Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Folks who think the Boston Celtics are a "white team"

don't know their history:
The Celtics were the first NBA franchise to draft an African-American player -- Chuck Cooper in 1950. They became the first NBA team to send an all-black starting lineup onto the floor. The man responsible was the same guy who put together the Celtics teams of the 1980s: Red Auerbach.

"I wasn't even aware of it," Auerbach once said about his historical lineup breakthrough in 1964. "They brought it to my attention later on. All we were trying to do here, all the time, is play the guys that, in our opinion, whether I'm coaching or someone else is coaching, is going to win the ballgame. That's all."

The Celtics made Russell the league's first black head coach. To date, only four black coaches have won a championship, and two of them were Celtics: Russell and K.C. Jones.

In college I had an African-American studies professor who used to check out the pickup basketball games at the rec center after he finished his workouts. After watching my push-it-up-and-dish-it style he told me I'd be a good fit for the Boston Celtics. I felt insulted, as if he'd told me my singing style would make me suited for the Partridge Family. But to older heads, the Celtics were innovative racial groundbreakers and pioneers of the up-tempo game (in 1960 they averaged 124.5 points).

The Celtics didn't just plug their African-American players into the lineup haphazardly. As Nelson George detailed in the book "Elevating the Game: The History and Aesthetics of Black Men in Basketball," the Celtics utilized African-Americans in ways that defied the stereotype of black players as flashy, athletic scorers. Starting with Russell, the black Celtics players were renowned for their defense, the aspect of the game associated with determination and hard work. That even carried on into the 1980s, with Dennis Johnson's playing the role of perimeter defensive stopper on the Celtics' last two championship teams.

In the ultimate irony, the lineage of John Thompson's Georgetown Hoyas -- who emerged as Black America's team at the same time the Celtics were at their palest -- could be traced back to Boston. Thompson learned his defense-first mind-set while playing for the Celtics in the 1960s.

This includes you, Spike Lee. I've been feeling badly about the Isaiah Era of your beloved team, but not so much today.

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