Playing Through the Pain

Ask sports fans from across the country to describe Boston, and you’ll hear this: “City of Champions.” Ask athletes themselves the same question, and you’ll hear it described in very different terms: as a city of racists. If it’s not a fair label anymore, as so many of us insist, then why won’t it go away?


A quarter of the way into his first season in Boston, things are going as well as anyone could have expected for Kevin Garnett. He’s got the Celtics off to one of their best starts ever, and after years of futility the team is considered a genuine championship contender. In the process, Garnett has been embraced by the city—fawned over and bragged about by fans and journalists alike. It’s been a pretty smooth ride. But it didn’t begin that way.

Just six short months ago, news of Garnett’s supposed feelings about Boston had the city cringing. I was in my car when it happened, listening as Michael Wilbon, the Washington Post columnist and cohost of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, spoke on Dan Patrick’s national ESPN radio show, putting the city on the defensive. Again. It was the day of the 2007 NBA draft, and Garnett was said to have opposed any trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Celtics. This was before KG relented, of course, and people were imagining all kinds of reasons for his refusing to come here, chief among them the fact that the Celtics had been dreadful in recent seasons. But Wilbon was pretty sure there was more to it than that.

“First of all, it’s a bad team,” Wilbon opined. “Second of all, you have this history of bigotry against African-American people in Boston. The only place I’ve ever been confronted, multiple times, and been called the n-word to my face, is specifically the Boston Garden…. The fact is, Boston has that history, and black players know that, and they do not want to go voluntarily to Boston.” When asked by Patrick whether he thought that perception factored into Garnett’s unwillingness to be traded here, Wilbon said, “I know it does. Yeah. Sure. Absolutely.” He later added that racism “might have been our issue at one point, but now it’s [Boston’s] issue.”

There were qualifiers before and after those comments. Wilbon credited the Celtics for being one of the first teams in the NBA to feature black players. And he stipulated that he didn’t think Boston today is much different from other major cities. But that didn’t matter. All anyone heard was Wilbon calling Boston racist. And that’s all anyone needed to hear.

Not long after, Angels outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. weighed in with commentary of his own. “They’re loud, they’re drunk, they’re obnoxious,” Matthews told the Los Angeles Times, referring to Sox fans, and added that Fenway is “one of the few places you’ll hear racial comments.” It was an extemporaneous remark, one the reporter never asked him to elaborate on or provide specifics for—and as casually as it was thrown out, it was just as readily accepted as fact, with other national outlets, once again, quickly picking up the story. In that way, it smacked of a familiar pattern: Every few years, someone in the sports world comes along and says something similar. (Back in 2004, it was Barry Bonds telling reporters he wouldn’t play here because “it’s too racist.”)

Months after making his inflammatory comments, Wilbon tells me, “I wasn’t saying that Boston is a racist place. I was saying that this is a conversation that black people have. How separate are the worlds of black and white people for white people not to know that black people have this conversation? And not just black people but people of color. This conversation has been going on forever.” But that’s where Wilbon is wrong. We know the conversation goes on. It’s just that most people around here would rather not join in. Some recuse themselves entirely, some angrily dismiss the assertions, and still others run the other way, tossing denials over their shoulders: That’s not us. They don’t know us. I won’t dignify that. None of which is very effective when it comes to changing anyone’s impressions. Accordingly, just as people “know” it rains in Seattle, they’re certain Boston is racist.

So whatever you may think about Wilbon’s comments on the radio that day, he was right about one thing: It is Boston’s issue.

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The Wilbon situation reminded me of what a friend from Dallas said before I moved here a few years ago. He’s a fairly big sports personality down in Texas. He also happens to be black, and he told me to watch myself in Boston, warning that anyone with “brown skin” isn’t welcome.

More than anything, we have busing to thank for that reputation. There’s no getting around it. Instead of inspiring racial harmony, the experiment failed miserably as white parents threw stones at busloads of frightened black children without compunction. Boston has been known ever since as the racist city of segregated enclaves like Southie and Charlestown.

Of course, other cities have been plagued by race problems, too. L.A. suffered the Watts riots in 1965, and those that followed the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Just last May, cops there violently broke up a peaceful immigration rally by using what the police chief later termed “inappropriate” force. In New York City, officers pumped 41 shots into unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999.

