February 28, 2008

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LONGSHOTS: Celtics issues far from black and white in the early days
by Dave Long

I had an earth-shaking experience watching the Academy Awards Sunday after noted Lakers fan Jack Nicholson introduced a tribute to all the films that have won the Oscar for best picture. As the chronological parade ticked toward the ’90s I felt older than I did before it started — with the real discovery being how fast time is moving after seeing Amadeus won 24 years ago, when it seems like yesterday.

After that I was like Jake LaMotta getting battered in Raging Bull — which, incidentally, got robbed in a split decision that went to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People in 1980. Then came Rain Man — 1988 — pow! Dances with Wolves — 1990 — bam! Schindler’s List — 1993 — slam! The body punch combo of Forrest Gump — 1994 — and The English Patient — 1996 — thud, thud! But the haymaker was Titanic winning in — 1997. YIKES — it seems like just two or three years ago!!!

It said time is a moving a lot faster than I realize. And if I don’t get to some of the things piling up on the To Do List since, oh, Driving Miss Daisy beat out Field of Dreams in (gulp) 1989 I may never get to them. So over the next year I am going to write about some things on the burgeoning To Do list. And while they may seem like old news, it’s my job to show why they are relevant today.

The first is The Selling of the Green: The Financial Rise and Moral Decline of the Boston Celtics — which really ticked me off when it was published. It seems appropriate to write about it today as Black History Month draws to a close this week. It came out the same year everyone expected The Crying Game to win in 1992. Personally, I was pulling for A Few Good Men — which starred the aforementioned Lakers fan and crazy Tom Cruise — where crazy Tom said, “I want the truth” in the climactic scene and Jack fired back, “You can’t handle the truth!”

That seems fitting, since the book implies the Celtics organization was racist. And if you’re a fan, that’s tough to swallow if true. But I’ll tell you this: I’m good at looking in the mirror and seeing the truth even when it’s bad. So I don’t shoot the messenger. Still, I reject the charge by Filip Bondy and Harvey Araton, who wrote the book with clearly a New York – Boston ax to grind. Or, at least one to capitalize on. It wasn’t only about the racism. It also dealt with questionable gamesmanship by Red Auerbach — which I don’t quibble with — and the “greediness” of owners, who by definition are in it for the money. What was the author’s excuse?

Not that there’s anything wrong with money — but when implying racism more should be involved. So I refused to buy the book because it’s easy to write about a region’s sports enemy with loud, attention=getting, controversial charges. That delivers publicity and riles up reactionaries to run out to buy it. It’s why I wouldn’t Jose Canseco’s book if you pointed a “gub” at me. Thus, I read it in sections over the years in libraries and bookstore browsing sessions.

I rejected their premise because racism was defined in the narrowest way. Essentially, because since they had a higher number of white players in the ’80s than the rest of the NBA did, they were. So what? It might have been believable if it were about the bottom-dwelling lily-white Red Sox in the ’50s. But those Celtics won three times and went to the finals two other times in the ’80s. Anyone who believes Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton, Danny Ainge, Scott Wedman and Jerry Schisting walked through that door because they were white is nuttier than Ralph Nader.

Three are Top 50 all-time players. Wedman and Schiting, dependable players. Ainge a draft day steal because everyone assumed he’d stay in baseball. And I didn’t see Araton and Bondy suggesting the Knicks of the early ’70s were racist when they won twice with Bill Bradley, Jerry Lucas, Dave Debusschere, Phil Jackson and many back-end-of-the-roster white players on the team.

The real ethical dilemma to focus on would be the team’s early racial composition at the end of the bench. Mythology says the final spots were reserved for white players — especially as it became more weighted to black players in the ’60s. On surface, that is discrimination. But when you’re in a city with the sorry record of Boston in those days — I’ll ask this: is it possible that an all-black team wouldn’t have survived? And if that was a real risk, do the ends justify the means, if doing that keeps 10 other black players working? And who knows, if Boston goes down in the early days of the NBA, maybe the league wouldn’t have survived too.

I don’t have the answer for the hypothetical questions, but I do know this: in Chuck Cooper, Red drafted the first African-American in NBA history. He had the first all-black starting five, the first black captain and, yes, the first black coach in any sport. Does that sound like a racist organization? And trust me, if the organization was racist, the respected Bill Russell would have said so a long time ago, as he did about the city’s sorry record on such matters.

Which brings me to the point of this diatribe. The ethical dilemma aside, Auberbach’s Celtics didn’t just win basketball games. They contributed to the changing social attitudes in Boston and beyond. For one, Russell the coach paved the way for the 12 black coaches now in the NBA. And that, along with many, many other factors, I believe contributed to where we are today as Barack Obama seriously contends to become President of the United States. Something which seemed inconceivable when Russell and Red were winning titles

And while I understand frustrations in the African-American community and among feminists as well for true equality to move quicker, when you take the trip through time I took on Sunday, you realize how much has changed for the better during a period that seems to have gone by in the blink of an eye.

Dave Long can be reached at dlong@hippopress.com. He hosts the Absolute Sports Experience at Billy’s Sports Bar in Manchester each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon that is broadcast live on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.


