8.10.2010

Luke Harangody, Boston and the Gathering Whiteness

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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21 Comments:

At 8/10/2010 1:14 PM, Blogger Two Ls in Cassell said...

good lord, that was great.

"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."

In what distant era will euphemisms for "white" just be replaced with "white?"

 
At 8/10/2010 1:42 PM, Blogger SpoonyBard3000 said...

Beautiful article. As someone who has never been to Boston, I'd always assumed that the Scalabrine chants were more a bullish victory cigar - a way of emphasizing that "we can beat you even with this guy" - like Darko seemed to be in Detroit. Of course, it was understood that Darko wasn't very good (right?); I just assumed it was understood for Scal as well.

 
At 8/10/2010 1:54 PM, Blogger Jon said...

Forget racism. IIRC, the Celtics were one of the few, if not only teams who had no Euros or other foreigners.

 
At 8/10/2010 2:17 PM, Blogger Tom said...

Yeah...that's what I always thought the Scalabrine chants were about, too. At UF, we'd always go crazy when Brett Swanson, a walk-on, would get in the crowd. Granted, he was white, but so were plenty of other players who weren't crowd favorites (Nick Calathes, Chandler Parsons.)

 
At 8/10/2010 2:38 PM, Blogger walrusoflove said...

great post!

been to a bunch of Cs games with my wife (not from around here). she was so completely confused by the 'scal-a-bri-ne!' chants and the 'shoot!', 'shoot!' every time he touched the ball in garbage time. if she had asked me to explain the intricacies of the triangle, i'd have had a more simple answer. she just kept saying how sorry she felt for him. the apparent support was actually face punches. a crockery of mockery.

my all time favorite scal moment is when he came in and manned-up jsmoove one game last year in meaningful minutes. you could see josh's eyes light up when he saw scal checkin and they fed him like 5 straight possessions. scal locked him down every time. i mean solid d. it was my double-rainbow moment, i started shouting at the TV, "what does it mean?! what does it mean?!" sob. sob.

if harangody went to west virginia, do the Cs draft him? i say no chance....unless he had ronald mcdonald hair.

 
At 8/10/2010 2:43 PM, Blogger Jon said...

West Virginia? Didn't they give Kevin Pittsnoggle a look in camp once?

BTW, I do think there is a white pride thing for some fans vis a vis Scal. I've seen "Token White Guy" t-shirts.

 
At 8/10/2010 4:19 PM, Blogger SpoonyBard3000 said...

Yeah, I thought it was established a while back that WV is the new favorite team for white devil slave-masters:

http://freedarko.blogspot.com/2010/03/tfeht-dna-evol.html

I still suspect that the Scalabrine fandom is more of a joke than an honest identification, but it would be strange indeed to see a successful Celtics team with no white guys at all. My feeling about sports fans is more or less my feeling about America - most people just want to win, or to be associated with the winner, and everything else is negotiable. Ideas (if they can be called that) like "heart" and "character" only get broken out in order to justify or protect a sense of superiority that would be just as fragile in any other context, regardless of race. Then again, I've also never heard anyone say that Scalabrine works harder that Kevin fucking Garnett, but I'm sure it's been said. Maybe I'm just not hanging around with the right crowd.

 
At 8/10/2010 6:32 PM, Blogger tray said...

There are a lot of things I disagree with here, but chief among them is the notion that Scalabrine was am (ironic?) fan favorite purely because he was white. That's like saying Artest is beloved by Queensbridge residents because he's black. No; Artest has particular qualities that endear him to a particular group of people, and the same goes for Scalabrine, who distinctly looks like someone who wandered off of the set of Cheers. Had J.J. Redick, a much better-looking, preppy, well-to-do kind of white guy, been drafted by the Celtics, I really doubt that there would've been the same degree of affection. Then there's this:

"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."

Aren't these two statements - he sucks at basketball, his teammates have an innate advantage - kind of the same thing, or pretty closely related propositions? And aren't they both true? Scalabrine's black teammates mostly jumped higher, ran faster, and/or were stronger. They are innately advantaged, he's innately disadvantaged because he sucks, whatever. It comes to the same thing - the guy was born a whole lot less athletic than most of them were.

 
At 8/10/2010 9:15 PM, Blogger cmoney said...

While I hated the Scal chants in the Garden, the notion that they were predominantly pro-whitey isn't correct. They were vicious, cruel mocking. Sure, the fact that he was white made it ok to do so in their minds, but this wasn't some embrace of a like-skinned brother in arms against the oppressive black athletes of our time.

"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."

It's not necessarily racist to even do that. There's a line between cultural pride and actual racism. No one was crying "racist" when Dominicans flooded Fenway to watch Pedro pitch. We all thought it was pretty cool, and didn't care that most disappeared by '07 when it was Beckett, Lester, and Papelbon pitching their way to a WS win. And you'd be hard pressed to say Garden crowds were tempered when all-black lineups were thrashing teams. Aside from the Rose Garden and maybe Energy Solutions, Boston crowds are the loudest in the league(sidenote: how come whiteness/racist NBA articles always center around Boston and not Salt Lake? Or even Indy, where their post-Artest PR campaign about getting "good guys" happens to align with them having the whitest team in the league?).