More recently, the NYPD killed an 18-year-old mentally ill black man when officers mistook his hairbrush for a gun. And yet the issue of racism plagues Boston more than most. Somehow, it has become a part of the city’s identity.

As is so often the case in Boston, the incidents most passionately recalled are tied to sports. There’s the one about the Sox giving Jackie Robinson a tryout, then running him out of town, supposedly at the request of owner Tom Yawkey. The Red Sox were, infamously, the last team in the majors to integrate when they finally signed Pumpsie Green—12 long years after Robinson became a Dodger and, more important, a powerful symbol of change. Bud Collins, the legendary sportswriter who started out at the Herald in the 1950s, was once scolded for even suggesting that someone at the paper write about the Sox and racism. In his brilliant, brutally honest book Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, ESPN’s Howard Bryant, who grew up here and worked as a sports columnist for the Herald, details the rebuke Collins received from his bosses: “‘They told me I had a lot to learn about their town,’ Collins remembered.”

The animus toward black athletes wasn’t exclusive to the Red Sox. Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell may have been named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players, but that didn’t shield him from bigotry during his playing days. Russell, who once called Boston a “flea market of racism,” even had vandals break into his home just to defecate in his bed. His teammates also felt the hatred. “We were living in Framingham when I was a player,” recalls Celtics Hall of Famer K. C. Jones. “I went to buy a house about five blocks away…. The neighbors said they didn’t want any blacks to move into the house.” Another time, Jones applied for membership at a country club, only to be told they weren’t fond of “entertainers.” Still, Jones is quick to point out that he enjoyed his time in Boston, and that things have changed. He even calls me back to make sure I note that he harbors no ill will. He stresses this. But he also knows that the city’s racism didn
’t end with him or Russell.

Red Sox outfielder Tommy Harper had an experience similar to Jones’s. In 1973, during spring training in Winter Haven, Florida, he and other black players were not invited to dinners his white teammates attended at a segregated local club. Twelve years later, while working as a member of the Sox coaching staff, he described the incident to the Globe. Within a year he was fired. He eventually brought a discrimination lawsuit against the club that resulted in a settlement. Not long afterward, Jim Rice—for years the lone black Sox player—supposedly told a young Ellis Burks to leave the city as fast as he could.

“Having gone to school up there for three years, it was always an issue, and there were places where you were told, ‘Don’t go,’” says NBA Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who starred at UMass before becoming a Celtics antagonist with the New York Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. “Jim Rice and I were friendly, and we had racial discussions. It was this undertone more than anything blatant. It was rough up there for athletes.”

Even as late as the 1980s, the symbol for sports in Boston—and, really, the city as a whole—was Larry Bird’s Celtics. A team of predominately white superstars, the Celtics were seen as a counterbalance to Magic Johnson’s “Showtime” Lakers. That white fans in Boston and across the country rallied so passionately behind those Celtics, that they privately loved seeing a white team excel in a league consisting mostly of black players, rankled many African Americans. Former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas drew the ire of many in Boston when he said that had Bird been black, he would have been just another good player.

Then there is former Celtic Dee Brown, who, after being drafted in 1990, was driving through Wellesley when he was pulled from his car by the police and held face-down on the pavement at gunpoint. The cops were looking for a bank robber. A black man.

And yet, like K. C. Jones, Brown doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea: He loves Boston. “One incident happens and people dwell on it. It happens in every city, but Boston is stigmatized by it,” Brown says. He repeatedly tells me that he has nothing but fond memories of playing here, that he wishes people would know the whole story before so quickly judging the city. “If you go back in history, especially with the Celtics, they had the first black player. The first black coach. There are a lot of things people forget to put in there. There are racial problems in every city. You go to the wrong neighborhood in any city and you’re black or you’re white or Hispanic or Italian or Irish, you might be in the wrong place.”

Despite defending Boston to anyone who will listen, and especially to me, Brown acknowledges that altering the perception of the city is a difficult task. He knows because he’s tried, making his case to players and journalists alike. He hasn’t gotten very far. Most of the bitterness toward Boston is so deeply rooted now that it feels almost impossible to change anyone’s mind. A lot of it goes back decades, festering for as long as some people have been alive. “People think the core of Boston is Italian and Irish,” Brown says. “The Celtic. The Patriot. The Tea Party. Paul Revere. It’s that history…. Being from Florida or the South, people would say to me, ‘Boston’s just like Up South.’ That’s what they called it: Up South.”

