At his public introduction as Celtics savior, Kevin Garnett tossed his first pitch to the Red Sox' David Ortiz and the earth shook under rickety old Fenway Park. The Big Ticket and Big Papi hugged to the surround sound of a long, loud ovation this week, a symbolic scene for a city that still takes its shots for the sins of yesteryear.
"There's no question that it was certainly symbolic of what sports can be all about," said Peter Roby, the longtime director of the Northeastern University Center for the Study of Sports in Society."
As NBA stars initially resisted chances to be parts of trades to the Celtics this summer, that old tag of Boston as an unpleasant destination for black players resurfaced again. Once more, there were vague charges that star ballplayers were leery of playing there because of doubts that transcended merely a bad team in a losing, lottery state. As it turned out, justly or not, there's a sense that the Boston Celtics needed the benefit – perhaps even the blessing – that comes with a star of Garnett's stature.
"I think it's an old cliche' that's going to soon disappear, if it's not evaporating as we speak," Garnett told the Boston Globe." … People say a lot of things, but to experience something is totally different."
So, you wonder: If this turns out to be a fabulous run for Garnett in Boston, do the Celtics ever have to defend themselves on race relations again?
Truth be told, Garnett's greatness carries with it a credibility unmatched in modern times for the Celtics. In the end, yes, he accepted the trade and contract extension because he believed that with Ray Allen and Pierce, he had a chance to contend for championships. Despite that, Garnett sought the counsel of past Celtics, Antoine Walker and Gary Payton, who both assured Garnett that it has long been a different day in Boston. To them, the lingering stereotypes of an unbearable racial climate no longer applied.
Go back and read the revelatory books, "The Selling of the Green," (1992) by Harvey Araton and Filip Bondy, or Howard Bryant's, "Shutout," (2003) and you'll understand that black athletes in Boston faced levels of racism and overt double-standards unmatched in most major American professional cities. As sports normally do, most of that reflected the world within Boston. Impressions stay with people, legacies linger and that's why these images struggle to die.
"I think (the racial climate) is much better than it was," said Roby, now the new athletic director at Northeastern. "What played out in Boston with civil unrest and (school) busing in the '60s and '70s was palpable for an athlete. A lot of resentment and pent-up frustration manifested itself along racial lines."
As much as any superstar, Garnett takes seriously the compact between a player and his town. So anchored, so loyal, to Minnesota, he became one of them. And they loved him for it. He was a one-man Chamber of Commerce. That's rarer in sports these days. It won't be long until Boston sees Garnett's value beyond that of one of the best six or seven players on the planet. The burden of a franchise player, he understands, means staying the course through good times and bad. In this max-out contract culture, asking out – running away, really – has become too accepted in the league.
"But I wouldn't want to put the pressure on Kevin Garnett that he's here to validate anything in Boston," said Roby, a past basketball coach at Harvard. "He's going to endear himself to the Boston fans because of the kind of player he is, the kind of leader he is. If you cannot like Kevin Garnett as a fan, then you've got real issues.
"For players who have never played in Boston, if they see Garnett and Ray Allen have a positive experience here, sure, that's going to send a message that maybe I should be considering it too."
After his long, loud standing ovation at Fenway Park on Wednesday, that symbolic scene between the Big Ticket and Big Papi, Garnett said that it felt like a different day in Boston. That old cliché, he called it, was evaporating before everyone's eyes.
Once and for all, maybe Kevin Garnett turns out to be the Celtic who makes it disappear.
- Kevin Garnett