels.") It this is true, the Celtics could as well be applauded as denounced.
Another explanation: The Celtics might have more whites than the league average because they don't take race into account. If that seems farfetched, just remember that Auerbach's Celtics were the first NBA franchise to draft a black player, the first to hire a black head coach and the first to start an all-black lineup. True, Boston had eight whites on its roster during the 1985-86 season—but that bunch of stiffs and tokens won the NBA title.
Remember, too, that Bird and Kevin McHale, both certain Hall of Famers, have been with the Celtics for more than a decade. Over that period they have given Boston a "floor" of 17% white players, based on a 12-man roster. One more white player would make the Celtics 25% white—the maximum allowed, if we take the league average as a quota. To Araton and Bondy, every additional white Celtic is a racial affront—even when the white in question was an All-Star like Danny Ainge or a supersub like Bill Walton or Scott Wedman.
And that's what poisons The Selling of the Green: the calumny that all white players below star level are "stealing" from more deserving blacks. It's Shoal Creek turned inside out: basketball as, an exclusive private club, no whites need apply.
Some will argue that such a turnabout is fair play. Blacks were barred from most pro sports until roughly 40 years ago, and front offices and coaching staffs still have not opened their doors wide to minorities. But justice is not served by quotas and racial entitlements, and certainly not by fostering demeaning stereotypes about whites.
Ironically, one of the few characters in The Selling of the Green to understand this is former Celtics forward Cedric Maxwell, who supplied Araton and Bondy with much of their anti-Boston ammunition. Recalling Bird's rookie season, Maxwell says, "I had some of the racist attitudes, like everyone else. I was thinking, Here comes this white punk kid—he can't play. Didn't take long to realize that he could."
Few are as honest about their prejudices as Maxwell. If the reverse racists get their way, basketball history will be rewritten and youngsters will wonder what there was to admire about the lumbering George Mikan, the earthbound Bob Pettit, the pale and pampered Bob Cousy, the bland Pete Maravich and the hillbilly Jerry West.
They weren't just great whites, guys. They were great basketball players.