When a 21-year-old attendee of Game 4 of the Brooklyn Nets-Boston Celtics NBA Eastern Conference playoff series held at TD Garden in Boston last Sunday, maliciously hurled a bottle of Dasani water at Kyrie Irving as he and teammates exited the court at the end of the Nets’ 141-126 win, the racial symbolism and overtones were glaring.
The mistreatment perpetrated against the Nets’ Black, 28-year-old future Hall of Fame guard by the white Massachusetts man, was a scene that has been looped in a time warp, acted out from century to century in the theater of sports.
“It’s unfortunate that sports has come to a kind of crossroads, where you’re seeing a lot of old ways come up,” Irving reflected following the incident which resulted in the suspect, Cole Buckley, being charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. “It’s been that way in terms of entertainment, performers and sports for a long period of time and just underlying racism and just treating people like they’re in a human zoo. Throwing stuff at people, saying things.” Irving, seemingly the victorious gladiator, surely was deserving of public shaming and abuse by the empire’s audience.
Indeed, the late Larry Doby, the second Black player in Major League Baseball history, who made his debut with the Cleveland Indians on July 5, 1947, shared stories with this writer of the vile verbal taunts and solid projectiles directed at him by those who perceived themselves protectors of white supremacy.
“It challenged your manhood,” the soft-spoken Doby said at a celebration of the Negro Leagues held at Yankee Stadium. “I knew what Jackie had to go through, what he was going through,” Doby recalled, referring to Jackie Robinson, who broke MLB’s metaphorical color line only three months before he reached the majors.
“So I just tried to focus on the game. But I heard and saw what was going on. It was hard not to. The hate on people’s faces. I wasn’t worried about myself. I was more concerned about my family.” Preceding Robinson and Doby was the unapologetically antagonistic Jack Johnson, who traveled the world conquering white opponents as boxing’s first Black American heavyweight champion, winning the title over Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia in 1908.
The flamboyant Johnson was arguably the most reviled Black man in America of his day by white men, brashly flaunting his romantic relationships with white women. Johnson’s fights were famously venues for bigoted, blood thirsty patrons, many loudly calling for his lynching as he at once toyed with overmatched contestants inside the ring and taunted the venomous crowd packed around it.
This NBA postseason has elicited memories of post-antebellum America and the rule of Jim Crow, affirming the continued amplification of overt racism in this country. Yes, white athletes are also obscenely berated. And women and LBGTQ athletes frequently experience misogynistic and homophobic slurs.
But it is Black athletes in a sport predominated by Black players that are at the center of the storm. Irving was one of several players and/or their families who have been subjected to indecencies. Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young was spat on at Madison Square Garden during Game 2 of the Knicks-Hawks series. In the same game, Knicks rookie Immanuel Quickley had a beer thrown at him.
Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook was doused with popcorn in Philadelphia by a 76ers fan as he was entering the tunnel of the Wells Fargo Center at the conclusion of Game 2 of his team’s series with the Sixers. “This s* is getting out of hand,” said an exasperated Westbrook afterward. The accuser has been banned indefinitely from attending all events at the arena.
And three Utah Jazz fans have been prohibited from attending games at the team’s home arena after spewing racist and derogatory remarks at the parents of the Memphis Grizzlies 21-year-old rising superstar Ja Morant during Game 2 of Jazz-Grizzlies matchup.
The frustratingly prevailing perspective is the more things change, the more they stay the same.