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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.