Hating on the Celtics: You Know How We Do

Despite the franchise's groundbreaking racial history, hating the Boston Celtics used to be the birthright of black basketball fans everywhere. Now, like so much else, that is changing, too. Green is the new black.


Among the things that have, until now, been universal truths in professional basketball:

· Someone, every three years, will be compared to Michael Jordan. It will be a fallow comparison, and the poor fellow will soon be playing in Europe, if playing at all.

· The Miami Heat, year in and year out, will have the finest dance team in the league.

· Black people will hate the Boston Celtics.

It has been a contradictory relationship between African Americans and the Cs, as they are known throughout the league. Boston was the first team to draft a black man (Chuck Cooper, in 1950). It was the first team to give a black man its head coaching job (Bill Russell, in 1968). The Celtics, who have won more titles than any team in league history (16), often did so with three and four black players on the court at the same time—when that wasn't accepted practice among the league's more racist owners, and their legendary coach and general manager, the late Red Auerbach, famously allowed his black players to walk when they refused to play in an exhibition game in Kentucky in 1961 after being refused service at a local restaurant.

Yet the Celtics have been a pariah for most of black America that pays attention to the NBA, and that's much of black America. And now, the Celtics are again in the NBA Finals, with a chance to win their 17th championship tonight at home against the Lakers. Their home court, TD Banknorth Garden, will be filled to capacity. It will be loud. It will be intense.

And there will be a lot of black people wearing Celtic green.

Trust me, this is new. Having been to Boston a couple dozen times over the past two decades, one thing you never used to see at Celtics games was many black folk. But last week, I watched in amazement as the Jumbotron scoreboard above the floor showed picture after picture of black fans rooting alongside their white counterparts for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and the rest of the Celtics' stars.

I saw black women, lots of black women, cheering and laughing. I don't recall ever seeing a black woman at the Garden before that didn't have a mop or a ladle in her hand. I wish I were making that up.

I have no empirical evidence. It's anecdotal; like my friend Lanell, who lives in Atlanta, and who suddenly announced to me last week that she's rooting for Boston. But it's a real feeling. The old Boston Garden used to be filled with fans who had no problem calling Patrick Ewing an ape in front of black sportswriters. There surely are still many of that kind around. But it has felt much different this season.

Part of the reason seems obvious: All of Boston's top players this season are African American: Garnett, Pierce, Ray Allen, center Kendrick Perkins, guard Rajon Rondo. And even though Russell was the unquestioned leader of the Celtics as he amassed 11 championships in 13 seasons, the Celtics always had at least one star who seemed to win the hearts of Boston's white fans: guard Bob Cousy, forward John Havlicek and Tommy Heinsohn, center Dave Cowens and the legend, Larry Bird.