Black History Month

From Russell to KG to today’s Celtics: Being a black player in Boston

Stories of African Americans playing in a city that has struggled with racism

BOSTON – Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart was expecting a simple drive home after a game during the 2016-17 season when he encountered a vocal Celtics fan he will never forget. The woman was with a little boy in the middle of the crosswalk outside of TD Garden when the light turned green for oncoming traffic. Smart honked his horn to warn her.

“I yell out the window,” Smart recalled. “ ‘Excuse me, ma’am, you better get out of the street before you and your son get hit. Cars are coming. I don’t want you to get hit.’

“As soon as I said that, she looked at me – as she is wearing a No. 4, green with the white outline Celtics jersey – and told me, ‘F— you, you f—ing n—–.’ People that actually heard her were stunned. They’re like, ‘That’s Marcus Smart. You just got done watching the game, ma’am … with an Isaiah Thomas jersey on.’ ”

Fairly or unfairly, Boston has long been viewed as the largest American city in which African Americans are not welcome. A haunting photo taken by Stanley Forman in 1976 captured the ugly tension in Boston as a white man lunges at a black man with the sharp point of a pole with the American flag during an anti-busing protest after public schools were ordered to desegregate. Four decades later, a national survey commissioned by The Boston Globe in 2017 reported that of eight major cities, black people ranked Boston as the least welcoming to people of color.

Theodore Landsmark, lawyer, architect and director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, poses for a photo in his office in Boston on March 27, 2018. Pictured in Landsmark’s office are a sketch of Martin Luther King Jr. (top left), a portrait of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (bottom left) and a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Stanley Forman, which shows Landsmark being assaulted in 1976 by a demonstrator carrying a flagpole bearing the American flag.

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

The perception of the city, which had a population that was 53% white and 25% black in the 2010 census, was not helped by recent events involving black athletes and Boston sports fans. In 2014, P.K. Subban, who played for the Montreal Canadiens at the time, received racist tweets after a game-winning goal against the Boston Bruins. In 2017, then-Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was berated by taunts of “N-word” at Fenway Park while a fan threw a bag of peanuts at him. In 2019, a Celtics fan called then-Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins a racial slur and was banned from TD Garden for two years.

Smart, who was drafted by the Celtics in 2014 and is the longest-tenured player on the team, wants to make it clear that he loves playing for Boston. He says he has experienced racism in other places across the country, not just Beantown. Other players who have worn Celtic green agree that it’s unfair to single out Boston. But the incident with the fan in the Isaiah Thomas jersey was eye-opening for Smart.

“They cheer for you and you hear that right after,” Smart said. “It was more of a disappointment than really being hurt. I was like, ‘Damn, that s— really happens.’ … I play for the city of Boston, but it still happens.”

When it comes to playing for Boston’s NBA franchise, however, it’s been a different story for African Americans. For decades, the Celtics have been one of the most progressive teams in sports. Often forgotten is that the Celtics broke many racial barriers in the NBA – and that has played a big part in their storied success, even today.

“The Celtics stand second to none in believing in, and embodying, respect for all and breaking racial barriers,” said current Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck. “The Celtics were the first NBA organization to break the barriers, and still to this day we seek to lead the world in tolerance, understanding, and respect.”

The Undefeated interviewed more than 30 current and former Celtics, as well as relatives of former players, about their experiences as African Americans playing in Boston. Players acknowledged that racism still exists in Boston, much like it does in other parts of the world, but their stories overall also showed how life has changed for black Celtics over the years.

“The narrative of Boston before you get there is that it is a racist town,” said Kevin Garnett, who led the Celtics to a championship in 2008 and the team recently announced will have his No. 5 Celtics jersey retired next season.

“But once you became a Celtic, it was a whole other protective,” Garnett added. “It was another shield. … It was a whole other flip.”

For many black Celtics, they found a home in Boston.

‘The Celtics kicked that racial barrier down’

From left to right: It’s a jubilant mob scene as happy fans carry Boston Celtic Tommy Heinsohn, coach Red Auerbach (with victory cigar), and Bill Russell around the basketball court at Boston Garden on April 27, 1964, after the Celtics won their sixth consecutive world championship.

