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Why Black folks can root for the Celtics

Boston’s history makes it hard for some to get behind the Celtics, but the team’s progressive past should also come into play

One of the frustrating things about being a Black Bostonian and a Boston Celtics fan is dealing with flat-out hatred from my own people toward the franchise and anyone who roots for the team. The stereotype of a Celtics fan — white, racist and obnoxiously loud — is a far cry from the actual fan base.

One reason to root for the Celtics is that, unlike other teams who’ve tried to buy their way to a title, this team’s core was drafted and developed by the organization. NBA Defensive Player of the Year and starting point guard Marcus Smart was drafted in 2014. Jaylen Brown was the third pick in the 2016 draft and has become one of the NBA’s most prominent voices on social justice, racism and inequity. After striking gold with Brown, the Celtics drafted Jayson Tatum in 2017.

Tatum is the product of a teen mom and a young father, and he never shies away from the bright lights or the hard questions. When paired with Rob “Time Lord” Williams III and Al Horford, son of Tito Horford, the first Dominican player to make it to the NBA, the Celtics’ starting lineup became one of the most formidable in the league after turning their season around in late January. They added Derrick White from the San Antonio Spurs at the trade deadline and became the top defense in the league under first-time head coach Ime Udoka.

Still, fans and pundits just can’t help themselves from making lazy generalizations about the city of Boston and the team’s fans. 

This has been an issue since MCA Records decided to have Roxbury’s very own, New Edition — who were all Celtics fans, by the way — make a video for “My Secret (Didja Gitit Yet?)” in Los Angeles with the Lakers in 1985. Though the Lakers would go on to beat the Celtics in Boston to clinch the NBA title that year, Black Bostonians wondered why New Edition filmed a video with the Celtics’ bitter rivals in the first place.

The first reason was that MCA was based in LA, had a partnership with Lakers ownership and knew that Black America was pulling for the Lakers and hated the Celtics. So it didn’t matter where New Edition was from, they were trying to sell records. The second? When most people think of Black culture and history, they tend to overlook Boston — which is not only a mistake, but erases the city’s history and the Black folks who call it home.

The Celtics franchise has been incredibly progressive when it comes to race. It was the first NBA franchise to draft a Black player in 1950, and the first NBA team to have an all-Black starting lineup in December 1964, which inspired Don Haskins to start five Black players at Texas Western during the 1965-66 season after the Celtics won the 1965 NBA title. Texas Western then beat a heavily favored and all-white Kentucky team in the 1966 NCAA championship, changing college sports forever.

The Celtics were also the first NBA team to hire a Black head coach when it named Bill Russell to the top spot in October 1966. They’re the only NBA franchise to have had more than five Black head coaches (Udoka is the sixth), and the only one to have three Black head coaches who’ve won NBA titles. Through the Boston Shootout tournament, which began in 1972, the Celtics also introduced some of the first Black referees to the NBA ranks.

Not only that, Russell and Red Auerbach mentored backup center John Thompson between the 1964-65 and 1965-66 seasons, encouraging him to leave pro basketball after being picked by the Chicago Bulls in the 1966 expansion draft to pursue a career in coaching. Thompson went on to become one of the all-time great college coaches, spending 27 seasons at Georgetown before retiring in 1999.

However, the poor image of Boston among Black folks nationwide due to decades of notable racist incidents (such as the fight over school desegregation and busing in the 1970s or disrespectful Boston Red Sox fans) damaged the city’s reputation. Those ugly moments fly in the face of Boston insisting it’s a progressive and liberal town. They also overshadow why many Black and Latino basketball fans in Massachusetts are die-hard Celtics fans.

Growing up, every summer was about the Boston Neighborhood Basketball League, which was founded in 1969, making it America’s oldest continuously running municipal league; and the Boston Shootout tournament, which drew top high school and prep talent from across the country between 1972 and 1999, before the AAU circuit — and local AAU juggernaut Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC) — took precedence in 2000. The BABC has won a number of national championships and tournaments and the list of BABC alumni who’ve gone on to play professionally in the NBA, overseas and enter the coaching ranks is long and impressive, including Patrick Ewing, Dana Barros, Rumeal Robinson, Rick Brunson, Wayne Turner, Michael Carter-Williams, Bruce Brown, Nerlens Noel and Terance Mann.

None of these entities could have existed without the support of the Celtics organization. For all of the stories people outside of Boston recount about the racism Russell faced moving into the formerly all-white suburb of Reading, Massachusetts, in 1963, or his disinterest in being celebrated in any way while a Celtic, few talk about the love he and his teammates had for Boston’s South End, Lower Roxbury, Roxbury or Dorchester neighborhoods.

Jokes about Boston’s racist past have circulated widely during this year’s playoffs — one Twitter user even photoshopped Celtics jerseys on the neo-Nazi protesters from 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — but I never see stories shared of Russell and Satch Sanders owning successful restaurants in the city for decades. I also never hear about all the neighborhood kids and young adults they’ve mentored throughout the city. Most famously, Sam Jones, who lived in Roxbury with Sanders, directed two young Boston Trade High School students to Laurinburg Prep in South Carolina — one was the legendary Willis “Spider” Bennett, and the other was the greatest player to ever emerge from Roxbury, pioneer of the crossover and spin move, Jimmy Walker. After a dominant college career at nearby Providence, Walker became the No. 1 pick in the 1967 NBA draft. He eventually became the father of former Fab Five member and NBA player Jalen Rose.

You never hear these things because the people talking about Boston have rarely spent any time in the city. Instead, they regurgitate decades-old information they’ve read or seen in a documentary.

While the Celtics could — and should — be one of the “teams of the culture” that Black folks can root for, many can’t, simply because they’re from Boston, despite the entire nation having its own ugly and complicated racist past.

I know there are plenty of people who will never pull for any team from Boston. But if you like hard-nosed basketball by a tough and dynamic team that has a long history of supporting Black folks, the Celtics might just be for you.

Dart Adams is a historian, journalist, lecturer, and author who was born, raised and resides in Boston. His work has appeared in Complex, NPR, Mass Appeal, Okayplayer, Ebony, Boston Globe Magazine, and Boston Magazine. His book “Instead We Became Evil: A True Story Of Survival & Perseverance” will be released on July 26, 2022.