Sports Illustrated – Shortly after leaving the only NBA team he’s ever known, Al Horford was in Boston with a friend he’s known since his rookie season. It was early July. He was throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park. David Ortiz was waiting at the plate.
The delivery took a few extra seconds.
Horford’s son, Ean, 17 months old, was on the mound with him, but he was scared of the crowd. He’d wrapped himself around his father’s leg and refused to let go. Finally Horford had to force the issue, winding up and lobbing a soft strike to Ortiz. His son tumbled to the ground, right before his dad picked him up and raised him up like Simba is in The Lion King.
Fenway loved it.
Horford’s welcome to Boston was official.
The spectacle was everything Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Sharp cracked it up to be.The old guard passed the torch to another Dominican son in front of a sold out Fenway Faithful. At the same time, it was something that might not have been believed to be possible to the outside world. Sprinkled throughout the history of Boston sports are stories that paint the town as undesirable for minority athletes, the Boston Red Sox and Boston Celtics in particular.
The Red Sox were the last team in the MLB to integrate when they promoted Pumpsie Green to the big league club in 1959, amongst charges of discrimination This was 12 years following the debut of Jackie Robinson, a player that owner Tom Yawkey famously spurned in 1945 when Robinson was pestered with racial epithets while trying out in front of a crowd that consisted only of Red Sox management.
In the North End of Boston around the same time, Red Auerbach and the Celtics represented everything that Yawkey detested. In his first year at the helm, the Auerbach made history by drafting the first black player when he drafted Chuck Cooper in 1950. This was followed by Auerbach starting the first all-black starting five in 1964 and his naming of Bill Russell as head coach in 1966, making him the first black head coach in professional sports. However, Auerbach’s willingness to go against the status quo didn’t spread through the city or the fan base. Russell, the most accomplished professional athlete of all time, who described the city as “a flea market of racism” in his 1979 memoir “Second Wind”. Russell went 30 years without his presence being felt in the city that he brought to NBA prominence, a drought lasting from his final game in Boston in 1969 to a ceremony in the spring of 1999 which Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe described as “shamefully belated“.
The inability to heal Russell’s wounds mixed with the emergence of Larry Bird and the Celtics status as a “white team” led to a whole generation of basketball fans with a preconceived notion what the Celtics, and the city of Boston represented. That night, Bill Russell’s night in the spring of 1999, Paul Pierce scored 27 points . Nine years later he would find himself in the midst of a playoff run that would bring banner 17 to Boston with new acquisitions Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen by his side.
The addition of Garnett in the summer of 2007 was the beginning of something that seemed new for the Boston Celtics. As ESPN’s JA Adande explained in a piece titled The truth isn’t always black and white for Celtics from December of 2007, there was uneasiness in the black community about rooting for these new Boston Celtics because of their recent history. Adande makes note that a lot of the younger fans fail to recognize what the Celtics, and Auerbach in particular, did for African-American’s in basketball. However, the topic of racism in Boston wasn’t being treated with kid gloves, like Adande’s, across the board. Michael Wilbon of The Washington Post and ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption took to Dan Patrick’s national ESPN radio show on the day the Celtics acquired Garnett to voice his opinion.
Wilbon said, “First of all, it’s a bad team. 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.”
In John Gonzalez’s January 2008 piece for Boston Magazine titled Playing Through the Pain looking into whether or not it is fair for Boston to continue to carry the burden of its racist past. He writes, “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.”
The interaction between Ortiz and Horford that day on the mound in front of a packed Fenway Park says a lot about where we have come. David Ortiz, the face of the Boston Red Sox, hailing from the Dominican Republic introduced his city to the new face of the Boston Celtics in Horford, another Dominican son as well as the highest profile free agent to sign with the Celtics since, well, forever. Ortiz will leave behind a team carried by a core of young talent with the majority being compromised of minority players while Horford will take the reigns of a Celtics team that is decades removed from its reputation for being white washed.