On Saturday, following the ailing Celtics’ 141-126 drubbing by the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, two things happened.
First, as the Nets’ Kyrie Irving was greeting his bench players who finished up the game, Irving, who played for the Celtics from 2017-2019, walked to midcourt and stomped his foot on the winking eye of Lucky, the Celtics’ eldritch horror of a mascot. Let’s see that beautiful footage, folks:
Moments later, 21-year-old Cole Buckley of Braintree, Massachusetts, hurled a Dasani water bottle at Irving, either because he was mad about Uncle Drew’s righteous stomp, or because he, like most Boston fans, has developed a years-long complex over Irving’s untimely exit from the squad, and found his team getting pantsed by a trio of transcendent talents irritating enough to heave a bottle in Irving’s direction. The NBA has a storied history of fans acting like little assholes in arenas, and this young man, stirred to idiotic, pissy violence through a combination of sports-hate and a respect for manners that can only be born from life as a privileged white male in America, has added another shit streak to this ignoble saga.
No one since Kareem or Ali has brought the vitriol out of white sports fans quite like Kyrie Irving. He is the most preternaturally talented guard in the NBA—ball-handling perfection, clutch shooter, and a threat to score anywhere on the court. He is also, undeniably, a different dude. After he and the Cleveland Cavaliers dismantled the 73-win Warriors in the 2016 Finals, he requested a trade so he could prove himself outside of the gravitational force of LeBron. (They reconciled.)
In the wake of his grandfather’s death and two years of deeply uninspiring Celtics basketball, he left Boston in free agency and relocated to Brooklyn, closer to his family and fellow-traveler-in-eccentricity Kevin Durant. Boston’s response could best be described as “not mad”: booing him while he sat injured on the bench, and insisting that his replacement, the powerfully uninspiring college star Kemba Walker, was actually better than him.
Before Irving could make a proper return in Boston, the pandemic hit. The league and the players decided to relocate to an isolated “bubble” at a then-vacant Walt Disney World. Kyrie, the vice president of the NBA Players’ Association, was the strongest voice against the plan. He reasoned that the NBA returning to TV screens would distract from the nationwide uprisings after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin. Irving took heat for his principled stand, but his obstinance forced the league to openly acknowledge the growing police reform movement inside the bubble.
Prior to Irving’s Boston return at the beginning of this season, he performed a traditional Lakota sage-burning ritual to “cleanse the energy” of his old stomping grounds. Then his new team demolished his resentful old one. The season progressed. The Celtics slid into the toilet, only managing the seventh seed in the East. Meanwhile, Irving’s Nets won a bunch and acquired the services of James Harden, one of the NBA’s best players, making them a title favorite.
Success being the best revenge, Boston has stayed mad: screaming at Irving, driving more radical fans to throw crap, whining their faces off on the internet—really undignified stuff. Before his return to Beantown, Irving took a second to set acceptable terms for Celtics fans’ ongoing pissing match against him: “I’m just looking forward to competing with my teammates and hopefully we can just 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, that’s just the nature of the game, and we’re just going to focus on what we can control.”
When a reporter asked Irving if he’d experienced racism in Boston before, he said, “I’m not the only one who can attest to this. It is what it is. The whole world knows it.”
Kyrie is right, of course. Bill Russell, a civil rights hero and the greatest player in franchise history, insisted that his number retirement ceremony take place in an empty arena so that he wouldn’t have to witness the hooting hordes of Boston act like they love him after they’d spent years racially abusing him during his time on the Celtics (he famously called the city a “flea market of racism”). MLB stars Adam Jones and CC Sabathia both heard the N-word being shouted at them while playing in Fenway. Torii Hunter insisted on a no-trade-to-Boston clause in his contract on account of the racism there, including an episode where a group of young children chanted the N-word at him during a game. Marcus Smart, who is currently on the Celtics and a supposed fan favorite, even backed Irving up: “Yeah, I’ve heard it. I’ve heard a couple of things. It’s hard to hear that and then have them support us as players. It’s kind of sad and sickening.” He’d previously written a long, personal essay for The Players’ Tribune about the racism he’d faced in Boston.
Despite this long and well-indexed history of athletes saying that Boston’s crowds are particularly racist, Celtics GM Danny Ainge, speaking on Toucher and Rich, “The #1 Morning Show in Boston,” insisted he’d “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.” (Ainge once compared LeBron James to Trump on that very program.)
Ainge’s comments were roundly criticized as tone-deaf, but hey, this is de rigueur for the Celtics. Larry Bird inspired a generation of whites to love a certain kind of basketball, and the organization seems A-OK with riding that gravy train instead of making it a priority to quash all the racist behavior from their fanbase.
Kyrie earned that little eye-stomp after his awful history with that franchise, and moreover, he won, because everyone lost their marbles over it. Check out former Celtics forward Glen “Big Baby” Davis (@easymoneysniper is Kevin Durant, by the way):
Kyrie’s stomp is an excellent object lesson in the power of desecrating the benign symbols of your enemies—a very low-stakes, victimless act and boom, your detractors are furious and ready to fight you for the sake of honor.
Thank you, Kyrie, for delivering this truth on the biggest stage sports has to offer.