Two days after Kyrie Irving expressed concern about racism from Boston sports fans, Danny Ainge said those worries were news to him.
Irving played for the Boston Celtics for two seasons before joining the Brooklyn Nets in 2020. He'll face Celtics fans en masse for the first time since leaving Boston when the Nets visit the Celtics for Games 3 and 4 of their playoff series this weekend.
He's not expecting a warm welcome as fans return to TD Garden.
"Hopefully we can just keep it strictly basketball," Irving told reporters after Game 2 on Tuesday. "There's no belligerence or any racism going on — subtle racism and people yelling s*** from the crowd."
Ainge: 'I never heard any of that from any player'
Ainge played for the Celtics for eight seasons in the 1980s. He has been the franchise's president of basketball operations since 2003. On Thursday, he said that he's never heard a player complain about racism from the Boston fan base.
“I think that we take those kinds of things seriously," Ainge told Boston's 98.5 on a weekly radio hit. "I never heard any of that that from any player that I’ve ever played with in my 26 years in Boston.
"I never heard that before from Kyrie, and I talk to him quite a bit. I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter. We’re just playing basketball. Players can say what they want."
Marcus Smart backs up Irving's experience
Marcus Smart has a different take. The seven-season NBA veteran has played his entire career with the Celtics. He backed up the concerns of his ex-teammate Thursday.
"I’ve heard a couple of them," Smart said of racist remarks from Boston fans, per The Athletic. "It’s kind of sad and sickening because even though it’s an opposing team, we have guys on your home team that you’re saying these racial slurs, and you’re expecting us to go out there and play for you.”
Thursday wasn't the first time Smart acknowledged racism from Boston fans. He detailed his lifelong experiences with racism from growing up in Texas to playing college basketball at Oklahoma State to his time as a pro in an article in The Players' Tribune last October.
He wrote that the incident that stayed with him the most involved a woman in the TD Garden parking lot after a Celtics game:
"I was pulling out of the arena parking lot when I saw a white woman with her five- or six-year-old son crossing against the light right as the cars were starting to come at them," Smart wrote. "I had my windows down and realized something bad was about to happen, so I yelled to her, politely, that she needed to hurry and get out of the street so the two of them wouldn’t get hurt.
"The woman was wearing an Isaiah Thomas number 4 Celts jersey. And there were all these other Celtics fans around who were at the game. I figured she’d be cool.
"She swung her head around and it was….
'F*** you, you f***ing n-word!!!!'"
Black athletes speak on their Boston experience
Boston has long carried a reputation for not welcoming Black athletes, residents and visitors in some circles. Celtics legend and civil rights proponent Bill Russell described the city as a "flea market of racism" in 1979.
"It had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form," Russell wrote in his memoir "Second Wind," according to the Boston Globe. "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.’’
Athletes from Willie Mays to K.C. Jones to CC Sabathia have expressed concern over racism in Boston during their playing days.
NBA Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett, meanwhile, says that Boston embraced him when he joined the Celtics in 2007.
“The narrative of Boston before you get there is that it is a racist town,” Garnett told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears in 2020. “But once you became a Celtic, it was a whole other protective. It was another shield. … It was a whole other flip.”
Current Celtics All-Star Jaylen Brown told Spears that the city hadn't lived down to its racist reputation.
“The first thing I heard when I got drafted here was Boston was historically racist,” Brown said. “But you see certain things outside of the city and within the city of Boston that is very diverse and very eclectic. ... This city has really grown on me.”
Fans misbehaving across NBA
Shortly after Irving expressed his concerns, three different NBA arenas have been compelled to ban fans for abusive behavior toward players and their families. The Philadelphia 76ers revoked a fan's season tickets for dumping popcorn on Russell Westbrook. The New York Knicks banned a fan from Madison Square Garden for spitting at Trae Young. And the Utah Jazz banned three fans for reportedly heckling Ja Morant's family in the stands. Those incidents all took place Wednesday night.
Game 3 between Brooklyn and Boston is schedule for Friday night.
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