I guess I should have expected it. Boston sports fans are finally back in their favorite game venues, excitedly revved up after more than a year of live events banned or restricted because of the pandemic. No re-entry cautiousness for most, it seemed. They enthusiastically demonstrated the yelling, cursing, and throwing behavior that has long been a staple of crowd conduct at Fenway Park and TD Garden. That's probably why Celtics fan Cole Buckley felt completely comfortable tossing a water bottle at former Celtic now Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving. Don’t call the same old normal the new normal.
Surveillance video at the Garden showed the flying bottle narrowly missed Irving’s head. During the game, fans booed and cursed when he took the floor — something he worried might happen when he spoke to reporters the week before. He said then he hoped he wouldn’t be the subject of hostile catcalls and taunts. After the game and the bottle-throwing, he talked about the “underlying racism” of the incident and added, “Just throwing things and treating people like they’re in a human zoo, throwing stuff at people, saying things.”
This is not about one out-of-control fan, but about a pattern of behavior by numbers of mostly white fans targeting Black athletes here in Boston and elsewhere. NBA player Russell Westbrook, of the Washington Wizards, was pelted with popcorn, Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young was spit on, and a fan in Washington, DC’s Capital One Arena rushed onto the basketball court during the game between the 76ers and the Wizards. A security guard tackled him before he could grab one of the players. More than 70 percent of NBA professionals are Black, so it’s hard to argue that the underlying racism Kyrie Irving pinpointed is not a part of the increasing attacks — perhaps because several players have spoken out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. For the “shut up and dribble” fans, that’s a bridge too far. As far as they are concerned the players are entertainers who are paid big bucks to perform, period.
21-year-old water bottle thrower Cole Buckley was arrested, charged with assault, and ordered by a judge to stay away from TD Garden. Suffolk County District Attorney Rachel Rollins, who attended his hearing, called his actions “unprovoked workplace violence.” Rollins also addressed the racial dynamics saying, “It is not lost on me that he chose to do this in a sport that it overwhelmingly Black men.”
I hope the serious response to Buckley’s actions is a deterrent for others tempted to unleash their pent-up animosity. But mostly I’d like some acknowledgment that these racially motivated attacks are happening in the context of Boston’s ongoing history of complaints from Black players like Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones playing in Fenway Park in 2017. Jones reported being assaulted with the N-word and a bag of peanuts. His complaint rang true to many Black Bostonians who themselves have been victims of similar racist taunts. But then as now a lot of white Bostonians insisted it didn’t happen.
I wouldn’t have thought that Danny Ainge, former Celtic turned team executive, would be one of them. But Ainge told 98.5 the Sports Hub, “I never heard any of that from any player I’ve ever played with for 26 years in Boston.” Ainge who abruptly resigned his position as president of Basketball Operations just days ago added, “As far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter, we’re just playing basketball.” Except for players like Marcus Smart, LeBron James, and others who’ve shared their lived experiences — many times — it can’t be just a game. If Ainge, who worked alongside African-American players — for years — can’t or won’t hear them, what then?
Given today’s heightened racial tensions, I fear the throwing, spitting, and name-calling will continue until, as Portland Guard Damian Lillard, warns, “They do it to the wrong guy and get what they want.”