@Jon
"Forget racism. IIRC, the Celtics were one of the few, if not only teams who had no Euros or other foreigners."

Who gives a shit? The front office cares about one thing: winning. Any front office worried about identity politics rather than winning is a joke. But just to comfort you, they've been pursuing a trade for Rudy Fernandez for the past 3 weeks. And jesus, Dino Radja was one of the earlier Euros to play in the league, before the era of regularly seeing 5+ internationals picked each draft.

@Spoony
"I still suspect that the Scalabrine fandom is more of a joke than an honest identification, but it would be strange indeed to see a successful Celtics team with no white guys at all."

I agree with the first part completely. As for the second half, isn't that basically what we've seen the past 3 years? Do you think anything changes, other than no mockingly overenthusiastic cheering, if Scal isn't on the Cs these past 3 years? The fans don't go nuts for KG? Rondo? They don't sell out 3 straight seasons? KG isn't one of the tops in jersey sales? They don't freak out when they win it all in '08?

Absolutely nothing would change. It'd just be a bunch of rabid basketball fans cheering on a great team.

 
At 8/11/2010 10:40 AM, Blogger SpoonyBard3000 said...

@cmoney

I understand what you’re saying, but this isn’t the first article I’ve read by Celtic fan (also a person from Boston) who says that race - and race-identification - plays a part in sports fandom for that team and that city. I think you’re right when you say that the fans will cheer the team (if they win) regardless of what race the players are. Like I said, most people just want to win. But I’m also not willing to disregard the testimony of people who have actually lived there who believe that there’s something going on here beyond good-natured ribbing of the goofy white guy. The reason he’s not calling out Indy or Salt Lake is probably because he’s never lived there.

As a person who lives in Chicago, I know there was never a contingent of fans who completely lost their shit whenever Aaron Gray stepped on the court, and I never overheard anyone trying to explain away his mediocrity by saying he worked hard or had “character.” (Andres Nocioni did get these sort of massages from time to time in the newspapers, but I never knew a fan who felt the same way).

Obviously you're a fan of the team, and that's great. I'm not trying to dog them, or to suggest that anyone who roots for the Boston Celtics is racist. But if you think that race has absolutely nothing to do with it, I think you're missing something.

 
At 8/11/2010 12:50 PM, Blogger Deckfight said...

i blame simmons. there somebody had to say it.

also, i do wonder about the last sentence, about the name and its ability to be drawn and echoed out in a crowd setting.

in college we went crazy for a very tall black center with the name 'coulibali' who played very sparing minutes. it was a fun name to chant, fun to root for the guy who didn't get used much.

so maybe we should call it what it is: semantics, on multiple levels.

 
At 8/11/2010 5:24 PM, Blogger Jacob said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 8/11/2010 5:25 PM, Blogger Jacob said...

Apologize for the typos...

 
At 8/11/2010 5:28 PM, Blogger Jacob said...

I think this article really does a great job illuminating why so many people in this country prefer college basketball. I grew up in a fairly large city without an NBA team, and currently reside in a college town. Since I was a boy, I've been searching for answers as to why people prefer a game that is so obviously inferior. I mean, you hear the bullshit about college players having better fundamentals, or they hustle more, or they play better defense, etc. Now, anybody that actually WATCHES both levels of basketball clearly knows that college player absolutely DO NOT have better fundamentals, and absolutely, positively DO NOT player better defense. So what it is? There are less gifted athletes in college. And yes, good white players are more prevalent in college. There are more guys in college who give the appearance of trying really hard, but it's honestly because they aren't as good. Of course they don't look as effortless, because there is more effort involved. They are worse athletes. MLB hitters look more effortless at the plate as well(except Gary Sheffield, of course).

I'm rambling now, but if I ever hear anyone go on about how the NBA doesn't play D, or how they don't care about winning, not only will I assume the person doesn't know shit about basketball, but I will typically assume that they have some MASSIVE racial hangups.

 
At 8/12/2010 8:39 PM, Blogger Joshua R said...

As a person who lives in Chicago, I know there was never a contingent of fans who completely lost their shit whenever Aaron Gray stepped on the court, and I never overheard anyone trying to explain away his mediocrity by saying he worked hard or had “character.” (Andres Nocioni did get these sort of massages from time to time in the newspapers, but I never knew a fan who felt the same way).

Aaron Gray is not as completely fucking hilarious and heat-attack inducing as Brian Scalabrine. They weren't laughing with him, they were laughing at him. This is not to deny race and sportsdom in American sports, particularly basketball, because obviously that's involved - it is to argue that the majority of Scalabrine "love" came from him being comic relief. If that is the case, then this might translate better into a story about secret self-loathing than anything else.

