An Opinionated Man
A couple weeks ago, Henry Abbott at TrueHoop offered a post entitled "Black Athletes Have Long Seen Boston As Racist" which touched upon a couple thoughtful pieces published recently - J.A. Adande's look at how the Celtics organization were racial pioneers - which runs counter to perceptions that developed in the '80s - and John Gonzalez's feature-length story on the past and present of athletes' perceptions of Boston racism, from Boston magazine.
A central figure in the history of black athletes and Boston racism is of course the great Bill Russell. Indeed, Adande noted right upfront that Boston "had a long-standing reputation -- fueled in part by stories Bill Russell told -- of being an unfriendly location for African-Americans."
Gonzalez's story included this: "Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell may have been named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players, but that didn't shield him from bigotry during his playing days. Russell, who once called Boston a 'flea market of racism,' even had vandals break into his home just to defecate in his bed."
I decided to look back through Russell's acclaimed autobiographies - Go Up For Glory (1966) and Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man (1979) - to dig a little deeper into his perspective on Boston racism.
I thought that Russ's perspective might be relevant to the issue today, but frankly, it was less so than I expected. His books are really documents of their times - the heart of the civil rights era in the '60s and the aftermath of the ferocious desegregation busing controversies of the '70s, respectively.
As the effects of events of those times still inevitably linger in modern-day Boston, then sure, Russell's experiences are essential background to understanding why athletes' perceptions about Boston may be what they are today. But all in all, his books feel too unique to their particular times to be directly relevant to Boston circa 2008.
That's not to say that Go Up For Glory and Second Wind aren't fascinating. They are. My reaction upon skimming back through them was mainly this: Damn.
The man did not pull any punches whatsoever in terms of expressing what he thought, in unvarnished, uncompromising terms. Modern-day athlete autobios so often seem manufactured to fall somewhere between anodyne and salacious, so it's jarring to me to be reminded how engaging and genuinely provocative the Russell books are. You might love Russ if you read these books or you might hate him, but I'm pretty certain you'll have an strong opinion about him.
Russell's comment about Boston being a "flea market of racism" was from a passage in Second Wind about where he stood in terms of Martin Luther King vs. Malcolm X (note that Russell's co-author, Taylor Branch, is best known for his monumental Pulitzer Prize-winning America in the King Years trilogy - not your average jock ghostwriter!):
- Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had the most passion among black national leaders then, and I was drawn to both of them. When Dr. King's voice rose to that preacher's pitch, and he rocked back and forth in his shoes, all my old church days came back strong. Initially, however, I had the same reservation about Dr. King that I had about the Vietnam War: the white people in Boston liked him, and so I knew something must be wrong. To me, Boston itself was a flea market of racism. It had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form. The city had corrupt, city-hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-'em-back-to-Africa racists, and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists (long before they appeared in New York).
I had no doubt about those people in Boston because I saw them every day. They constantly surprised me, since I thought of Boston as the city where Paul Revere rode for freedom. If Paul Revere were to ride today, it would be for racism: "The n------ are coming! The n------ are coming!" he'd yell as he galloped through town to warn neighborhoods of busing and black homeowners. Most of the Irish Catholics in Boston were ready to pick your fillings out if you weren't the right religion or from the right clique - much less from the right race - and almost everybody else wouldn't acknowledge you unless you'd gone to the proper school and came from the proper family. I had never been in a city more involved with finding new ways to dismiss, ignore or look down on other people. Other than that, I liked the city.
One last note apropos of largely nothing.... In this era in which players' bodies are essentially canvases of avant-garde art, I was amused when I found this passage while flipping through Go Up For Glory:
- I came to Boston in December  and I came in under a lot of pressure.... I was six feet, ten inches tall, and a Negro. And I began wearing a beard, just to be different. After the first season, I let Heinsohn shave my goatee off in the celebration over the world championship.
The next year I just grew it back. People have commented on the beard ever since. It has become the cause célèbre of the NBA. Everyone says, "He could be a nice guy. Why doesn't he shave that beard?"...
I wear it maybe to let people know that I am an individual. I am me. It's just something I want to do. It's part of me.