"Two great whites, Bill Walton and Dave Cowens, jump center."
That's a photo caption from The Selling of the Green ( HarperCollins, $20), a new book about the Boston Celtics and, to a lesser extent, professional basketball.
Few white players in this alleged expos� get off as easy as Walton and Cowens. According to the authors—New York Times sportswriters Harvey Araton and Filip Bondy—the NBA's white centers are "immobile goons and geeks." NBA expansion teams are "repositories for white stiffs." White coaches are "clipboard coaches" and "technocrats."
The book's subtitle, The Financial Rise and Moral Decline of the Boston Celtics, conveys its thesis. We learn that the Celtics' Red Auerbach isn't so smart after all, because he leaned on a scout's advice in drafting Larry Bird; that Celtics opponents were annoyed when Auerbach lit up his famous victory cigars; and that the visitors' locker room at Boston Garden resembles a drunk tank. For these reasons, we're told, the Celtics are "one of the most despised franchises in all of professional sports."
Unfortunately, to turn this layup of an indictment into a slam dunk, the authors have to make the case that there are too many slow-footed guys playing basketball these days. "Slow-footed," if you don't know, is the current euphemism for honky, as in "the slow-footed Bird." In the Araton-Bondy lexicon "flawed," "valueless," "fading," "untalented" and "undeserving" are modifiers used to characterize whites, while "street smart," "respected," "joyous," "articulate" and "sensitive" are modifiers used to characterize blacks.
Is this reverse racism? The slow-footed Bondy and the pale, bespectacled Araton recoil at the idea. We're not the racists, they protest. We're exposing the racists! "How do you explain the recent [racial] balance of the Celtics," one of them asked during a recent radio interview, "in a league that's 72 percent black?"
One explanation—the authors'—is that the Celtics have tried to broaden their appeal in racially divided Boston by maintaining a racially balanced team. (Araton and Bondy don't put it that politely, of course. They call it pandering to "the local yokels.") It this is true, the Celtics could as well be applauded as denounced.
Another explanation: The Celtics might have more whites than the league average because they don't take race into account. If that seems farfetched, just remember that Auerbach's Celtics were the first NBA franchise to draft a black player, the first to hire a black head coach and the first to start an all-black lineup. True, Boston had eight whites on its roster during the 1985-86 season—but that bunch of stiffs and tokens won the NBA title.
Remember, too, that Bird and Kevin McHale, both certain Hall of Famers, have been with the Celtics for more than a decade. Over that period they have given Boston a "floor" of 17% white players, based on a 12-man roster. One more white player would make the Celtics 25% white—the maximum allowed, if we take the league average as a quota. To Araton and Bondy, every additional white Celtic is a racial affront—even when the white in question was an All-Star like Danny Ainge or a supersub like Bill Walton or Scott Wedman.
And that's what poisons The Selling of the Green: the calumny that all white players below star level are "stealing" from more deserving blacks. It's Shoal Creek turned inside out: basketball as, an exclusive private club, no whites need apply.