How Celtics fans treated Jason Kidd validates Kyrie Irving’s fears

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On a May night in 2002, Celtics fans proved they would say or do almost anything that might give their team the slightest edge in the playoffs. It was Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, and the Nets (then of New Jersey) were in the Celtics’ house (then called Fleet Center) to try to even a series that was now in the hands of Jason Kidd.

The same Jason Kidd who had pleaded guilty to spousal abuse after hitting his then-wife, Joumana, in 2001.

“Wife beater,” the crowd chanted at him in the fourth quarter, while he was following his routine of blowing kisses to his wife and kids from the foul line.

I’ve been part of a many angry crowds in New York and Boston over the years, and I’ve seen and heard my share of vile conduct long before a 76ers fan dumped popcorn on Russell Westbrook, and a Knicks fan spat at Trae Young, and a few Jazz fans reportedly directed racist remarks at Ja Morant’s family. But in advance of Kyrie Irving’s return to Boston for Game 3, framed by his stated hope that he’s not subjected to “belligerence or racism … subtle racism …” from the home crowd, it was hard not to think about a star Nets point guard from a different life, and the most unnerving thing I’ve ever heard a crowd chant at a visiting player … while his wife was sitting in the stands.

The Nets won the game and the series (after an historic collapse in the fourth-quarter of Game 3), and afterward Kidd was lifted off the court by his teammates as he screamed at the crowd with more defiance than Young just showed after Sunday’s Game 1 in New York. But I most recall approaching Joumana Kidd when it was over, alone with my tape recorder, and hating and dreading my job responsibility at the time to ask her about the fans’ chant.

“What were they chanting when Jason was on the line?” she asked, putting me, I wrote that night, “between a quote and a hard place.” I told Joumana I didn’t want to repeat the words. “No, go ahead,” she responded. “Tell me. It’s OK.” I wasn’t sure how she wasn’t able to make out the chant, because it thundered quite clearly around the building. But I did whisper the words to her, and she shook her head and brought up an earlier incident also witnessed by their 3-year-old son T.J.

“In Game 3, guys had [wife-beater] painted on their backs and were jumping up and down in front of us,” Joumana said. “This is the most hateful crowd I’ve ever seen in my life. They’ve said the nastiest, meanest things to us. Can you imagine saying those things to a 3-year-old boy? These people would make a nun retaliate.

“A lot of it is alcohol. These are the same people who stop Jason in the grocery store and ask for his autograph. It’s very hurtful, but basically I forgive them. A lot of good fans around us were trying to help, telling them to shut up. But the bad ones, they need to get religion.”

Friday night, with Irving visiting his former team, the Boston crowd was still scheduled to be downsized by pandemic restrictions. But this wasn’t expected to be any church social. In 2019, the first time the Nets played in Boston after Irving left the Celtics for his $141-million deal in Brooklyn, the point guard was injured and out, yet still welcomed by posters carrying his image and the label “coward.”

“This time I just hope they embrace Kyrie and be mature about it,” his father, Drederick, told The Post. Drederick played at Boston University in the 1980s and said he experienced racism in the city, though he declined to offer specifics. He did concede that Boston fans had a right to be upset with his son after Kyrie reneged on his promise to re-sign with the Celtics.

“They have a right to feel that way,” Drederick said. “Kyrie said it, and I’m sure he feels bad about it. We’ve all said and done things that we’ve regretted. … But at the end of the day he’s a human being, and he just wants to be treated that way.”

Irving’s coach, Steve Nash, reminded everyone the other day that athletes and coaches actually enjoy competing in hostile road environments.

“We want the vitriol,” Nash said, “as long as it’s not over the line.”

Where is that line between acceptable and unacceptable conduct? It’s hard to define, but easy to see. Recent fan behavior in the playoffs is on the wrong side of that divide by miles, along with that 2002 chant in the Fleet Center. It was worth hoping before Game 3 that the Celtics crowd would finally score one for the good guys.

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