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.
Jack Arent / NBAE/Getty Images
David Aldridge of NBA TV interviews Eddie House of the Boston Celtics after the Celtics 97-91 victory over the Lakers in Game 4.
"I hated the Celtics," said Boston's guard Eddie House, who grew up a Lakers fan. "Everyone hated the Celtics. You liked the Lakers back in the day."
Ah, the Lakers. Magic, Worthy, Kareem, Coop. Showtime. Compared with…Bird and Kevin McHale, a gangly, but effective, power forward? Don't get it twisted; even the biggest Boston hater gave Bird his props; he did lead Boston to three titles. But he was so…white. (To his credit, Bird, who could have traded on his race for all his days, never made much of the fact that he was a white guy with game. He just didn't care.)
Perkins, who's been in Boston five seasons, says that there have always been black Celtics fans in Boston, but that he's never seen so many black people around the country rooting for his team. "It's crazy, man," he said. "I do see more (black fans) than last year. In Boston, they're die-hard Celtics fans; they've been there. But around the country, I haven't seen too many people in the past few years just bleeding Celtic green. But now they are."
This view is not universally held.
"Hell, no," hoops fanatic Shelton Jackson Lee said last week, from courtside at the Lakers' Staples Center, when asked if he was rooting for Boston. Lee, known to others as Spike, has quite the history with the green, having directed a couple of movies in the '80s that set clear lines of demarcation for black folk.
In She's Gotta Have It, you either identified with Lee's character, Mars Blackmon, a poor Knicks fan and Celtics hater, or you were with Greer Childs, also black, but rich and a Celtics fan. Hardly a surprise that Greer didn't get to keep the beautiful Tracy Camilla Johns; at the end of his stay in the movie, he's heard to mutter, more to himself, "I'm gonna get me a white woman," so that settled that. (Okay, Mars didn't win her either, but he got all the good laugh lines in the flick.)
In Do The Right Thing, Lee's masterpiece, the white guy whose bike tire accidently messes up Buggin' Out's new white Nikes is confronted by Buggin's friends. He tries to point out he has just as much right to be in Bed-Stuy as anyone else: "I was born in Brooklyn!" he shouts. But he is in front of a brownstone, his brownstone, that none of Buggin's friends could afford in a month of Sundays.
And, he's wearing a Celtics jersey.
So, Spike could dap up Pierce before the second half of Game 3, but still root fiercely against him when the clock started.
"It's still that Celtics green," he said.
But then, Spike allowed, times may be changing. We may have a black president in November, and while Obama plays ball on primary days with his body man, former Duke player Reggie Love, he's broken that rapper-baller black man hegemony into a thousand pieces.
Rock the green, black people. It's cool. Mostly.
David Aldridge is a reporter for TNT Sports. He has previously worked at The Washington Post, ESPN and the Philadelphia Inquirer.