The NBA playoffs are in full swing, which means my fiancée has been really annoyed with me most days, but also that we’re seeing the drama of sports ratcheted up several notches. Teams with anything from minor quibbles to fierce rivalries go into the crucible with each other for a series of heated games. Even in the least competitive series, one team has to suffer the agony of four defeats to the same team in the span of less than two weeks. Psychologically, the NBA playoffs can be grueling. There are interviews with players after every game, and within a couple days, the guys giving the soundbites must answer for their words standing face to face with their opponents. Already in this year’s playoffs, the reignited NBA fan experience has led to fans pulverizing the invisible wall between the court and the stands, from a Philadelphia 76ers fan pelting Washington Wizards star Russell Westbrook with popcorn, to a New York Knicks supporter hocking a loogy at Atlanta Hawks phenom Trae Young — in the same night.
The line between fan and athlete has never been more precarious thanks to a global pandemic that has forced the closest of loved ones to stand apart from one another. The uncomfortable intimacy between NBA fans and players now carries an extra layer of anxiety with the potential that a stranger might be spreading a potentially lethal disease to anyone around them. But even without the spectre of COVID-19 hanging over the NBA playoffs, a larger, older monster appears to be among the players’ greatest fears: racism.
Suffice to say that most NBA players are Black, by a significant majority. It’s been this way for quite some time, more or less since anybody cared about the NBA. Most people who attend NBA games, however, are white. This has only become truer with expansion and profitability, as the NBA game experience is now presented as a luxury experience to people in markets that couldn’t even field a team of NBA players from their state. Consider American sports fans’ high expectations for entertainment and achievement, and the full picture of intimacy becomes clear: There’s no easier place for a racist white person to attack a successful Black man than at an NBA game.
Of course, there are consequences for unruly fans. Both the aforementioned 76ers and Knicks fans have been indefinitely banned from their local basketball games. Many other fans have suffered similar fates for failing to keep their psychoses in check. But how could the NBA expect to keep its players safe when arena bans are only a reactionary measure?
The answer is, plainly, that the NBA cannot promise its players any such security. The culture of the NBA is such that players must take a backseat to the wishes of team owners, as the owners pay the bills and make the rules. NBA owners like making money, and the easiest way to make money is to make people feel like they’re the most important person in the building. And if that person feels like they’re not allowed to say whatever comes to their mind during a basketball game, that person is not going to continue spending their money on the local NBA team. Hell, the hockey arena and the baseball stadium and the football field are right down the street, or even in the same building on a different night.
At the heart of the issue is the culture of the NBA, which is inextricably tied up in American culture. While other professional sports leagues have struggled to appease the political leanings of its fans and players, the NBA’s progressive approach has earned it some merit with its more thoughtful fans — and inspired firestorms from conservatives. But what the NBA says publicly about its players and fans is not how it treats those players and fans. Last summer, when the Milwaukee Bucks walked out of their scheduled game to protest unending police brutality against innocent Black American citizens, the NBA supported their decision and revamped its presentation to support their players’ social justice focus. But when the players pushed their way to a negotiating table, things fell apart. Many players didn’t want to play. But the owners wanted them to. So, they played — most of them, anyway.
Tomorrow, the Brooklyn Nets will travel to Boston to play the Celtics in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series. The teams’ division rivalry has heated up in recent years, stemming from the Celtics’ swindling of the Nets in a trade that gave the Celtics the foundation of their talented young core. Fortunes have changed rapidly since the Celtics built that foundation — their star point guard, Kyrie Irving, left to sign a free agent contract with Brooklyn, and he was joined by megastars Kevin Durant and James Harden. The Nets are now a powerhouse of the Eastern Conference, and the Celtics are on the ropes. Bostonians are not in a great mood about it, I would say, if I had to give my perspective on the dynamic.
The smoke around Irving is thick, like billows from a forest fire. Boston fans have come to blame him for underperforming in his time there, and for breaking his word to return to the Celtics in free agency. But the reasons Irving left are not a mystery. He quibbled with his coach about the team’s direction; he suffered untimely injuries that kept him from performing in the playoffs; he struggled to keep the local press happy when times were tough. When Durant decided that he was going to Brooklyn, Irving’s choice became easy.
