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A Perceptible Change

The Boston Celtics head to the NBA Finals with a roster of black players.
The Boston Celtics head to the NBA Finals with a roster of black players. (By Jesse D. Garrabrant -- Nbae Via Getty Images)

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By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, June 5, 2008

BOSTON The Boston Celtics have no white players. Yes, it's a news flash, at the very least an obvious talking point.

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It wouldn't be if we were talking about the Knicks or 76ers or Lakers, but we're talking about the Celtics, the whitest team in the modern history of a decidedly black sport. Never mind the fact that the Celtics once upon a time had the blackest team in the NBA and the league's first black coach; everybody knows the Celtics are synonymous with whiteness, the team of white superstars and scrubs alike. When white players became an endangered species in the NBA in the late 1970s, the Celtics at times seemed to be the only team that could find any.

And it became, fairly or not, a big chunk of the team's identity, of why the Celtics were hated or beloved, depending on one's point of view. Their appearance was as noticeable as their athletic brilliance. And at a time when pop culture was telling us white men couldn't jump, the Celtics were a cultural curiosity and sometimes an obsession.

Yet, when the Celtics take the floor for Game 1 of the NBA Finals here Thursday night, chances are pretty good there won't be one white player in uniform. Brian Scalabrine and Scot Pollard are on the roster, but it's likely they'll be inactive and therefore not in uniform. Even if Scalabrine is active, chances are he won't actually play. It's not something that's discussed openly, just in whispers. Jon Barry, the former NBA guard who was drafted by the Celtics out of college and now works as an analyst for ABC/ESPN, said yesterday: "Did I notice they had no white players? Sure. Yes. I did notice, during warmups in the Detroit series. I thought, 'Man, there's not a white guy on the floor.' The Celtics were always known as 'the white team' . . . 'the white guys.' " They were described as being more fundamentally sound, able to outsmart the other teams, all that bogus, ludicrous stuff.

Barry, in case you don't know, is white. Jalen Rose, another former NBA player who works as an analyst for ESPN, is black. The question was asked: Notice anything special about the Celtics? "I know what you're talking about," Rose said. "I noticed right away. No white player on the floor. Can you imagine that? You know people who don't know any better are thinking, 'Red Auerbach must be rolling over in his grave!' "

The last time the Celtics won a title, in 1986, eight of the team's 13 players were white: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton, Jerry Sichting, Danny Ainge, Scott Wedman, Rick Carlisle and Greg Kite.

Now? Could be the Celtics will go the entire series without a white player on the floor, with one of the aforementioned white players, Ainge, having assembled this team.

Scalabrine has done a little research on the Celtics since joining them in 2005 because, well, these things come up. "Not from the media," Scalabrine said. "Not a single person in the media has asked me about it. You know where it comes up? I'll be walking in downtown Boston and people will say, 'Hey, how about getting some more white guys on the Celtics?' "

Scalabrine is a politically aware, socially conscious, self-effacing 30-year-old. He knows it must be fascinating to look at the Celtics, historically, from the outside. But as a player he can't. "It would be different if I was looking in, observing," he said, pausing. Then Scalabrine stepped back, opened his arms and said, "But I'm the white guy! When it's about you, you're blind to it."

Scalabrine knows about the hatred Bill Russell, Mr. Celtic, faced in metropolitan Boston in the 1950s and '60s. He has strong feelings about the NBA's image, of having far less fighting than baseball with its bench-clearing brawls or hockey with its sanctioned fisticuffs, yet having to constantly battle the perception that he plays in a thug league. "How can that perception not be race-related?" he asked yesterday.

The discussion of race and basketball doesn't take long to get to when the Celtics are involved, no matter who's wearing the uniform now. Sam Cassell, who joined the Celtics toward the end of the regular season, told the story of growing up in East Baltimore with his two favorite NBA players being white. "Larry Bird and Jeff Hornacek," Cassell said. "Why? Because they were both slow and they still got it done. I was the only kid in East Baltimore who loved Larry Bird. Did I get grief over that? Grief? Man, I'd have next and guys would say, 'You want next? Go to French Lick [Bird's home town] and get next there.' "

Everybody has a story about the Celtics, about a perception of the team, of Bird. Rose grew up in Detroit, a Pistons fan and a Celtic hater. "I went from crying when Bird stole the ball from Isiah and rooting against everything associated with Larry Bird, to having him as one of the biggest basketball influences in my life," Rose said, referring to his years playing for the Pacers when Bird was the head coach. "Bird's as much a brotha as anybody. We were from totally different worlds, yet had so much in common. It was awesome. I came back with Larry on his first trip back to Boston as coach. I get goose bumps thinking about it."

One of the things Rose did was learn as much as he could about Auerbach before the Celtics' architect passed away 20 months ago. "I don't think enough people know that Coach Auerbach empowered Bill Russell, hired him as head coach, at a time when I don't think any owner in any sport was doing that kind of thing. That was about 40 years ago. . . . You have to love that about him."

Jon Barry, son of Hall of Famer Rick Barry, grew up around basketball and he grew up "hearing the phrase 'token white guy' all the time," which didn't dissuade him from a career in basketball. "The funny thing is," Barry said, "my dad's best friend was Clifford Ray [who is black]. Charles Dudley, Charles Johnson [the Warriors' black players] . . . they were the guys who were around when I was a kid and I loved them. But in CYO basketball, we had no black guy on my team. There was only one black kid in the league in Northern California . . . We went to Oakland once, in the sixth grade, beat a [predominantly black] team there and had to have a police escort out of there. . . . Sixth grade! The thing is, there are certain perceptions about players or teams, but I think the bigger point to be made is most guys I've really gotten to know get past it all so quickly. It's not even a thought."

Perhaps it's not much of a thought now, not as much as it was every time the Celtics had a Greg Kite or Fred Roberts or Rick Robey on their roster. But perhaps it is. Black kids all over Boston are wearing Celtics jerseys, many for the first time. The stars are Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, all of them black. The head coach, Doc Rivers, is black.

Mark Jackson, who will call the action in these NBA Finals for ABC, grew up in New York hating the Celtics. Now, he observes as an outsider. "It's come such a long, long way," Jackson said the other day, "from what Bill Russell went through to the point where the city embraces this Celtics team that has essentially no white players. We've come this far. . . . Wow. I don't think this could have happened years and years ago. And I give credit to the guys on this Celtics team. They force you to like them because of the way they play and conduct themselves. You have no reason to dislike these guys. There's no reason to do anything but like them and admire the way they play, no matter what color they are."


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