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Danny Ainge isn’t listening if he doesn’t hear racism around the Boston Celtics

The Celtics’ lead decision-maker made some tone-deaf and disingenuous comments about Kyrie Irving’s pleas to keep racism out of his return to Boston.

Memphis Grizzlies v Boston Celtics Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Kyrie Irving said he hoped he didn’t hear racist remarks when his Brooklyn Nets go on the road to face the Boston Celtics for Game 3 of their first round series in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. Irving played two seasons in Boston, and left as a free agent to sign with the Nets in the summer of 2019.

“It’s not my first time being an opponent in Boston,” Irving said. “I’m just looking forward to competing with my teammates. Hopefully we can keep it strictly basketball, there’s no belligerence or any racism going on, subtle racism and people yelling shit from the crowd. But even if it is, it’s part of the nature of the game and we just need to focus on what we can control.”

When asked a follow up on if he’s experienced “it” in Boston, Irving put his hands up and shrugged. You can watch his full comments here:

When Celtics GM Danny Ainge was asked about Irving’s comment, he said he had never heard of any racist incidents in Boston during his 26 years with the team.

“I think that we take those kind of things seriously,” Ainge said during a radio interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub. “I never heard any of 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 talked to him quite a bit. So, 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.”

Hours after Ainge’s comments, veteran Celtics guard Marcus Smart said that he has experienced racism in Boston.

Anyone who pays close attention to professional sports has heard stories about racism in Boston. Bill Russell, who led the Celtics to 11 championships as the greatest player in franchise history, has detailed the racism he experienced in Boston in books and interviews since his playing days. Russell described Boston as a “flea market of racism” in 1979 memoir, “Second Wind.’’ His home in the Boston suburb of Reading was once broken into and vandalized with racist graffiti. Russell even requested his No. 6 jersey be retired in a private ceremony in 1972 because he believed the fans wouldn’t respect his accomplishments because he was Black.

Today’s athletes have also detailed their experience of facing racism in Boston. Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones faced racist heckling from fans at Fenway Park in 2017. A fan in Boston was banned from the stadium for making a racist remark to DeMarcus Cousins in 2019. Smart detailed his experience with racism in Boston in an article on The Players Tribune in 2020:

But the incident that has stuck with me the most, and that’s had the biggest impact on me, occurred a few years back after a victory at the Garden.

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. 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.

Nope.

She swung her head around and it was….

“F*** you, you f***ing n-word!!!!”

What Kyrie Irving faced his first time in Boston with the Nets

In 2019, Irving missed a game against the Celtics in Boston, but the fans still heckled him. There were “Kyrie sucks” chants in the building and posters around the arena calling him a coward.

Irving also posted message on Instagram after the game:

Ainge saying he’s never heard examples of racism toward Celtics players in Boston is a remarkably disingenuous and tone deaf response to Irving’s statement. Russell’s experience should be at the forefront of the minds of everyone in the organization. Did Ainge simply ignore Smart’s Players’ Tribune story? Has he never connected enough with his players to have honest conversations about their experiences?

Of course, racism isn’t unique to Boston. It happens all over the country and all over the world. As Bomani Jones noted on Twitter, people have a way of feeling the racism in Boston more than other cities. Certainly Danny Ainge should have heard about that by now.

There have been some ugly incidents in the last week since fans have been allowed to re-enter arenas. A Knicks fan spit at Trae Young. A 76ers fan poured his popcorn on Russell Westbrook. Several Utah Jazz fans made abusive comments to Ja Morant’s parents.

Irving’s worries are legitimate when he plays in Boston. Instead of burying his head in the sand, it’s time for Ainge to listen to his players and ask what he can do to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.