I’ve been spending the last few weeks trying to understand what it means to be a fan from Boston.
The topic first came up in my classroom, when two of my colleagues (one of whom is a Yankees fan and the other of whom is a Lebron fan) accused Boston of being a terrible place to play sports. Later that day, I learned about an incident at a recent Red Sox game when a bunch of Boston fans yelled racist slurs at an opposing player, an incident that sparked a national conversation about racism in Boston.
I am a Boston fan, and I know Boston is racist because Bill Russell said Boston is racist. As a lifelong Celtics fan who was raised on the original Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, I love and revere Bill Russell, and if this person whom I love tells me Boston is racist, I have to believe him, just as I would have to believe Tom Brady if he told me Vince Wilfork was gay.
Russell’s statement is corroborated by players in a variety of leagues. There is no dispute of this. I know Boston is racist.
But Boston also isn’t racist. The very next night at the Red Sox game, the entire stadium gave a standing ovation to the opposing player who received those slurs, and that too is a testament to the quality of the fanbase.
There are racists among us. We know this. But we don’t want the racists to define us.
We want to be defined by one thing: our ability to make a difference on the court or on the field.
It means something to play a home game in Boston. I know home teams everywhere have the advantage, but in Boston, it’s more than an advantage. It’s a legacy. Bill Russell (and Red Auerbach) gave us that legacy, and that is one of the reasons we will always love him. Together, Russell & Auerbach taught us not to expect anything less from our teams than a championship (a lesson Tom Brady and Bill Belicheck have been reinforcing for almost fifteen years now).
As fans, we see ourselves as having one job. When the visiting team comes to town, we want them to get nervous to play in front of us. We’re not on the court or on the field, and we don’t have the talent or the discipline to develop a career in professional sports, but we do have one skill: we can get fucking rowdy, and even though we’re stuck in the seats, we can use our words and our noise to get inside their heads (not to mention the heads of the refs, who, it turns out, are really affected by home-court crowds).
That’s the one thing we can do to help our city win a championship, and we take that job very seriously.
While that rowdiness is directed at the opposing team, it has the additional benefit of charging up our players. If, as a player for the home team, you need the crowd to give you energy in the fourth quarter, the ninth inning, or the third period, you can count on Boston to give it you.
And because of that, we — the Boston crowd — can make a real difference in the game. We know we do.
As a player, that’s what you should expect from us. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black or Canadian, if you play hard enough to stay competitive, then the fans of Boston can provide the energy you need to take it the rest of the way. We cannot give you talent, but we can give you energy; and in the playoffs, energy makes the difference. As Bill Russell once said, “The great reward is watching the other team slowly suffocate.”
But it’s not just the racist thing, or the energy thing, that makes Boston fans who we are.
Two nights ago, in game five of a seven-game series, the Celtics needed a win at home. The story of the series is that the Celtics fought tooth and nail to win two games at home, and then they got blown out of the water for two games on the road, making themselves look very, very bad on the national stage.
During the first of those road games (game 3), a young player on the opposing team named Kelly Oubre charged and shoved one the Celtics players, a white doofus named Kelly Olynyk. Now some people hate Olynyk (maybe rightfully so), but the doofus actually plays the game well sometimes, draining threes when they matter, playing defense with a real sense heart (if not always real smarts), and even causing turnovers at crucial points in the game.
Anyway, in game three, Oubre shoved Olynyk, Olynyk went flying, and controlled chaos erupted on the floor. When everything settled down, Oubre got ejected from game three and suspended for game four.
All of which meant that Oubre’s first game back after the incident was this one, game five, when the series came back to Boston.
Oubre is not a starting player. But about five minutes into the game, when the Celtics had demonstrated that this wasn’t going to be the same kind of team the Wizards faced in Washington and that the game was probably not going to go the Wizards’ way, the Boston crowd started chanting, “We want Oubre! We want Oubre!” Oubre hadn’t played yet. He was still sitting on the bench. And the Boston fans were calling him out (later in the game, the chant would change to something more profane).
That’s also what it means to be from Boston. It means that when the opposing team comes to town, we’re going to talk shit to them. We’re like those guys clustered around two fighters in the street. We’re not in the fight ourselves, but man, we’re gonna talk shit to anyone whose trying to beat our boys at home. We can’t be in the ring (which is why we can’t wear the ring), but we can talk shit if it helps our boys defend the home turf.
I love that about us.
It’s just that sometimes, the shit we say can be rather shitty.
Here’s another story. A week or so ago, soon after the racist slur incident, a fan used the jumbotron at Fenway Park to propose to his girlfriend, making the grandest gesture he could think of. And the girl said no….on the jumbotron.
And what did the Boston crowd do? It started chanting, “She said no! She said no!”
That’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s also hilarious. It doesn’t take into account how devastated that man must have felt, nor how embarrassed that woman had to be, which means in some real humane sense, it was a completely shitty thing for the crowd to do, but it’s also hilarious.
(There’s a reason Louie C.K. will always be a Boston comic, regardless of where he lives or how big he gets. With Louie, everything that is shitty about life is also hilarious. Using a master’s control of his craft, Louie’s stand-up bits and television shows demonstrate in exacting and emotional detail how shitty life human existence can be in the twenty-first century, but they also make us experience how funny it can be at the exact same time. That’s a sensibility you get from living in Boston.)
And I love that about us. We can be shitty and funny at the exact same time and as an entire crowd: tens of thousands of people being shitty and funny together. It’s great.
And it’s part of what makes Boston Boston. And it’s why “I love that dirty water….”