 

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Some people still call it that. Some players call Boston much worse. And because the athletic community is very much a fraternity, those sentiments harden and are passed from one person to the next. The effect is rote learning, a unified belief that the city is racially intolerant.

“From the African-American athletes I speak to, it’s accurate to say that the perception is out there,” says Stephen A. Smith, ESPN’s volatile but well-sourced NBA analyst. “There are the Paul Pierces of the world, and they rave about Boston. But, from the outside looking in…it’s extremely prevalent and pretty much common that athletes think Boston is not that receptive to improving race relations. Understand something: When this city celebrates its tradition, what they’re saying—at least in the eyes of some in the African-American community—is ‘Those were the good old days. We liked the way it was.’ Well, black people didn’t. We had a problem with the way it was.”

And those problems eventually hurt Boston teams where it counted most—on the field. Early on, Yawkey and the Sox didn’t want anything to do with black players. But in time, the reverse became true and black athletes didn’t want anything to do with Boston. In his book, Bryant reports that there have been plenty of great black baseball players who either said they were reluctant to come to Boston or had language written into their contracts specifically preventing them from being traded here: superstars like Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Belle, David Justice, Tim Raines, Dave Winfield, and Gary Sheffield. Ultimately, it wasn’t some abstract curse that kept the Sox from winning a World Series for 86 years. It was their refusal, and then their inability, to put the best athletes in uniform.

It probably doesn’t help Boston’s reputation among black players that when they’re here, they are not often surrounded by people who look like them.

Boston’s suburbs are the country’s third whitest, which contributes to the fact that the metro area has about half the black population of cities of comparable size. As Guy Stuart, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, notes, Boston’s black population is also disproportionately foreign-born: Where the national average is about 7 percent, Stuart says, here it’s closer to 26 percent. “They’re more likely to be Haitian or Cape Verdean in Boston,” he explains.

The notion that Boston isn’t a “black city”—that it doesn’t have the same African-American presence as, say, Atlanta or DC—is something that I heard several times while reporting this story. Several people told me they’d conducted their own informal sociological observations while in Boston, and the results made them uncomfortable. “I’ve traveled all over the world, all over the country, and I never look around in most cities and see how many black people are in a place,” says Jerome Solomon, who covered the Pats for the Globe before moving to the Houston Chronicle. “But when I was in Boston, I was like, ‘Man, I’m always the only black guy here’…. The perception when it comes to athletes is that same thing.” To Solomon, that Boston is a racist city is less a matter of conjecture than of reality. “I’ll say this, if you talk to an athlete—and I talk to dozens every week—if you bring up Boston, racism is always the first thing that comes up, regardless of the sport they play.

Basketball and football especially…. With guys who have recently left, they’ll talk about it freely. Guys that I’ve talked to, they’ll say, ‘Oh, man, I thought you were in Boston.’ When I say I’m in Houston, the response is always ‘You had to get away from those racists in Boston, huh?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, it was cold, too.’”

 

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There is an undeniable paradox in a New England city ostensibly filled with progressives, located in a state run by the nation’s second black governor, being repeatedly described as bigoted. Because in
some ways things have changed, and so has Boston. Where once the town’s heroes were white men named Yaz and Larry, today the biggest stars, along with Tom Brady, are unquestionably Papi and Manny, KG and Randy Moss—men who defy old stereotypes about who Boston will or won’t embrace.

“In the case of Boston, what’s interesting is that it’s known for certain ethnicities—Irish and Italian,” says University of Southern California professor Todd Boyd, one of ESPN’s go-to experts on matters of race. “But it’s never been seen as a black city. On the other hand, it has a reputation for being a liberal city. That’s ironic, and I think, for some people, that’s a bit of a contradiction that’s caused some confusion. Well, how can a city with such a liberal history be racist? These are the things that need to be discussed. We need to talk about it openly.”