When he makes his return to Boston this Friday night, his lightning-rod status will loom large. Irving is a Black Muslim. He was born in Australia, became an elite youth basketball player, and went to Duke University for one year before the Cleveland Cavaliers selected him with the first pick in the 2011 draft. Last year, when NBA owners struck a deal to have the players return from their social justice-inspired hiatus, Irving stayed home. At least vocally, he is one of few NBA players who has placed his principles and life ahead of his career as an NBA player. His talent has long been transcendent, and his personality is eclectic — among his less popular ideas was a discussion about whether the earth might be flat. That rare combination of skills and demeanor can be a volatile in the sports media universe. Matched with his reputation among the Boston faithful, we can be sure the crowd will be loud when he takes the court Friday. We can only hope they will be courteous and respectful.
In the wake of two immediate incidents of unwanted NBA fan interaction, tensions could be high in Boston. Adding fuel to that flame is Boston’s history with Black athletes. Bill Russell, the most decorated championship player in NBA history, has told nightmarish tales of the treatment he received from his own fans in Boston, some going so far as to try attacking him in his home. Whether there has been a culture change or just a financial change in the NBA, players haven’t typically had to worry about that level of racial violence. But even in recent years, racial abuse toward NBA players has been well-documented. As Westbrook walked through a flurry of popcorn kernels last night, he may have been thinking about how two Utah Jazz fans attempted to sue their way back to their season ticket seats after earning a lifetime ban for hurling racial slurs at him. Earlier this year, Jeremy Lin recounted the times people in a crowd had shouted racial slurs at him for being Asian-American. Those are just two recent developments in a long history of strife between NBA fans and players. There’s rarely a flare-up between an NBA player and fan that doesn’t cross racial barriers. In fact, Irving’s own former Celtics teammate, Marcus Smart, wrote a long essay about the ongoing abuse he’s incurred as a basketball player, even from his own hometown fans.
Today, however, the Celtics’ general manager, Danny Ainge, said he was unfamiliar with any incidents of racism toward Celtics players in his Boston tenure. Ainge is well-respected by his peers as a former NBA player and champion, a former NBA coach, and a longtime executive with the Celtics. He’s one of the few real NBA lifers who still has a position of high power within an NBA franchise — many teams have moved toward experts in business, finance, technology, medicine, or any other number of tangentially related basketball disciplines. (If a billionaire is signing the checks, I’m sure you can figure out how your area of expertise applies to basketball.) Still, despite his status as a Basketball Guy, Ainge is a doofus. In 26 years with one of the NBA’s most beloved franchise, he has accomplished one NBA title, which some might go so far to say was a fluke. Since pulling the wool over the Brooklyn Nets’ eyes, he has squandered a massive advantage over his division rivals. While Ainge is popular with some people, it’s possible he’s just good at the little things.
So when Ainge — who traded for Kyrie Irving, who drafted Marcus Smart and re-signed him to a long-term contract, who built his only championship team with a legendary Black coach and a few Black players (Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce) who rank among the modern era’s greatest — says that he is unfamiliar with any incidents of racism happening to his players in a metro area where 72% of the population is white and 8% is Black, he is denying that racism exists.
Ainge’s personal background doesn’t change the result, but it is a factor. Ainge donates to Republican candidates. He was raised Mormon and played his college hoops for Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. If it’s surprising that Ainge is unfamiliar with racism when he sees it, maybe it shouldn’t be. But if Ainge is unfamiliar with racism when he sees it, maybe he should not be in charge of an NBA team. If he cannot see the problem with denying any history of racist events happening to his own player, he should not be in charge of an NBA team. If he cannot express the slightest hint of empathy for Kyrie Irving as a Black man returning to a hostile Boston Garden environment, he should not be in charge of an NBA team.
Given the respect he’s earned from his NBA peers and given his track record as a relatively successful NBA executive, it might be unfair to call Ainge stupid. So if he’s not stupid, maybe he’s just lying. Maybe Ainge has seen incidents of racism, but maybe he doesn’t think that’s a topic worth addressing. Is that better or worse? I don’t think it matters. Ainge’s racial myopy is a disqualifier for his continued Boston Celtics and NBA employment. For NBA owners, perhaps it’s an continued asset.