The Boston Celtics are a storied franchise in more than just sports.

Many of its most ardent fans are not aware that Boston has deep historical ties to integrating African-American players into the sport of basketball, having fielded not only the first African-American player (Chuck Cooper, 1950), but also the first all-African-American starting five (K.C. Jones, Willie Naulls, Satch Sanders, Sam Jones and Bill Russell, 1964, under Red Auerbach) and the league’s first African-American coach (Bill Russell, 1966).

To this day, there have only been six African-American coaches in the league’s history who have won a championship, and three of them were Celtics - Russell, K.C. Jones, and Doc Rivers - four if you count Tyronn Lue’s tenure under Doc for the 2011-12 squad.

Bill Russell, in particular, was not only a trailblazer for African-Americans on the court, but also off. Deeply affected by the discrimination experienced as an African-American player breaking ground in what was then a white-dominated sport at both the college and professional levels, Russell was sometimes forced to seek out alternative accommodations when hotels would not rent him a room, and subject to racist jeers by mostly white audiences early in his career. As a result, Russell became involved in the civil rights movement, even marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963, and supporting Muhammad Ali’s decision not to serve in Vietnam.

Fifty-plus years later, things are looking eerily familiar. Tensions over the state of race relations in the US are at a near-boiling point, and many sports figures are using their fame to draw attention to the problem.

With civil rights struggles coming to the forefront of the league’s and nation’s consciousness in recent weeks after high-profile actions by leading sports stars like Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade at the ESPY Awards, and Colin Kaepernick’s controversial anthem protests, questions at Media Day events across the league touched on these actions, and Boston was no exception.

On social media, and in public forums like Media Day, current Celtics expressed their concern and support for these actions and the causes they represent, though not all agreed to comment on the contentious issues.

Coach Brad Stevens voiced support for Kaepernick’s right to protest as he believes he should, and Crowder for the growing movement among sports stars. As noted by Tim Westerholm of MassLive.com, Crowder said:

“I think it's good to shed light on our country and what we need to change, … I think for me personally, I'm going to take a different approach. I like to do more team stuff, not to seclude myself away from the team as much. But I do stand behind those guys who have did what they have done … I think as athletes, we have to take advantage of the stage we're on ... We have a platform to shed light on a situation in a positive way, to try to make a positive out of it. You can't fix negative problems with negative energy ... I want to do something positive to shed light on the situation ... I want to get better. I think, as a whole, our organization is in the same way. They want to get better. They want to change. We have to do that together.”

While Crowder was non-committal about the form his action might take, it’s in the team’s character for its players to do so. With the support of coaches like Brad Stevens, Steve Kerr and Greg Popovich, it seems to be something gaining ground in the league as well.

While the form of Kaepernick’s protest  is understandably off-putting to some, it is, as Kerr notes, meant to start a much-needed conversation on issues like police brutality and institutionalized racism in the US. It remains to be seen how such a conversation can make ground on resolving these issues, and what form(s) such action should take, but the Boston Celtics, as they always have, look to be leaders in that area.

Data courtesy of www.basketballreference.com
Follow Justin at @justinquinnn

Justin Quinn 10/02/2016 02:50:00 PM Edit
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