During his three seasons in Boston, Celtics center Al Jefferson was willing to discuss the issue of racism, though he never quite understood what the big deal was. “People always ask me if it’s true, if Boston’s like that,” says Jefferson, 22, a Mississippi native. “The only thing I have bad to say about Boston is it’s cold. I never experienced anything bad about Boston. Never. The only time I ever hear about it is when I go back home and the older cats ask me about Boston. Tell you the truth, I didn’t even know it was a big issue.” Jefferson, of course, was traded from Boston to Minnesota in the deal that made Garnett the Hub’s latest crush. “Kevin Garnett is in for the most glorious experience of his life,” says Bill Walton, who spent three years in a Celtics uniform, and who now does NBA commentary for ESPN.

So yes, some things have changed, because it’s hard to imagine Garnett or anyone else getting a warmer reception from such a chilly place. Which makes it all the more curious that Boston has been unable to shed its nasty reputation. “Have racist things happened in Boston? Not to me, but they’ve happened,” says Charles Barkley, who regularly visited the city as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, and who is now an NBA studio analyst for TNT. “But racist things have happened to me in Philly and Arizona. The media always uses race. It’s one of their aces in the hole…. It’s easy. If you say something about race, you’re going to get people to respond.” Barkley adds that racism in general isn’t as big a problem for athletes today as it used to be. Insulated by wealth and fame, the current generation has been spared the hard experiences of those who came before them, as well as of the average black person. It’s a difficult point to argue. Unfortunately, though, that’s really not the issue. How racist Boston is perceived to be is far less important than the fact that the perception continues to exist at all.

What also continues is Boston’s visceral reaction whenever someone so much as hints that the city is prejudiced. Some of Boston’s anger may be caused by guilt over its previous wrongs, and some of it may be a genuine belief that the city’s identity should no longer be tied to its ugly past. Either way, it’s self-defeating. Because in Boston’s haste to defend itself—to deny, deny, deny—it simply perpetuates the perception. It’s automatic now, like a child who puts his fingers in his ears or his hands over his eyes in an attempt to avoid something unpleasant. But we all know that never makes the bad thing go away.

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Consider what happened with Gary Matthews Jr. After his observations about Fenway fans, he was shouted down here in Boston, angrily dismissed as a “steroid abuser” on one notable Sox fan site, and called an idiot on local radio shows. There was no discussion—only derision. However ill-informed Matthews may have been, the more effective way to have dealt with his comments would have been to rationally discuss them, to win the debate by the preponderance of evidence. Instead, he was told, essentially, to just shut up, which made it look as if Boston had something to hide. By the time the Angels arrived at Fenway a few weeks later, he refused to speak to me about what he’d said.

As for Garnett, he contended that Wilbon had never talked to him. In any case, when Garnett first arrived, he said, he’d asked around and been convinced that the city’s reputation was outdated. But like a lot of locals, he hasn’t really had much to say about racism since then. And so instead of the wound being healed, it remains raw. That’s a shame, because an ask-me-anything session with KG at the time of Wilbon’s comments might have prevented the media frenzy. More important, it would have been cathartic for the city. It’s hardly surprising, however, that it didn’t happen.

While reporting this story, I reached out to the Celtics, Red Sox, and Patriots, asking for interviews with current players, coaches, and front office members. The Celtics gave me the runaround before ultimately passing. The Red Sox and Patriots failed to do even that much; they simply didn’t acknowledge the requests. An attempt to speak with Mayor Tom Menino, who made improved race relations a key issue during the Boston Miracle, was met with similar stonewalling. Countless e-mails and phone calls to the mayor’s public relations office yielded platitudes from his flacks, but no interview.

The city’s reputation for racism endures because we don’t want to talk about it, because the press seems more interested in reporting on the controversy than in initiating a useful dialogue, because athletes are more careful today than they’ve ever been. There aren’t many Bill Russells anymore—someone who speaks his mind because his conscience demands it. Russell once told me he thought of himself as a man first and a basketball player second. These days, with millions riding on endorsement contracts and a capricious media to navigate, candor is seen as bad business. In a way, that’s understandable, but it would be a powerful thing to hear from more of today’s athletes. Because what Russell realized that so many current players still don’t is this: The best way to move forward is often to deal with the past.

To that end, the city itself could probably learn something from the experiences of Guy Stuart, the Kennedy School lecturer. Before he came to Boston, Stuart, who is white, spent a decade working in black communities in Chicago. It was there that he learned a useful lesson: If you want to improve race relations, “don’t go around simply saying you’re not racist.”

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