After the Celtics beat the Detroit Pistons in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, the phone rang. I presumed it was an old friend from my childhood in Mattapan, Mass., one of my boys who, back in the 1980s, would typically ride me if the C's lost a game and half-heartedly congratulate me on a win. It was not. It was my dad. In his proud Haitian accent he shouted: "Cellteek Shampeeon, Cellteek Shampeeon."
My father never calls me—so I briefly thought something was wrong before I realized that he called to wish us luck in the finals. "Us?" That seemed odd. I haven't lived in Boston, where I was born, for 16 years, and when I left for college, I believed my dad and I were the only black Celtics fans besides Bill Russell and Cedric Maxwell.
If you were a Celtics fan (Red Sox or Bruins, for that matter) and black in the 1980s, it was as if you were a race traitor. There weren't many people of color at the games (I hear not much has changed), and my boys in Mattapan didn't wear Danny Ainge jerseys on the court. Many of my black friends could not understand how any self-respecting black person cheered for the slower, half-court style of Larry Bird and the Celtics, while Earvin "Magic" Johnson and the Lakers' upbeat, showtime basketball aesthetically resembled pick up games in Roxbury and Mattapan. I was repeatedly clowned by my friends for always choosing the C's in Sega Genesis' short-lived "Lakers versus Celtics" video game. Neighborhood ball players laughed hysterically when I imitated McHale's signature pivot move.
Looking back on those days I was clearly "special." Growing up as a Haitian-American in Boston during the 1980s, as images of impoverished refugees flooded the airwaves, I managed to straddle both worlds—white and African-American—without too many scars. However, my father's phone call coupled with the sports announcer's reminder that it had been 21 years since the Celtics played in the NBA Finals brought back some of the alienation people of color faced in my hometown.
Sports were one of the many train tracks that divided Boston. There were black Bostonian sport patriots and black Bostonian redcoats. The latter confronted the legacy of Boston racial politics—racial strife and busing in the 1970s, unequal access to civil servant jobs and an absence of black representation in public leadership. Spike Lee's witty jab against Larry Bird and the Celtics in Do the Right Thing (1989), when a white Brooklyn native wearing a classic Bird T-shirt accidentally scuffs a black man's new Nike Air Jordan sneakers, spoke to many African-American perceptions of Boston as hyper-racist and white.
I did carry some of that historical baggage, but my reality as a Haitian-American complicated issues of race and identity politics. I remember defending the Celtics by arguing that the C's head coach, K.C. Jones, was black, and that "Red" Auerbach handed over a celebrated franchise to Bill Russell as a player/coach who earned two handfuls of championship rings. Yet, despite that history much of black Boston's ambivalence was amplified by a sordid history of race relations.
The historical memories of anti-black prejudices continue today in segregated Boston schools and neighborhoods where race and class inequities are evident. But, much has also changed. Deval Patrick is the first African-American governor of Massachusetts. Recently, many of Boston's financial and political leaders organized the Commonwealth Compact in order to attract people of color, immigrants and women to live and invest in Greater Boston. And the Celtics have a black starting five and a black coach endorsing South African philosophies of "collective success." The Lakers' roster mirrors the far-reaching effects of globalization, there are two European players, a Martiniquan and one African-born.
Black youth seem to no longer wear their sports loyalties on their sleeves, but rather succumb to fashion trends. Drive down Blue Hill Avenue and you will see young black and Latino teens sporting Celtics, Lakers, Bulls or Cavaliers paraphernalia. Although I would love to see more of these faces at the game—including my own—I believe that during this run for a championship there will be a more unified and diversified chorus of fans along Causeway Street screaming "BEAT LA." Why? Well, the C's are an impressive squad. Also, to borrow from Spike Lee's film again, the Celtics put some "brothers on the wall" or rather "the team." The personal stories of the Big Three (Garnett, Allen and Pierce) reflect many of the realities of black, Latino and, likely, white youth in metropolitan centers. They certainly echo the racial and urban histories of struggle for people of color in Boston.
The Celtics' winning ways produced the impossible—a call from my dad. Now, let's see if brothers will sport a Brian Scalabrine jersey on the court.
Millery Polyné is an assistant professor of American studies at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. He is writing a book on the cultural politics of race and space in Boston.