BOSTON — Kyrie Irving was shook in Game 3, his first in front of Celtics fans since breaking his promise to re-sign. But, by the end of Game 4, he flipped the script on TD Garden's first capacity crowd in 15 months.
A single fan threw a water bottle in Irving's direction as he exited the floor following a brilliant 39-point performance that helped his Brooklyn Nets to a 141-126 win and a 3-1 first-round series lead. As Celtics guard Marcus Smart said afterwards, "One bad seed doesn't mean the whole fruit is poisoned," but all it takes is one to confirm Irving's fears and remind us that we as a society are not actually better than this.
Kyrie Irving was right, and that is the last thing Boston ever wanted to hear.
After winning the first two games in Brooklyn, Irving said of his return to TD Garden, "Hopefully we can just keep it strictly basketball. There's no belligerence or any racism going on — subtle racism and people yelling s*** from the crowd." His comments were met in Boston with a mix of eye rolling and defensiveness, even as Celtics players Marcus Smart and Tristan Thompson confirmed a history of racism from the crowd.
For his part, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said, "I never heard any of that from any player that I’ve ever played with in my 26 years in Boston." It was evidence of a disconnect in dialogue.
It is no coincidence a white man in a Celtics jersey felt entitled enough to throw a water bottle at a Black athlete. Same goes for the white man in New York who spit on Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young. Alleged racial slurs directed at the family of Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant from fans in Utah were far more overt.
“We are not animals. We are not in the circus," Nets star Kevin Durant said on Sunday from Boston. "You coming to the game is not all about you as a fan. Have some respect for the human beings and have some respect for yourself. Your mother wouldn’t be proud of you throwing water bottles at basketball players or spitting on players or tossing popcorn. So grow the f*** up and enjoy the game. It’s bigger than you."
"It's been that way in history in terms of entertainment and performers in sports for a long period of time," Irving added on a conference call, "and just underlying racism and treating people like they're in a human zoo. Throwing stuff at people. Saying things. There's a certain point where it gets to be too much. I called it out. I wanted to keep it strictly basketball, and then you just see that people just feel very entitled out here.
"They pay for their tickets — great, I'm grateful that they're coming in to watch a great performance — but we're not at the theater. We're not throwing tomatoes and other random stuff at the people who are performing. It's too much, and it's a reflection on us as a whole when you have fans acting like that."
Kevin Durant is right. Kyrie Irving is right.
And so was Boston's Jaylen Brown, who said Friday, "I do think racism is bigger than basketball, and I do think racism is bigger than Game 3 of the playoffs. I want to urge the media to paint that narrative as well."
So, here we are. Let's talk about it. There were plenty of people equating the Boston fan's actions with Irving's decision to step on the face of the leprechaun in the Celtics logo at halfcourt following the game. Don't be one of those people. One is an inanimate object, the other is a person. A son. A father. If in any way you draw a correlation between the two, you are further perpetuating the dehumanization of Irving.
You are further confirming Irving's point.
There will be people who say the water bottle-throwing incident was not racially motivated, if there aren't already. That it was motivated more by the disdain Boston fans have for Irving after he left them to pair with Durant, his friend and fellow superstar, in Brooklyn. That line of thinking brings comfort to the majority of the capacity crowd that figured "f*** you Kyrie" was a creative chant when their team was down 27 points.
Yes, Irving quit on the Celtics, and yes, there are better ways to remind him of that.
Broaden your viewpoint a bit, and you may begin to see Irving's perspective. Consider the social construct that led to a white man feeling empowered enough to throw a water bottle at a Black man for making a personal decision about where he wants to work — even after Irving publicly outlined the difference between basketball fandom and "subtle racism." The audacity to behave that way after three fan incidents led the NBA this week to issue an enhanced code of conduct is an entitlement generations in the making.
We are also quick to cast this fan as a solo act. After all, Friday's Game 3 went off without incident. Irving even egged on boos and expletive-laden chants from that crowd of almost 5,000, all while succumbing to the pressure of performing in front of a hostile crowd as his team suffered defeat. We nearly got through Game 4, too, but for a projectile catching Irving at the last possible moment before he entered the tunnel.
It would be one bad seed if not for seeds everywhere. In Boston. In New York City. In Utah. Those seeds come from those who grew before them, and when they're planted, they give rise to more, unless we root them out at every turn. The Boston fan, identified by police as Cole Buckley, 21, was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and banned from TD Garden for life. That is a start. It is not the end.
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