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1/31/2008 Foxboro lads earn pats on the back, and old Celtics mystique makes sense
1/24/2008 Mail bag asks about Rice, the hall and wild-eyed liberals
1/17/2008 Peyton manning the fort back home as Pats take on Chargers
1/10/2008 Grumpy old Dolphins are lost at sea on this one
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12/27/2007 The annual sports awards close out 2007
12/20/2007 Holiday gifts for the deserving and not so deserving
12/13/2007 Jets land in Foxboro as pat go number 14
12/06/2007 To include or not to include Ellsbury — that is the questione
11/29/2007 Yanked from the sports pages in the Big Apple
11/22/2007 Here's what I'm thankful for at Thanksgiving
11/15/2007 Waiting game leads to a series of random thoughts
11/8/2007 OK — it's week nine and I'm ready to talk
11/1/2007 Finally a little shut-eye for a sleep deprived nation
10/25/2007 A rocky mountain high for Red Sox Nation
10/18/2007 Time to go to the mailbag
10/112007 Who'd more popular, Patriots or Red Sox
10/4/2007 IA weekend chock full of nuts, chokes and great moments
9/27/2007 I hate to say I told you so...
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9/13/2007 All round baseball week starts with a look at leaders
9/6/2007 It's Superbowl or bust for Pats in 2007
8/30/2007 The race is on as baseball enters September
8/23/2007 Spine vs. lack of spine theme for school board debate
8/16/2007 Time for thoughts from the summer mailbag
8/9/2007 Will this three make it big in Boston?
8/2/2007 Trading places all in a day's work for Boston GMs
7/26/2007 Getting out of a slump; an ameteur golfer can feel Sox' pain
7/19/2007 Does second chance guarantee a great outcome?
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7/5/2007 Brown Monster a big Fisher Cat hit
6/28/2007 Rambling along with some random thoughts
6/21/2007 The future is now for the C's come Thursday night
6/14/2007 Homers create bonds among fans for generations
6/07/2007 Sox win by losing two of three this weekend
5/31/2007 Lutz of things to think about
5/24/2007 Down 2-0 M’s for playoff payoff
5/17/2007 Baseballs' conventional wisdom is for the birds
5/10/2007 The Rocket lands in Gotham during Monarchs' playoff break
5/3/2007 Raiders say "No Moss" in fight with talented wideout
4/26/2007 A little history on the ancient Sox and Yanks rivalry
4/19/2007 Lessons to be learned from Robinson, Monarchs and I-Man
4/12/2007 A few questions for the sports gods
4/5/2007 Stanton his case on a variety of current topics
3/29/2007 Sox spring back into action on Monday
3/22/2007 A guide for having fun on NCAA hockey weekend
3/15/2007 The madness of March kicks off on Thursday
3/8/2007 Jumping through hoops after an odd season
3/1/2007 A trip to the mail bag for Hippo Sports
2/22/2007 Six degrees of Muhammed Ali
2/15/2007 Monarchs rule as streak reaches 12
2/8/2007 Talking a good game ahead on all-sports WGAM
2/1/2007 Manning the Super Bowl watch more difficult in '07
1/25/2007 Winning and what else matters in college coaching
1/18/2007 ESPN polls are fanning the flames of national lunacy
1/11/2007 Patriots marching to MIami promised land
1/4/2007 Predictions for 2007
12/28/2006 REcognizing the best on the national front
12/21/2006 Present under the tree for all
12/14/2006 Mailbag open for busines at a time filled with questions
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11/30/2006 Does Fenway frankness roll to the negative side?
11/23/2006 Turkeys and thanks as the big day arrives
11/16/2006 Green-around-the-gills Celts looking to earn some respect
11/9/2006 Blame game reaches new local low
11/2/2006 A week of highs and lows in sport
10/26/2006 Curses! The U is foiled again
10/19/2006 Time for a trip to the sports mailbag
10/12/2006 U turns Granite Stare around on football
10/05/2006 James' gang riding into town to face the Celtics
09/28/2006 Words to describe a lost Red Sox season
09/21/2006 Football Friday can't stack up to Saturday
09/14/2006 A lesson to be learned in remembering a somber day
09/07/2006 Usual pat choice to win AFC East questioned
08/31/2006 Whining won't yank AL East away from NY
08/24/2006 Spring forward or fall behind for Sox
08/17/2006 Trash talking abounds in the Empire over Sox and Pats
08/10/2006 Monarchs call press conference to crown new leader
08/03/2006 Deadly Fenway duo leave mark on history
07/27/2006 Word of the wise gets lost in sports translation
07/20/2006 Looking beyond the Big Three
07/13/2006 Cream rises to the top of baseball talk at the Dot
07/06/2006 Greetings and salutations toThe Nation at mid-year
06/29/2006 Being dealt is a consequence of the trade
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06/15/2006 See dogs and cats battle for a different fan experience
06/08/2006 Not Bad Anymore league makes a comeback
06/01/2006 Luck goes Sox way with Lowell in Massachusetts
05/25/2006 Pitching in to help the Sox trade a few places
05/18/2006 Going to school by cutting Red Sox payroll
05/11/2006 Columnist blows his mind; here are the results
05/04/2006 Yanks stormed Manchester 37 years ago this week
04/27/2006 Regular crowd nowhere to be found come playoff time
04/20/2006 Questions and answers from the mailbag
04/13/2006 Local sports teams spring into action
04/06/2006 Predictable Red Sox season lies ahead
03/30/2006 Analyzing this and that as Pats roster shrinks
03/23/2006 A week of following the bouncing balls
03/16/2006 The beginning of four days of basketball bliss
03/09/2006 Many miss the central point of the story
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02/23/2006 Celtic green means raw, not envy as it once did

02/16/2003 An issue that is all black and white
02/09/2006 Nomar curses from the UL's Sullivan
02/02/2006 Super memories from 40 years of watching the big game
01/26/2006 A certain uniformity to the inquiries in the mailbag
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01/12/2006 Pats on the back for the football team
01/05/2006 Predictions for Manchester Sports 2031
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Turkeys and giving thanks take center stage this week
Yanked from the edge of your seat