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Kyrie Irving says keep criticism of him to basketball in Game 3

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Any deeper jab at Boston that you feel from his comments on Tuesday are worth reflecting on, because Kyrie isn’t alone if that’s what he meant.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

“Hopefully we can just keep it strictly basketball. There’s no belligerence or any racism going on, or subtle racism. People yelling s**t from the crowd.” - Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving’s comments following Game 2 of Nets-Celtics on Tuesday were met with immediate scorn and cynicism. Is he shielding himself from boos by boxing in Celtics fans? Is he deflecting feelings about his decision to depart Boston?

By Friday morning the conversation grew beyond Irving. Jayson Tatum agreed with the most basic reading of Irving’s sentiment — don’t be racist at the basketball game. Blake Griffin acknowledged hearing bad things about Boston, though never experiencing them. Marcus Smart revealed he’s heard racism directed at opponents in TD Garden. Kevin Durant stood by Irving at the initial press conference, affirming that “the whole world knows.”

Before you say it: nobody is taking away anyone’s right to boo Irving at the TD Garden. His exit can be viewed separately from his assertion. Irving never asserted that the city itself is uniquely racist. That notion emerges in moments like these because of a history that Boston never fully reckoned with and still struggles with today. As some questioned Irving’s intentions, others denied reality.

It’s worth acknowledging the damage an earned perception does to Boston and its team’s allure around the league. The city should be most important, as we try to build a vibrant community. From a sports perspective, if Black players still believe Boston is not a welcoming place for Black people, that complicates the Celtics’ ability to attract stars and retrain them. Irving’s words should raise reflection rather than defiance, because the perception existed before his accusation, so he’s not the only one who feels this way.

“Imagine how people view this city, imagine the hill we have to climb in order to deal with people’s perception of Boston, imagine how much work Boston has to do. Real work,” Dart Adams, a lifelong Bostonian who writes about and advocates for emphasizing Black voices in Boston, told me. “To try to deny anything Kyrie says, it’s going against what needs to be done. Stop crying about he’s going to put a black eye on Boston, it’s been there.”

Adams notes that historically and currently, Black Boston exists and bears the brunt of racism accusations from outside the city. He argues that Boston’s past and present Black figures have been erased internally and externally, as the city’s branding reflects an older, whiter version of a northeastern hub that is majority-minority in 2021. Figures like Malcolm X and W.E.B Du Bois started in Boston before moving on, and Dart sees today’s Black Bostonian activists, entertainers, and leaders not receiving their due as faces of the city.

Irving’s comments frustratingly play into the notion that Boston hasn’t changed and that successful Black Bostonians don’t exist. Drederick Irving, his father and a former Boston University star, is among them. The star Nets guard knows what Boston is from two years living in the city, and still took heat for his request that reads simple, but carries deeper implications. Sometimes the truth hurts.

“[Hopefully] there’s no belligerence or any racism going on, subtle racism and people yelling (stuff) from the crowd,” Irving said Tuesday. “But even if it is, it’s part of the nature of the game and we’re just going to focus on what we can control.”

Belligerence speaks for itself, with no shortage in these NBA playoffs. A Philadelphia 76ers fan dumped popcorn on Russell Westbrook, Utah Jazz fans berated Memphis Grizzlies family members, and a Knicks fan was banned from Madison Square Garden for spitting on Trae Young. These actions reveal and reemphasize the dehumanization that afflicts athletes everywhere. Subtle racism goes beyond the obvious cases of N-words flying at players, which Demarcus Cousins faced in Boston in 2019. It also encompasses a disqualification from political discussion, a disproportionate microscope on every word uttered and action taken, along with a minimization of intellect. Irving’s faced all three.

The treatment Irving received for spreading sage in TD Garden earlier this season got uncomfortable too. That notably happened after Irving said he never faced racism in Boston amid the Cousins situation. That can change, and Irving’s own comments then never spoke to a greater experience for others.

That made Danny Ainge’s Wednesday response puzzling, saying he never witnessed racism in and around the Garden in 26 years during his radio hit on 98.5 The Sports Hub. That may be true. This issue isn’t about everybody’s personal feelings or experiences though, it’s about collectively acknowledging a systemic problem that exists and is made harder to solve through denial and deflection. Smart, hours later, affirmed that he’s heard racism from the crowd directed at opponents.

“It’s kind of sad and sickening because even though it’s an opposing team,” he said. “We have guys on your home team that you’re saying these racial slurs and you’re expecting us to go out there and play for you.”

Marc Spears highlighted the history of racism in Boston sports better than I can. Bill Russell despised Boston in his playing days, as he faced unforgivable circumstances that no statue or jersey retirement can repair. The least we can lend the athletes walking in his footsteps is an ear. Then Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones raised racism concerns in 2017 at Fenway Park and received doubts, around the same time Smart left a Celtics game and got called the N-word by a Celtics fan while crossing the street. The Celtics organization owes it’s players, staff, and fans acknowledgement of these situations—it’s the only way to begin healing.

This conversation makes no accusations toward all Bostonians. Rather, it calls on everyone to realize that a reputation was earned and given to us, even if we claim no involvement individually. That doesn’t absolve the responsibility to keep working and progressing, even if we can highlight relative growth in comparison to a past reprehensible reality. Black people had and continue to have much taken from them by racism, far more than whatever Irving took from a sports crowd on a Friday night.

“It’s just a certain way that fans should act,” Tatum said Thursday. “Still enjoying a game and cheering for every respective team. I think that’s what I feel like (Irving) was alluding to. Obviously they’re going to be chants against him, but I guess he was just talking about keeping it on basketball, which I think most people should understand.”