Donnie Wahlberg is a Celtic fan for life, so the New Kids on the Block singer “nearly did a backflip” when he was offered the chance to narrate the Boston team’s cultural legacy for ESPN’s new documentary 30 for 30: Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies.
It’s not the first ESPN documentary the Dorchester, Massachusetts, native has narrated, but this particular story has personal stakes for him both on and off the court.
Walhberg, 47, who finds a West Coast counterpart in Lakers superfan Ice Cube for the doc, chatted with PEOPLE about his passion for the project, a particularly powerful memory from the Celtics’ glory days and the trade-off he makes with wife Jenny McCarthy so he can get in his sports tube time.
What does it mean for you to get to tell the story of this iconic sports rivalry?
The Celtics/Lakers rivalry in the ’80s was a huge, huge part of my life — it still is to this day. Obviously, I’m a big Celtics fan. I go to as many games as possible. But to be part of this was just such a thrill. I think my response was when they said, “Hey, can we send you a contract offer to do this?” I said, “Save the contract. I’ll do this for a grilled cheese sandwich! And I’ll pay for it myself.”
You have a bit of a narrator “rivalry” with Ice Cube. Have you had any run-ins with him in real life?
I’ve played basketball against Ice Cube before. He’s a little shorter than I am, but he knows how to clear you out underneath the basket. He uses his leverages really good.
As far as the back and forth in the documentary, it’s funny because as fans we’re so intensely loyal to our team and we really only see it from our point of view. There are parts in the documentary where we would arrive to a turn in the story and I’d have to take a break and let Ice Cube take over. Sometimes it was so frustrating because it was like, “No, I want to give my point of view as a Celtics fan on what happened! You can’t give the Lakers point of view on that because that’s not the real story!” That was a bitter pill to swallow sometimes.
I sat down with my wife and watched it, and she was just like beaming with the back-and-forth banter with me and Ice Cube. She was just so excited to hear it. And that what’s really great about the 30 for 30s — it’s so informative that even if you’re not of that era or not a huge fan of the sport there’s so much other social stuff happening and so much other enlightening stuff going on that it really always makes it worth sitting down to watch.
For me, especially, when I juxtapose it against the NBA finals going on right now, it’s really fascinating to see how much the game has changed in such a short time. How the players in the ’80s really hated each other and would never switch teams and drum up allegiances with the enemy teams. They would never do that. And if you watch the 15-second commercial for this 30 for 30, there are five plays in the 15-second trailer that would get you suspended for a month that weren’t even called a foul back in the ’80s.
FROM PEN: I Worried My Dad Lamar Odom’s Addiction Was My Fault, Says Destiny Odom
Speaking of the social and cultural context of the 30 for 30s, what about the historic this rivalry seemed relevant today?
It’s interesting. When I was recording, I was in the booth speaking to the producer, and when we got to the part about the busing and the racial riots and the stuff in Boston, I told them, “I was on those school buses, and I was being bused from Dorchester to a predominantly black area called Roxbury — and were it not for those buses and me being on them, I can guarantee you nobody would know of any Wahlberg.”
That period changed my life, and I’d like to think that, despite all the dark times that went on during the early busing stages of Boston, I’m part of the success story of what it was intended to do. Not just to integrate us physically, but to integrate us spiritually and intellectually and emotionally. I know that going to school and sort of being a minority in my school made me a better person, made me a more enlightened person and exposed me to things I never would’ve been exposed to. To sort of relive that and see all of anger and stuff that was going on with the people outside the buses, it was so different than what was going on inside the buses. You know, we were just kids making friends and finding our way and going through incredible situations together.
It’s one thing to watch a miniseries like Roots when you’re a kid, but when you watch it in a classroom full of kids and most of them are African-American kids, it’s far more powerful and profound to watch because then we would sit down and talk about it and what we were all experiencing emotionally and stuff. So that’s the beauty of what was actually taking place inside the schools during that awful time outside the schools. So, to relive it was really emotional and profound. I know that all of those times made us better.
When you take the basketball part of it into context, you know, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were rivals and a lot of people felt like their fan base was based on race and stuff like that and it was a very polarizing sort of rivalry, but in the end they became the closest of friends and had such respect for each other. I think that really enlightened a lot of people, too. You know, in ways that we really don’t see today. We don’t see that in elections and in our politicians. We really could sort of take a cue from those guys and remember what it means to learn to respect each other and to heal after great battles. There’s a sort of maturing process that used to happen and we are maybe losing that a little bit.
You mentioned Jenny a little earlier. How is she as a sports wife? Does she ever have moments where’s she like, “Tone it down, Donnie”?
No, she’s awesome. We sort have made an arrangement where I’ll watch literally every single version of Real Housewives with her, but the trade-off is I get her to watch my sports stuff, and she’s totally become addicted to the 30 for 30 shows. For her, this was just as exciting as it was for me that I was doing this.
In fact, the day I recorded it was the day of the first time the New Kids on the Block ever played the Hollywood Bowl. I had to record for four hours before the concert, which meant my voice was going to be shot for my first-ever appearance at the Hollywood Bowl — and I didn’t care. She was like, “You have to do it! I don’t care if you don’t sing one word in the concert!” So she’s really stoked about it. She’s a Chicago girl and loyal to Chicago, but she pretty much cheers for all the Boston teams now, I’m grateful.
30 for 30: Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies airsTuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET, both on ESPN.