Getty Images

The Boston Celtics have opened more racial doors than perhaps any professional franchise in American sports, including the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“If you ask an average black player, an average player right now, in the NBA, what team (drafted) the first black player, they’d be hard-pressed to say it was the Celtics,” said Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, a Celtics legend who is now a radio analyst for the team.

In 1950, Chuck Cooper became the first African American drafted by an NBA team when Celtics owner Walter Brown selected him with the 14th overall pick. Told that Cooper was “a Negro” and therefore ineligible to play in the NBA, Brown responded by saying that as long as Cooper had game, he didn’t care if he was “polka-dot.” Sixty-nine years later, the former Duquesne star was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The NBA’s first black star arrived in 1956 and also wore a Celtics uniform when Boston drafted Bill Russell second overall. Red Auerbach and the Celtics traded Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley, both white Hall of Famers, for the pick to get Russell.

“Everybody was laughing behind their hands because they thought that Auerbach had made a tremendous basketball mistake,” said Satch Sanders, a member of eight Celtics championship teams.

Russell went on to lead the Celtics to 11 NBA championships as arguably the greatest defender to ever play the game.

The Celtics made more groundbreaking NBA history by having the first all-black starting five. On Dec. 26, 1964, Russell, Sanders, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and Willie Naulls (who replaced an injured Tommy Heinsohn) started against the St. Louis Hawks. The Celtics won the game 97-84 and used the all-black lineup to start 12 games that season.

In 1966, the Celtics hired the first black head coach in NBA history when Russell replaced Auerbach. Russell was a player-coach for the Celtics from 1966-69, winning two titles and compiling a 162-83 record.

“The Celtics kicked that racial barrier down before a lot of other teams ever even thought about doing it,” Maxwell said.

The city of Boston, however, was less accepting of black players during that time.

‘Flea market of racism’

Bill Russell #6 of the Boston Celtics sits on the bench circa 1968 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.

Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Russell, who declined to be interviewed for this story, once called Boston a “flea market of racism” in his 1979 memoir Second Wind.

“It had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form,” Russell wrote. “The city had corrupt, city hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-’em-back-to-Africa racists, and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists. … Other than that, I liked the city.’’

Russell, a native of Oakland, California, arrived in Boston in 1956 after attending the University of San Francisco. While he was Boston’s first black star athlete, he was verbally abused by some Celtics fans and never felt welcome during his playing days. His home in the Boston suburb of Reading was vandalized while he was being celebrated at a country club in the same town. Karen K. Russell, Bill Russell’s daughter, penned a story for The New York Times in 1987 and said the house was in “shambles.”

The N-word was spray-painted on the walls, beer was poured on the pool table, trophies were smashed. The vandals defecated on parts of his home, too, including his bed. Russell was crushed by the incident, according to several of his former teammates.

“Things that Russell went through made him a very angry man,” Sanders said.

Retired Boston Celtics player Thomas “Satch” Sanders, the first black player drafted by the Celtics, sits in his home on April 24, 2017.

Keith Bedford for The Undefeated

On March 13, 1972, the Celtics had a private ceremony to retire Russell’s No. 6 jersey at Boston Garden. The jersey was raised to the rafters in front of players and friends about an hour before the doors opened for a game against the New York Knicks. When asked why the ceremony wasn’t open to the public, Russell told reporters: “You know I don’t go for that stuff.”

The real reason was that Russell believed he never got the respect and adulation he deserved for leading the Celtics to 11 titles because he was black.

“[Russell] said he thought that Boston was the most racist place he had been in,” Sanders said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Sanders said, it was even difficult getting cabs because he was black, not to mention renting an apartment where he wanted to live in the city.

Deborah White, the widow of late Celtics great Jo Jo White, recalled her husband telling stories of racism that Russell and Sam Jones had to deal with in Boston. She said that Jones spoke of having “inappropriate things,” including a burning cross, put in his front yard.

“Things were different, and they were difficult, and they were tough for them, and they were hard,” White said, “but they were the pioneers and paved the way for the Jo Jos and the Don Chaneys and the Paul Pierces and the Kevin Garnetts and Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum.”

‘I was 212.4 miles away from New York City’

A bartender serves patrons at Slade’s Bar and Grill, a restaurant formerly owned by retired Celtic Bill Russell, on April 24, 2017.

