Luke Harangody, Boston and the Gathering Whiteness
Jack Hamilton concedes that if you’re a Celtics fan who’s reading this blog, you’re probably not a racist, but still secretly believes he’s even less racist than you. He writes elsewhere about music and other wonderful things. You can find him @jack_hamilton
The news that Shaquille O’Neal is now a Boston Celtic has been greeted with a desultory enthusiasm, as New England collectively smiles and lightly shrugs its shoulders. The Celtics have a long and speckled history of late-career renewal projects, from the memorable and successful (Wayne Embry, Bill Walton) to the forgettable and frankly depressing (Pete Maravich, Dominique Wilkins). Clearly Shaq brings along his own unique baggage to his sixth NBA team, but hey, the beat writers’ jobs just got a little easier, he swallowed his pride and signed for the veterans’ minimum, he’ll fill in credibly for Kendrick Perkins on the offensive end (we won’t talk about the other end), and with Kevin Garnett and the newly-signed Jermaine O’Neal, Danny Ainge has just successfully assembled the greatest collection of big men in the history of 2002.
So there’s that. The potential downsides are even duller and more predictable: Shaq wrangled an overly magnanimous two-year commitment from the team; his track record of toeing the company line when playing time and such don’t go to his liking is spotty, a worrisome issue if Perkins manages a recovery sooner rather than later; and, lastly, let’s face it, as Robbie Robertson said in The Last Waltz, it’s not like it used to be.
As a native Bostonian who’s spent a reckless amount of his conscious life pondering the various conditions of Celtic-ness, I confess to finding it hard to care. I like O’Neal well enough and in his prime he was one of the more memorable and compelling athletes of my lifetime, but he’s now the dumbest kind of interesting, the basketball equivalent of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book that you’ve already read cover-to-cover. His tenure in Boston will be of minimal cultural significance, and that will be just fine, and in many ways his signing provides a nice flourish to the narrative of Danny Ainge’s quixotic, “I want to grow old with you” offseason, the one that has the Celtics committing to a Wild Bunch-style final stand against the marauding usurpers in Orlando, Chicago, and of course South Beach. Shaq’s primary utility over the coming days, weeks and months will be cram this story into the molding of archetype. But I don’t think it’s the whole story, or even the story of the Celtics’ offseason. To claim it as such would be to willfully ignore the events of June 24, 2010, namely the dawning of the Luke Harangody Era and the new new whiteness in Boston basketball.
When it was announced that the Celtics would be using the 52nd pick in the 2010 NBA Draft to select Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody, the jokes, as they say, wrote themselves. Boston’s love affair with the white athlete is copiously documented and has a tendency of revealing itself in ways humiliating for those of us mistrustful of 19th-century ideas of innate racial character. Rarely has this been more perfectly exemplified than through the figure of Brian Scalabrine, whose position on the roster Harangody may soon usurp in a capital B, capital D “Business Decision” freighted with symbolic significance.
The Scalabrine Era in Boston was long-lasting, fascinating and mostly disgusting, a potent and unseemly cocktail of ethnic solidarity, backlash resentment and culturally retarded imaginings of white skin and its relation to the perennially popular bullshit “intangibles”: heart, hustle, grit, toughness, character. Most of this wasn’t really Brian Scalabrine’s own fault: he’d been the beneficiary of one of the worst contracts of the Danny Ainge era, cashing in on an overrated and overexposed run with the Kidd-era Nets and the influence of the Brain Doctor run amok in Beantown. Nor was it his fault that both prior to and during the Garnett years he was the most visible white player in a period during which Boston basketball became first unprecedentedly black and then unprecedentedly black and successful, a crucial shift from the times when widespread fan carping about the selfishness, laziness or “immaturity” of Antoine Walker or Ricky Davis or Paul Pierce (yes, even Pierce) could be comfortably couched by the team’s actual mediocrity.
But how those “Scal-a-brin-e” chants at the Garden and countless barstool encomia to the redhead’s gritty determination still stick in the craw. I remember attending a Celtics game several years ago with an out-of-town friend who is not a basketball fan. The Celtics were blowing out their opponent and at some point in the fourth quarter Doc Rivers called Scalabrine off the bench and the place went ballistic, cheering like crazy every time he got the ball, sometimes booing when he didn’t. “Why are they doing that?” my friend asked. I shrugged it off but the answer floated between us, obvious and awkwardly unsaid: because he looks like them.
It sounds innocuous but it’s not, and most racisms aren’t much more complicated than deciding you like people who look like you more than you like people who don’t. In sports, and especially in Boston, this plays out in a perverse and deeply fucked-up narcissism, as white people in a predominantly white city talk themselves into believing that Larry Bird or Tom Brady or Curt Schilling are somehow reflections of them, which in turn makes it oh-so-easy to elide something as superficial and tangible as skin color to something as vague and subjective as “integrity” or “character.”
