Boston Celtics fans can get to NBA players in Finals

My very first Cal college basketball game was hilarious. We played at Cleveland State in November of 2002 in front of a mostly empty arena. Due to the fact that no one was there, every word in the arena could be heard. Among them was a guy who sat right behind our bench and berated us the whole night. It wasn’t bad, though, because he was clever as hell. 

“What the hell is American studies and why are eight of you majoring in it?!”

We were dying laughing. Everything he said was true, insulting, and entertaining. We still won, and my teammate A.J. Diggs tied Jason Kidd’s school record for steals in the process. My takeaway was that fans can be amazing, berating or rude, and it wouldn’t affect us as athletes whatsoever. 

But later on in my career, especially once I became a pro, the talk got worse. I began to realize that at the highest level, people are less creative and more just assholes. Folks are quicker to just say “you suck!” than anything else. It’s never once affected my performance and I’m sure it’s not affected many others throughout history either. But Boston, and a few other cities, have gained reputations as places where fans run the show and the athletes are there as circus clowns.

Wednesday night, Warriors guard Klay Thompson acknowledged two things most athletes know about Boston fans. There is no limit to the depths they’ll go for an insult. And it doesn’t affect performance as much as folks think. “We’ve played in front of rude people before, dropping F-bombs with children in the crowd,” he said. “Real classy. Good job, Boston.”

This, of course, draws out the Boston faithful who are tired of being called racist and rude. They’re wrong, but it doesn’t stop people like Anna Horford, Al’s sister, from tweeting that “Passion is everywhere. Vulgarity is everywhere.” She’s wrong, too. 

Vulgarity is everywhere, sure. And F-bombs are better than N-bombs, I suppose. But player after player has gone on the record over the years saying that Boston fans are terrible at best and racist at worst. For a city that is about a quarter Black, it’s wild that I’ve had so many conversations with Black people and athletes about how racist and rude the city can be. 

And it’s wilder, then, that Chris Mannix would write this last year in Sports Illustrated after Kyrie Irving said Boston fans exhibited “subtle racism”:

“I’ll admit — this is personal for me. I understand Boston’s history. But I also believe racism, like many things, is generational. The prejudices of those from the 1950s can’t simply be transferred onto the millions living there now.”

This is Boston’s blind spot: They spend so much time defending that they don’t listen. White writers write about racism like they would even know what it actually is. People have an idea in their head of what an overtly cruel and racist city is, probably an imaginary one in the Deep South. (The South is far more “subtle” than you might think.) It’s the cities, the major ones, with loud, privileged people, where racism and dehumanization is felt more. 

Maybe Anna Horford should check in with Irving about Boston fans. Or maybe P.K. Subban. I’ll bet she doesn’t know that the then-Canadiens defender was the subject of a torrent of racist abuse from Boston fans after a game-winning goal in 2014. 

A sampling:

— That stupid n***** doesn’t belong in hockey #whitesonly


— PK Subban = F****** N*****

— F*** PK Subban. F****** n*****. Wish he got sold

— subban is the definition of a n*****

— Someone needs to smack PK subban across his big n***** lips. #scumbag

— SUBBAN IS A F****** PORCH M*****

— F*** that stupid m***** #subban

— F*** you subban you f****** lucky ass n*****!

— Once again, Subban stop being a n*****

Even Celtics point guard Marcus Smart has acknowledged that he’s not been oblivious to the hometown fans. 

“It’s kind of sad and sickening,” Smart said last year when the Celtics were playing the Nets in the playoffs. “Even though it’s an opposing team, we’ve had guys on your home team that you’re saying these racial slurs and you expect us to go out here and play for you. It’s tough.”

Boston isn’t the only place with racist or s—tty fans, but they sure are pleased with themselves. Earlier this week, a Bostonian was on my Facebook saying that the Celtics have the most creative fans when it comes to taunting other teams. Do they? Is “F—K YOU DRAYMOND” that clever?

If you’re under 35, you’ve probably never heard of the 1996 Damon Wayans movie “Celtic Pride.” If you’re my age, though, you might remember Wayans playing Lewis Scott, a fictional Utah Jazz shooting guard kidnapped by two Celtics fans (Dan Aykroyd and Daniel Stern) during the NBA Finals. It’s a fun movie that paints Celtics fans as the most spirited in the league, but also with Judd Apatow and Colin Quinn writing, the best heckles they could come up with were “Jazz music sucks” and “I hear Manute Bol is banging your mom!” 

If it were accurate, those fans might have yelled the N-word at Wayans during the game. If it were accurate, fans holding children would be screaming F-bombs at the top of their lungs and harassing players in ways that would seem inhumane. In real life, Boston fans aren’t collectively clever enough to come up with insults that turn heads. They don’t know we all take American studies. They just say the most insulting thing they can think of.

But again, that inhumane behavior is a point of pride; the movie isn’t called “Celtic Shame.” In my experience, fans at that level take more pleasure in being upsetting than disrupting an opponent. There’s nothing a fan can say that would make me a worse basketball player. There are hundreds of things that could make me react as a man, though, and fans are never prepared for that reality. 

In “Celtic Pride,” the more they antagonize Damon Wayans’ character, the better he plays; that’s one reality the movie nails. So why up the ante with racist and hateful behavior, then? I think it’s because … they can. Where else can they openly get these things out? When else can someone just yell “F—K YOU” at a complete stranger with no consequences? Where else can one yell “NIGGER” out loud at a group of young successful Black men with no consequences? It’s not about basketball, but instead an act that weirdly satiates those who have been holding hate inside. Maybe something went wrong with their day, or maybe they always thought they were of the superior race. Regardless, basketball games are the acceptable way to let all of that out. Wins and losses be damned, they got to say their piece. They got to feel a sense of control and superiority over these people that they most certainly never could otherwise.

We athletes generally think the banter is pointless when it’s not clever. We laugh it off because we have to — we have a lot to lose. The fans know this and exploit it; the only thing that’s recently changed is athletes are beginning to let the fans know that we’ve gotten fed up, and they’ve gotten worse. Lazy. Hateful. Spiteful. Racist. And all of it is OK. Just take another look at the DVD cover of “Celtic Pride.” Dan Aykroyd and Daniel Stern have a hogtied Black man sitting in front of them as they celebrate their team. Well, it’s Boston. You get it.

We’re the ones under contract; athletes are the ones who stand to lose something. We’re the ones who make news if we interact with someone who yells “I f—ked your wife” in front of my child, or calls you a bitch repeatedly because he wanted a free Frosty. Fans have been protected for far too long, and Boston fans, for whatever reason, are the league leaders in subhuman disrespect.

Klay isn’t wrong at all. He’s as right as Kyrie was and Westbrook was and Bill Russell was. Boston has a great team full of guys who reject the excess nonsense, but it has a fan base with plenty of people who reject humanity.

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