Keith Bedford for The Undefeated

There have not been many places, past or present, for blacks to hang out in Boston that are predominantly black. During his playing days, Sanders said that if people were looking to stay local and find a black community, there were restaurants in Dorchester and Roxbury, which are known as African American neighborhoods in Boston. But Sanders’ preferred solution was to head out of town.

“I was 212.4 miles away from New York City,” Sanders said. “There were times I finished practice at 12:00, jumped in my machine after learning how to drive and bought a car, and drive to New York. Come back the next morning.”

Since the 1930s, the most well-known, black-owned establishment in Boston with Celtics ties is Slade’s Bar and Grill in the Lower Roxbury neighborhood. Russell was an owner in the 1960s and the restaurant is currently owned by Terry Calloway and Darryl Settles, who are African American, along with former Celtics assistant executive director of basketball operations Leo Papile, who is white.

The soul food restaurant, which has been nicknamed “The Soul of Boston,” also serves as a nightclub, featuring R&B and hip-hop music. Clientele over the years has included Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Joe Louis and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Former Celtics and NBA players have enjoyed time in Slade’s over the years, as do some of the current Celtics.

But while Slade’s has succeeded in a black Boston neighborhood, Sanders recalled the racism he endured when he attempted to open the first black-owned establishment on Boston’s famed Newbury Street in the late 1970s.

“There weren’t any black businesses in downtown Boston,” Sanders said. “That was one of the issues. I wanted to make sure that there was one.”

Sanders said his momentum was halted in 1976, however, after anonymous fliers were sent around town stating his plans to open a restaurant.

“How they phrased it was, ‘ Tom Sanders from Roxbury was opening a restaurant on Newbury Street.’ They didn’t mention the fact that I was a head coach at Harvard University, played with the Boston Celtics,” Sanders said. “No, they said Tom Sanders but they didn’t say Tom ‘Satch’ Sanders. Anything that people would recognize. All they knew was that it was a black guy.”

Sanders ended up opening Satch’s Restaurant in Boston, just not on Newbury Street. There was a club called The Green Gang that watched Celtics games there. Sanders was founder, owner and chief operating officer of the restaurant, which was in business from 1979-84. It closed due to food costs.

“I had a band in the dining room, disco upstairs, and a jazz room on the side,” said Sanders, who is now 81. “Oh, man, it was heavenly.”

Shop owner Shellee Mendes sits in a chair in her Newbury Street salon, Salon Monet, on April 20, 2017.

Keith Bedford for The Undefeated

Fletcher Wiley and his wife, Benaree, have lived in Boston for more than five decades. They characterize Boston as a “white folks’ town.” They have witnessed the challenges the city has had around race. But they have also seen progress.

“I would say that when racial tensions were most visible was back in the early ’70s, where people were feared going into certain communities within the city, and you were very aware of the kind of underlying racial differences,” said Wiley, a well-known lawyer and civic leader. “That has changed dramatically for the better over our lifetime here.

“There are no longer those kinds of barriers and boundaries that separate one community from another in terms of being afraid to go from one part of the town to the other. And people being more friendly and working to try to make things better in the city.”

Some recent players have been surprised to find racial diversity in Boston, which has a lot of residents from Cape Verde, an archipelago of 10 islands off the coast of Senegal in West Africa. Former Celtics forward Al Horford also said he felt at home in Boston after he signed in 2016 due to its large Dominican population. “We thought it was a plus,” Horford said.

As for Newbury Street, black people eventually were able to make an imprint.

Patrick Petty opened a store called Culture Shock in the early ’90s that was known for its hip fashion. His clothes were worn by musicians, including Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, Naughty by Nature, Tony Toni Tone and New Kids on the Block, as well as athletes, including former Celtics star Dominique Wilkins and former New England Patriots star Lawyer Milloy.

Celtics season-ticket holder Shellee Mendes became the first African American woman to own a business on Newbury Street when she opened Salon Monet in 2002. She now has two hair salons on the street.

“I feel it’s magical being a black businesswoman on Newbury Street,” Mendes said. “It’s something that has never been done before and it is where I feel my talent belongs.”

But for many black NBA players, it would take more time to embrace Boston as a destination.

‘I seriously thought about leaving’

From left to right: Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Bill Walton of the Boston Celtics sit on the bench during a game played in 1986 at the Boston Garden in Massachusetts.

Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

In the 1980s, when All-Stars Larry Bird and Kevin McHale were the faces of the franchise, the Celtics were often the butt of jokes in African American circles. In Spike Lee’s 1989 movie Do The Right Thing, a white man wearing a Larry Bird T-shirt in Brooklyn, New York, was given a hard time from some black men. Comedian Robin Harris once joked about a debate taking place in a black barbershop about whether Bird was overrated. A man would say of Bird, “All he got is a jump shot,” to which Harris would point out, “That’s all he needs.”

Boston’s rival in Los Angeles, the Lakers, meanwhile, was led by a flashy black point guard named Magic Johnson and a Muslim center named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“People jumped on board that the Celtics were racist,” Heinsohn said. “Maybe because they had McHale and Bird. Right? Now who the hell wouldn’t take McHale and Bird? And Danny [Ainge].”

During the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, the team also had several black stars in Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell, Dennis Johnson and M.L. Carr. One of Boston’s coaches was also an African American, K.C. Jones. Still, it was sacrilegious for a black person outside of Boston and New England to love the Celtics in the 1980s. Maxwell said that any African American playing for the Celtics at that time was viewed as a sellout.

“Most of our team was black at that time,” said Maxwell, who was drafted by the Celtics with the 12th overall pick in 1977 out of the University of Charlotte and initially didn’t want to go to Boston because he wanted to be in a more diverse city. “But we all got stereotyped as being traitors to our race. And I don’t think anything was further from the truth, with a guy like myself, Robert Parish, M.L. [Carr], Dennis Johnson. We loved our blackness. We were proud of our blackness. But you played in a city that at that time, whatever it was, people thought it was racist.”

When Dee Brown joined the Celtics in 1990, he was ready to leave immediately after experiencing a racial incident. Brown and his then-fiancee, Jill Edmondson, were new homeowners in the area and were departing a post office in Wellesley when they were surrounded by cops.

“I was in a parking lot in my car with a pen in my hand signing bills and all I heard was, ‘Get your hands up,’ ” Brown said. “I looked out the window. I saw about eight cops with guns on me. It was scary because I heard a couple say, ‘Put the gun down,’ because they thought the pen was a gun. When I got out of the car they said, ‘Put the gun down.’ I said, ‘It’s not a gun. It’s a pen.’ They put me facedown to the [ground] and put guns to my head.”

Brown feared for his life until a passerby recognized him.

“Someone walked by and saw what was going on and said, ‘Hey, that guy just got drafted by the Celtics,’ ” Brown said. “If he didn’t say anything, I would have went to jail, handcuffed.”

Brown said the cops suspected he had robbed a nearby bank a week earlier after getting a call from an employee who saw him. He eventually saw a picture of the actual robber, who was of a much lighter skin tone.

“I seriously thought about leaving,” said Brown, who is currently general manager of the LA Clippers’ G League team. “I thought I was going to die that day. Really. I had been there for three months. It was tough.

“The funny thing was I ended up moving to the city and I never had a problem ever since.”

Parish, who played 14 seasons in Boston from 1980 to 1994, also embraced the city. The Louisiana native said the only thing that bothered him about Boston was the cold and the snow.

“Outside the weather, Boston was a great place to live and play,” he said. “There was never any racism thrown my way. That is not to say it is not here. It was just never directed to me. I’m speaking of how Boston treated me. I wouldn’t say the [perception] is wrong. Obviously, there is racism here. I just don’t think it’s blatant and out in the open. There is racism everywhere.”

Maxwell, who still lives in the Boston area, agrees.

“What everybody keeps saying right now, like, ‘Boston has the monopoly on racism,’ when that’s not true,” Maxwell said. “You see that in every big city.”

The Celtics still struggled to attract black players to Boston even in the early 2000s. But that changed with the arrival of Garnett.

‘KG was the godfather of change’

From left to right: Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Kendrick Perkins of the Boston Celtics huddle together in Game Three of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2010 NBA playoffs May 7, 2010, at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Doc Rivers, who coached the Celtics from 2004 to 2013, understood the perception of the city when he took the job. He knew it would be a challenge to build a team through free agency.

“I was actually worried about that racially, and we weren’t good,” Rivers said. “But KG changed it.”