Of course, the crucial difference between Larry Bird and Brian Scalabrine is that Larry Bird was extraordinarily good at basketball, whereas Brian Scalabrine is one of the worst players in the NBA. Curiously this meant that the platitudes of work ethic and gritty determination were redoubled, and the imagining of Brian Scalabrine as lovably oppressed underdog took shape. At its core was some truth: Scalabrine did work hard, and more importantly, he appeared to work hard. Of course, the reason that he appeared to work so hard was that the game of basketball was quite difficult for him, and the reason it was quite difficult was because he sucked at it.
This wasn’t a leap many fans were willing to make, and it’s here that the underlying racism of the cult of Scalabrine was most nakedly revealed. If you watch any amount of Celtics basketball and come away with the impression that Brian Scalabrine works harder than Kevin Garnett—and rest assured, there are people who believe this—there are far deeper pathologies at work than simple stupidity (although that’s assuredly at work as well).
It’s important here to bear in mind that, aside from possibly sex, sports is the earliest sphere of American culture where a myth of innate white disadvantage began to take hold. This is revealed in recognizable if incoherent form as early as Jack Johnson, but I’d venture that by the 1970s (and probably earlier) the idea that black men were inherently blessed with more athletic gifts than white men had become more or less common currency. Of course, many white sports fans and commentators continue to cling fast to the notion that white athletes are more “cerebral,” but the fact is that the various narratives of white disadvantage that now circulate through the American right were initially rehearsed in sports. And many fans who prattle on about how “hard” Brian Scalabrine plays don’t like to have it pointed out that this is because he sucks at basketball; they prefer to believe, either deep down or disturbingly close to the surface, that Scalabrine works harder than his darker-skinned teammates because these teammates have an innate and effortless advantage.
In a sense Scalabrine was something of a bridge figure—he’d started his tenure in Boston when the team was nearly unwatchably bad, and he managed to stick around through the Garnett/Allen acquisitions and the revitalization of Celtics basketball. The fact that he did this as the token white guy isn’t insignificant, because being the token white guy on a bad team where you’re expected to contribute is qualitatively different than being the token white guy on a great team where you’re expected to stay on the bench at all costs: one is tragedy, the other farce, or something.
The lack of basketball expectations meant that Scalabrine essentially came to function only symbolically, as a sort of imaginary space where white fans could try to make sense of what it meant to emotionally invest themselves in an unmistakably black team that was also very, every good. There started to be a sort of faux-irony attached the chants that didn’t exactly help things, because let’s face it, Boston hasn’t exactly earned the right to be ironic about that shit.
Now Scalabrine is gone, or at least appears to be soon, and it would seem that his symbolic void will be filled by Luke Harangody, a scrappy white boy seemingly from central casting: burly, undersized, questionable athleticism, even the Notre Dame pedigree, trading one questionable Irish mascot for another. The catch is that Harangody might actually be—gasp—good; when the pick was announced I braced myself for snarky texts from Boston-hating friends (and oh, how they came) but as a fan I found myself excited. It was a great pick, reminiscent of the Leon Powe heist of a few years ago: Harangody had played four highly productive seasons in a power conference, generally a decent (and painfully obvious) barometer for a productive NBA career. All physical limitations aside, he knows how to play basketball, and while there’s an outside chance that a first-round project like Daniel Orton will end up a star, if I had to choose which one had the better chance at a solid eight to ten years in the league I’d go with Harangody, and you probably would as well.
So now we’re looking at a situation where Boston might have landed its first genuinely effective white player since—who? Dino Radja? Even the Croatian chain-smoker never really achieved full-on lunchpail status with the Boston palefaces. After years of pulling embarrassingly overenthusiastically for Brian Scalabrine because he was white and sucked, along comes Harangody, who’s white and who might not suck (emphasis on “might”): this could fuck up the whole storyline.
If Scalabrine was the face of a new post-Bird whiteness in Boston, where racial solidarity had to be reconciled with gross incompetence through stories fans told themselves to naturalize this incompetence, Harangody could be the new new whiteness, complicating the myth of difficulty by actually being good at basketball. What happens if Luke Harangody is Big Baby Davis, a not-great but exceedingly serviceable NBA player who fills a role on the basketball court instead of simply in a deeply symbolic racial imaginary? What happens when he’s corralling offensive rebounds and feeding Ray Allen on the perimeter rather than sharing garbage-time with the likes of Bill Walker and J.R. Giddens? What happens if Brian Scalabrine and Luke Harangody share nothing more similar than a highly chant-able, four-syllable last name?
The jury is out and I desperately want to be surprised, but I already wish I hadn’t drawn attention to that last part.