Boston's TD Garden is known to be a rough place for opponents, especially during the playoffs. Still, Brooklyn Nets star and former Celtic Kyrie Irving raised eyebrows when he addressed the possible animus he might face from Boston fans in his first return to the Garden on Friday night since leaving the team two years ago. Irving's Nets currently have a 2-0 lead over the Celtics in the opening round of the NBA playoffs.

“I’m just looking forward to competing with my teammates and hopefully we can just keep it strictly basketball," he said, that "there’s no belligerence or any racism going on, subtle racism and people yelling [expletive] from the crowd, but even if it is, it’s part of the nature of the game and we’re just gonna focus on what we can control.”

Irving was coy when asked if he had any experience with that in Boston.

“I’m not the only one that can attest to this, but, it’s just, you know….It is what it is," he said.

Irving’s comments, which play on Boston’s troubled reputation among Black athletes, come as the return of NBA fans has been tarnished by highly publicized incidents of visiting players getting harassed on court.

On Wednesday night, a fan in Philadelphia dumped popcorn on the Washington Wizard's Russell Westbrook as the injured star limped off the court in what is purportedly the City of Brotherly Love. That same evening, a fan in New York spat on Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks during a game at Madison Square Garden.

Those two incidents were top of mind for Celtics’ forward Jayson Tatum when he spoke to the press about Irving’s remarks.

“I think it’s just a certain way that fans should act while still enjoying the game and cheering for their respective teams," he said. "I think that’s what I feel like he was alluding to.”

Tatum said he couldn't say if Irving was speaking from experience, but Celtics guard Marcus Smart said he’s heard racist taunts from Celtics' fans directed at opposing players.

“And it’s kind of sad and sickening because even though it’s an opposing team, we have guys on your home team that your saying these racial slurs and you expect us to go out here and play for you," Smart said. "It’s tough.”

During an interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Irving never mentioned anything happening to him during his time in Boston, but acknowledged that doesn't mean it didn't happen. In another interview on 98.5, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said he had never heard comments along those lines from Irving or any other players.

For Joseph Cooper, a UMass-Boston professor who studies gender and race in sports, Irving's remarks, along with the incidents in Philadelphia and New York, raise troubling questions about how fans view athletes, and Black athletes in particular.

“There’s that dynamic there from a psychological standpoint that because I pay to come see you, I have the right to engage in whatever type of actions I want," he said. "Because ultimately you’re here to entertain me, you’re not a human being performing a job, you’re an entertainer serving my purpose.”

Cooper points out that, as many know, Boston has a difficult history with racism, specifically when it comes to sports. The Red Sox was the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate. Fenway has also been singled out by opposing players as a difficult place to play because of racist remarks from fans. Cooper notes that Celtics legend Bill Russell infamously called Boston a "flea market of racism."

“I mean Bill Russell’s whole story, even after he won all those championships, he didn’t want to come back to Boston," Cooper said.

Irving is sure to get booed as he returns to the parquet in front of Celtics’ faithful. But whatever happens at TD Garden beyond that may be as telling as anything of what lessons, if any, Boston has learned after a year of supposed self-reflection.