Before the 2007 NBA draft, Rivers said, the Celtics had initially agreed in principle to a trade for Garnett. But the 15-time All-Star nixed the trade because he preferred to go to a West Coast team with a warmer climate. He also wasn’t excited about joining a rebuilding team.

So the Celtics acquired All-Star guard Ray Allen and a second-round pick (Glen Davis) from the Seattle SuperSonics instead, in exchange for Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak and the fifth overall pick (Jeff Green).

“Boston is not a place where people consider to play,” Pierce, a 10-time All-Star, said. “It has never been a huge free agent destination. … You can go back to the players who got traded there and never thought they would be there and talk to them. And they will say [positively], ‘I didn’t know Boston was like this.’ The reputation is it’s a racist town. But as a sports figure, you don’t see it.”

It was after the Allen trade that Garnett became interested in joining Boston. He got his wish later that summer when the Celtics sent Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff, two first-round draft picks and cash considerations to Minnesota in exchange for Garnett.

“KG said no,” Rivers said. “Then we got Ray with Paul and he said, ‘I want to help that group.’ ”

The Garnett move helped the Celtics sign free agents.

“Think about who we signed after getting KG,” Rivers said. “James Posey, Eddie House, P.J. Brown, Sam Cassell. Those guys flocked to us. They wanted to come. That opened the door and may have been the change. …

“When I took the job, everyone said you can’t recruit there. That’s all I kept hearing from everyone. So, when I left I was so proud because we proved you can. If you create the right culture and the right environment, everyone would come. …

“You don’t hear about [race] anymore. Hell, (Kevin) Durant took a visit. But I think KG was the godfather of change.”

Garnett embraced Boston and all that came with the territory.

“I come from the South,” said Garnett, who is a native of South Carolina. “I am used to racism. I am used to interacting with it. I was comfortable in being able to exchange in it. To control it.

“When I went to Boston, it was a different feel. People weren’t racist toward me. They were like, ‘Ooh, s—, ‘The Big Ticket,’ can I get a picture, bro?’ … Black, white, green, purple, it didn’t matter. ‘Yo, KG.’ Everybody was happy. Everybody wanted to talk the game. You had to stop and talk. It was natural. It was cool. There was so much transparency. You high-five and take the picture. They claim it. They saw me running through the rope, and diving on the floor. You’re like a god there. If you give everything there, they give it right back to you.”

‘Boston has grown in so many ways’

Paul Pierce waves to his fans in front of his family during the Boston Celtics retirement ceremony for Paul Pierce jersey number #34 after they played the Cleveland Cavaliers at TD Garden in Boston on Feb. 11, 2018.

Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Celtics had just suffered a blowout loss at home to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But on this Sunday afternoon in 2018, a predominantly white crowd waited for more than an hour to honor an old friend: Paul Pierce, whose No. 34 jersey would be raised to the TD Garden rafters alongside other former Celtics greats.

“There was no other place where they could have done that after the game and the fans would have waited,” Rivers said. “They got blown out and not one person left. It was still a sold-out arena for Paul. … Boston has grown in so many ways.”

Pierce was drafted by the Celtics with the 10th overall pick in the 1998 NBA draft and played 15 seasons for the franchise. Through it all – the years of losing, the stabbing incident at a Boston club, and finally winning the 2008 championship – Pierce said, Celtics fans supported him.

“They embraced me,” Pierce said. “They saw me from a young pup, an immature kid coming in. They saw me grow. They saw my good times. They saw my bad times. They took me as one of their own even though I was a kid from the Inglewood, Los Angeles, area. You would have thought I was from Boston the way they pulled for me.”

“Boston is a tough town, dog,” Garnett said. “You have to have some major cojones to be here. You got to want that. The people want it for you. That’s why Paul was perfect for it. Paul wants the shot every time. We’d be like, ‘You’re 0-for-14.’ He’d say, ‘I know, but I’m going to hit it.’ ”

Many Celtics players interviewed for this story who played in Boston in the mid-1990s and 2000s, and lived primarily in the suburbs near the practice facility in Waltham until it moved much closer to downtown in 2018, shared mostly positive experiences with Boston fans, though they acknowledged that being a Celtic likely helped.

Rivers added that it also helped when they were part of winning teams.