 
At 8/13/2010 1:05 PM, Blogger Ken Drinkwater said...

Yeah. When a minority group has ethnic pride, it's considered solidarity; when a majority group has ethnic pride, it's considered racism. Scal's shittiness and awkardness allows the whites to cheer for the concept of whiteness without being racist; in fact, it allows them to actually inhabit the role of the minority, which for them must be an exciting departure - sort of like how a wealthy suburbanite with a comfortable lifestyle will spend a vacation roughin' it on a camping trip.

If Harangody is actually good, it moves the whites closer to the "majority" end of the spectrum, where goofy white pride starts to look more like sinister white power.

Good article.

 
At 8/13/2010 3:48 PM, Blogger Colin said...

I really disagree with your take on Boston's love of Scalabrine. It's not about race -- it's about personality and comparative athleticism.

Fans love Scals because he's a loose guy. He's a regular contributor on Boston's most popular sports radio morning show, Toucher and Rich. He's a lovable guy with a good sense of humor, who doesn't take himself seriously and plays along with gags they put on. A large percentage of Boston fans listen to this show on their morning commute and respect that he's willing to give them a lens into the team on a weekly basis.

I don't relate to Scalabrine because he's white. I didn't relate Eric Montross or Marty Conlon because of the color of their skin. I thought they were unlovable stiffs. Scals is like the happy-go-lucky nerdy kid that you knew had a heart of gold. Pierce is the cool kid who you want to be seen hanging out with, Allen is the OCD valedictorian, and KG is the kid who you want on your side in a fight.

You get a different type of emotional return from these guys when they're playing well, but by know means do we "love" the white guy more because we share his skin color. We just see him awkwardly romping around the floor with far superior talent and can't help but sympathize and cheer him on. We love his personality the way that we loved Walter McCarty's relentless hustle despite his limited gifts. The fact that he stays out of the way for the most part on offense and isn't an awful defender helps.

 
At 8/13/2010 6:13 PM, Blogger W2 said...

Gosh darn it. I love the site and Scal and am pissed to join this shit so late...

But the Scal love/hate is complicated and I don't want to revisit or rephrase others statements.

So instead a brief anecdote from last years playoffs when Scal got a bit of run due to Sheldon Williams being more awful than I care to discuss...

British fellow-sartorially inclined-from London is visiting the states and is totally unfamiliar with hoops.

Scal checks into the game, proceeds to blow a wide open layup (the term brick does this attempt no justice), and generally looks like he does not belong anywhere on the court.

The following day as he is travelling by car up the Maine Coast he says the following:

"Who was that ginger fellow who check into the contest last evening?

"He didn't seen particularly fit."

"It looked like they nicked him from the crowd."

Amazing.

 
At 8/16/2010 6:50 AM, Blogger Al Swearengen said...

I like your writing style, great stuff.

On Scal, I have to point out a couple of things...(1) they almost beat Orlando in '09 w/ him in the rotation, (2) unlike a lot of end-of-bench guys, inserting him into the game for 2 minutes won't lead to disaster...thinking of Sheldon Williams in the Finals, before halftime of a game in LA he was responsible for a 5-7 point swing for LA to close out the half.

He always knows what his play is w/in the team defense, can react, move his feet and stop the ball. The chants of his name and all that...it fits your theme, but there's something to be said for the fact that he could come into a game after 10 DNPs and make the right decisions on the court.

 
At 11/09/2010 6:13 PM, Blogger cuzdogg said...

Scalabrine represented what you and I laughed at. Scalabrine was the lunky red headed player with the Rudy-esque demeanor...an out of sequence team player...attempting to prove that they deserved to be on that bench. These players...especially if they appear to hustle...can gain instant fan fascination...everyone loves the adorable sidekick or the unusual underdog. In Phoenix, we had Old bald headed Patrick Kelly and then Lou Amundsen...but we also had Bo Outlaw and Tabuse. The token fan favorite is basically...that person from the bench, who stands out for some physical abnormality reason...or because of some hustle mechanics, or due to something novel in their court productivity....white is not the main factor. A 300 lb pitch black African on the end of the pine, whose name is Booba Shooba would generate a chant of "Booba" from any crowd. In reality, a small "little person" sized guard with quick skills would be at end of the game demand, as would a 7ft.8in. skinny, flag pole shaped player...who shoots top of the key threes...for fan favorites are the uncommon and unheralded.

Scalabrine was in Celtic town, had red hair, looked as if he could actually be a prototype for the Boston Mascot...thus, the fans instantly jumped on board. Racism...no...I do not think so...but probably more like the real term of what thousands of us play across the globe...Fantasy Basketball...which always makes a great storyline...yep...everyone loves an unusual underdog storyline.

 
At 4/19/2013 3:59 AM, Blogger Jim Philips said...

online bookmaking has written a little bit about it is a huge issue and I hope that it could be stripped down from sports but it would take a lot of effort.

 

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