The Los Angeles Lakers/Boston Celtics rivalry has long been heralded as sport’s greatest battle, from the Showtime Lakers days of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to the Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce matchups of the late noughties. But while the blockbuster bouts have delivered some of the most memorable finishes in league history on the court, off it, the feud remains an ugly indictment of sport’s not-so-secret shame. Bubbling under the surface of the NBA‘s fiercest rivalry, you’ll find a history driven by competition but marred by racism and bigotry. This week, the league’s loudest voice spoke up.
LeBron James Calls Out Celtics Fans
In the latest episode of Uninterrupted’s The Shop, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James named Boston as his least favourite place to play. While that hardly came as a surprise to fans, considering the torrid battles James had with the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce-led powerhouse of the late 2000s or even his recent move to LA, what was a shock was his justification. When asked why he hated playing Boston so much, James bypassed the opposition entirely, turning his sights on the fans.
“Because they’re racist as fuck, that’s why.”
“They will say anything. And it’s fine,” James told fellow guests, including Academy Award Winner Daniel Kaluuya, Premier League soccer star Marcus Rashford, artist Rashid Johnson, marketing Paul Rivera and co-host Maverick Carter. “I mean, fuck, it’s my life. I’ve been dealing with it my whole life. I don’t mind…Like, if I hear somebody close by, I’ll check ’em real quick, I’ll move on to the game. They gonna say whatever the fuck they wanna say. They might throw something on you.”
The incident James was referring to can be traced back to the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, when after a stunning 45-point, 15-rebound Game 6 performance, the then-Miami Heat star had a drink poured on him by a Celtics fan. “I got a beer thrown on me leaving a game,” he revealed.”There was like a, ‘Fuck LBJ T-shirt.’ I believe they sold it at the fucking team shop.”
James’ frank assessment of the Celtics fans doesn’t exactly come out of the blue either. A true sporting city, Boston’s homers are some of the most loyal in the world, but that usually encompasses some less-than-desirable antics in and around games. Recent NBA tragics will remember the way Celtics fan’s turned on Kyrie Irving when the star failed to bring a championship and swiftly exited back home to New York.
Prior to the Nets’ first-round series against Boston, Irving claimed racist remarks were directed toward him during his Celtics’ tenure. In response, Boston guard Jaylen Brown acknowledged the issue, stating there was “work to be done”.
“I think painting every Celtics fan as a racist would be unfair,” Brown told ESPN. “However, we’ve got a lot of work to do, no question. There’s a lack of resources there, lack of opportunity.”
Shocking as it may be, the signs of discontent have been around for decades. In fact, the very inception of the Lakers/Celtics rivalry has roots shrouded in racial tension.
How Race Impacted the Lakers/Celtics Rivalry
While the early days of basketball were headlined by exclusively white players, a symbol of segregation at the time, the influence of athletes such as Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell changed the trajectory. Throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, more and more African-American players made their way into the league and by the 1980s, the biggest stars in the game were Dr J and Moses Malone, and things were set to get even more exciting.
In 1979, the Lakers drafted a flashy point guard to lead their showtime team and ‘Magic’, as he was affectionately known, quickly made an impact, taking them a championship in his first season. On the cusp of a new dynasty, the Lakers had their party spoiled just a few years later when a lanky white forward with blond curly hair stole the title out from underneath them. Larry Bird, the hick from French lick, had arrived and suddenly, a Lakers and Celtics rivalry was bubbling.
Johnson’s primarily African-American Lakers battled Bird’s predominantly caucasian Celtics several times over the course of their careers, and while the two respected each other’s games, the fans didn’t always share their sportsmanship. As ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant penned, race largely determined rooting interests, and the Celtics were the most divisive team in America.
“Black kids in Boston were taken by Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers…The Celtics were the white fan’s team. Me, I was the black kid who rooted for the Celtics but fell along the same racial divisions as my friends. My favourite Celtics were all black: Robert Parish, Gerald Henderson and Dennis Johnson.”
The issue of racial inequality in Boston basketball bounced around long after the Celtics/Lakers rivalry had quietened, with Isiah Thomas even going so far as to claim that Bird received “special dispensation” from the fans, the press and the game because he was white.
For long-time Boston fans, racism isn’t a new issue, but it really must be noted how far the fanbase has fallen. Few remember that it was actually the Celtics that initially broke down the race barrier, making Chuck Cooper the first black player ever drafted, fielding the first all-black starting lineup in the league and making Bill Russell the first black coach in league history. These are milestones that demand to be recognised, but somewhere along the way, things got ugly.
Even Bill Russell, the organisation’s greatest-ever player has turned his back on the fans in response to racism. An article in The Boston Globe revealed that the 11-time NBA Champion refused to have his jersey retired in front of Boston fans after his experience with racism in the city. Instead, he had a “private retirement with only the people within the organisation”.
“The only way he was going to participate would be if it was before the game,” Tom Heinsohn, one of Russell’s former teammates said. “He respected his teammates, and that’s why he did it the way he did it. He considered the Celtics his family, so he wasn’t totally averse to them doing it. But he didn’t want it to happen in front of the fans.”
It’s a stark reminder that a team is not made up of its fans, despite what they may think. Truly, racial abuse against athletes can no longer be swept under the carpet and you need only look at the Cs to understand. An organisation that fields a predominantly black starting lineup, the Celtics – the team, have continued to embrace inclusivity. Perhaps, as James suggests, it’s time the fans got on board.