“When we became good, I became a ‘made man,’ ” Rivers said.

Rondo, too, said overall Boston was welcoming to him, but his brother, William, didn’t always feel the same way. The Celtics’ championship point guard said whether in Boston or elsewhere in America, a black athlete will likely get treated favorably over the typical African American. Kendrick Perkins agrees.

“I never dealt with any racism one time in eight years,” said Perkins, a member of the 2008 team. “I’m not saying there was no racism nowhere in Boston. But, I will say that being a professional athlete in Boston created a separation. If I was a normal black person in Boston, I’m not sure how they would act.”

Avery Bradley, who played for the Celtics from 2010-2017, said one of his brothers had a racist incident at a Boston Bruins game.

“My family and friends experienced a lot of racism in Boston,” Bradley said. “If they weren’t with me, they experienced all types of stuff. At a hockey game, my brother almost got in a fight with some people because they were acting crazy. I never experienced it, but every other person I knew that was there experienced it.”

As Smart learned that night in his car outside of TD Garden, the difference can come down to street clothes versus game jersey. Former Celtics forward Glen Davis said Bostonians always gave him love and respect “because I wore the jersey of the Celtics,” but when he went out he occasionally heard racist words from fans.

“There were moments when you go out and a fan overdoes it,” Davis said. “For example … ‘Can you dunk, you big monkey?’ You would go out to the clubs, bars where some of the fans were drunk and would say things like that.”

But Posey said there’s no comparison to what the earlier generations of black Celtics players had to face.

“It was totally different,” Posey said. “I didn’t experience anything negative-wise.”

‘Once a Celtic, always a Celtic’

Passersby walk in front of a statue of former Celtics player and coach Bill Russell on April, 21 2018 at Boston City Hall Park.

Keith Bedford for The Undefeated

Longtime Celtics spokesperson Jeff Twiss has a familiar saying that he appropriated from Auerbach: “Once a Celtic, always a Celtic.” The Celtics roll out the red carpet for former stars. It is not uncommon to see Celtics greats like Russell at practice. And the team is known for giving tickets to former players who just had a cup of coffee with them.

Rondo said he was almost in tears when the Celtics played a tribute video for him during his first game back after joining the Dallas Mavericks in 2015.

“They’re just a classy organization. That was no surprise,” Rondo said. “I’ve seen it from when P [Pierce] came back the first time and Kevin [Garnett] as well. … Every time I go to Boston, and I don’t have to be in Boston, the fans say, ‘Thank you.’ They are very appreciative of what I did in Boston.”

Deborah White says her family views the Celtics and Boston as family because of the way they treated her husband as he fought through illnesses. Jo Jo White had surgery in May 2010 to remove a benign, walnut-sized tumor on the back of his left brain. Deborah White said the Celtics set up her husband with the best doctors and once he recovered, he returned to his job as director of special projects for the Celtics. He died in 2016 at the age of 71.

“As far as the Celtics, you couldn’t ask for more,” she said. “I’m a witness of this. I watched it happen and I’ve seen it over the years as I’ve been so close to all the players and their wives that have come through and know that Boston is not what people perceive it to be from the exterior.”

James Cash, who is one of two African Americans that are part of the Celtics’ ownership group that purchased the team in 2002, said he jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the franchise.

“That was so important to me as a young person when I was growing up in the ’60s, totally segregated environment, to watch the Boston Celtics, that had the largest number of African Americans playing on the team at that time was just a total inspiration,” Cash said. “So, when the opportunity to actually be a part of that franchise surfaced, it was a no-brainer.”

On May 26, 1999, the Celtics held a second jersey retirement ceremony for Russell. Attendees included NBA greats Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, John Havlicek and Oscar Robertson as well as boxing legend Muhammad Ali, football legend Jim Brown and R&B legend Aretha Franklin.

Fans were welcome, too, in what was a healing moment for the city.

“If any athlete deserved anything for putting Boston on the map, it should have been Russell,” Sanders said. “Russell put them on the map nationally, internationally, and otherwise, if you want to go by individual.

“And Russell was the main reason why the Celtics team was the way it was.”

At the end of the nearly three-hour ceremony, Russell and Auerbach stood side by side next to a banner of the No. 6 retired jersey. As the two pulled on a rope together to send the jersey to the rafters, the fans gave Russell what he deserved 27 years before: a standing ovation.

Russell’s response was tears.

‘this city has really grown on me’

Kemba Walker #8 of the Boston Celtics reacts with Marcus Smart #36 against the Dallas Mavericks at TD Garden on November 11, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Today’s Celtics still hear the whispers.

“The first thing I heard when I got drafted here was Boston was historically racist,” fourth-year guard Jaylen Brown said. “But you see certain things outside of the city and within the city of Boston that is very diverse and very eclectic. It’s fast-paced. It is probably a lot different than it used to be known for. You see a lot of changes, a lot of different things where people come together. … This city has really grown on me.”

“You get it all, especially in Boston,” former Celtic Kyrie Irving said. “It’s really a major city.”

Celtics players of recent years have also been venturing out to find restaurants familiar to them.

Horford found his native Dominican food in Boston. Bradley said he and his wife, who is from Trinidad and Tobago, would go to Dorchester to get Caribbean food. And Tatum continues to frequent a familiar soul food spot.

“When I first got there, I asked my [Celtics] assistant coach Jerome Allen, who is from Philly, where can I go to get some soul food, some fried chicken or something,” Tatum said. “Slade’s was the first place that he recommended. That is my go-to place.”

Tatum, too, had heard about Boston’s reputation upon being drafted by the Celtics in 2017 but says he has never had any problems.

Pierce notes that many of today’s players have gotten to know Boston more now that the Celtics’ practice facility moved to the new 70,000-square-foot Auerbach Center in June 2018. It is located at Boston Landing at the New Balance World Headquarters, which can be seen from the Massachusetts Turnpike.

“Everything is within a 10-minute radius,” Pierce said. “A lot of players have condos out there now. That is good. Players can gravitate toward [Boston] and will be embraced by the fans when they are out and about.”

Last summer, the Celtics signed one of the top free agents on the market in Kemba Walker. Walker, who is from Bronx, New York, says race wasn’t a factor in his decision.

“As a guy going into a new situation, that is not something that I was talking about,” Walker said. “Don’t get it twisted, I’ve heard it. … It just hasn’t been an issue for me.”

Walker has been far more appreciative of the Celtics’ history.

“There is a lot of history,” Walker said. “When you first walk into the arena, the first thing you see is all the banners. We all know Bill Russell and the history he has and all the accolades he has had. Just all the titles they have had over the years. It’s a winning organization. It’s pretty special. For me, it’s just motivation. It makes me want to bring me and my work ethic to a whole other level. That is an organization always competing every year. I am excited to be a part of that.”

At City Hall Plaza in Boston, a statue now exists honoring Russell. Boston artist Ann Hirsch crafted the statue that showed Russell making a chest pass with 10 granite blocks surrounding him for a total of 11 elements to represent his NBA championships. Each block was highlighted by famous Russell accomplishments and quotes. Before the unveiling in November 2013, then President Barack Obama joined Russell for a sneak preview of the statue.

“I will never forget that day,” Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca said. “It was a great moment for the Celtics and the city of Boston.”

The Celtics’ inclusive history is something the franchise takes great pride in, and ownership is committed to making Boston a welcoming place for athletes.

“The Celtics fight every day to make this the best possible place for an athlete to play and compete at the highest level, winning on the court and setting great examples for the community,” Grousbeck said.

“Boston is an amazing place,” Cash added. “I go to South Boston now and think back to 40 years ago, it’s the kind of thing that just causes you to know there are more people out there trying to do the right thing than the people we have to hear and see highlighted that are jerks.”

Whether the city will ever be able to shake its reputation is unknown, but many black Celtics, past and present, would recommend Boston as a free-agent destination.

“It is one of the best franchises I’ve ever played for and I loved the city,” said Bradley, who currently plays for the Los Angeles Lakers. “I would still live there. It’s home for me.”

Smart feels the same way, despite the incident from a few years ago.

“Everywhere you go you’re going to find ignorant bigots and misunderstood people,” Smart said. “Weird people. People that are not the same. … Boston is just one of the cities where it happened to me. But the city itself is a wonderful city and I love playing there …

“I recommend it for anyone who wants to play there. I love the city. It’s beautiful.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.