Chuck McKenney, a 1994 Emerson graduate, grew up watching basketball in one of the NBA’s most exciting decades.
“I started watching in the ’80s when basketball really exploded with the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson rivalry,” said McKenney, a Rhode Island native. “My guy was Larry Bird. I idolized him and the franchise, and that’s where my love for the Celtics really blossomed.”
From that love for the Boston Celtics eventually came Red’s Army, a blog dedicated to covering the team, which McKenney co-founded in 2005 and is today one of the most popular Celtics sites.
Along with analysis of team games and transactions, the site’s features range from “The Morning Dump,” a quick-hit style of early morning headlines, to reports on the sneakers that players wore the night before. When the Celtics are playing well, the site can get between 12,000 and 15,000 page views per day, according to John Karalis, the site’s other co-founder. Podcasts on the site have also featured retired NBA players like Tim Legler and Jalen Rose.
But in the fall of 1990, before the internet boom and the rise of blogging, McKenney was a freshman broadcast journalism major at Emerson who hoped to become a sports personality.
He heard the basketball team needed players, and despite only playing his freshman year of high school, tried out and made the team.
During his time playing for the Lions, he met Karalis, a broadcast journalism major who ended his career with 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds.
“I had no idea how challenged the team was until I got to Emerson,” said McKenney, laughing. “But it was really a great experience, and in terms of playing with John, we both realized how into basketball we were.”
After graduation, the two went their separate ways and lost touch, Karalis going to Greece to play basketball professionally, and McKenney returning to Rhode Island.
McKenney worked producing segments for TV stations in Rhode Island and Connecticut until he eventually got a job producing the morning show for Boston’s WBZ in 2001.
That same year, WBZ also happened to hire Karalis, who had since returned to the U.S. The two reconnected, picking up on the friendship they had forged in college. In 2005, they came up with an idea for a sports blog inspired by a Red Sox site, Boston Dirt Dogs, that has since become part of the Boston Globe.
“Boston Dirt Dogs set the tone for us; they allowed us to see that news on the internet could be funny,” said Karalis, who graduated from Emerson in 1996. “We both just thought, ‘Man, we could actually do this,’ so we copied their blog until we found our own voice.”
And so came Red’s Army, the name being a hat tip to the late Celtics coach Red Auerbach, an NBA pioneer who won nine championships with the Celtics in the ’50s and ’60s.
The site started small, with only what McKenney called “two not very internet-savvy guys”—himself and Karalis. Red’s Army didn’t get more than a few dozen page views a month in the first year, McKenney said.
“The site looked really crude in first few months,” said Karalis, who said he designed the Emerson Athletic’s first webpage as a senior. “Everything we knew was primitive knowledge from a web design class I took at Emerson. Back then there was no page two or three, nothing was archived. We still thought it was awesome at the time, though.”
But the two were persistent and gained a small following in the next few years. Finally, they got lucky when the Celtics acquired all-stars Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2007, who helped the team win the NBA championship in 2008.
“That trade was a huge boom for us, I think we were making strides before that, but there was obviously a rise in interest with that trade,” said McKenney. “Before 2007, the Celtics were a distant third to the Patriots and Red Sox, but getting Allen and Garnett put them back on the media market.”
From there, Red’s Army took off, distinguishing itself from its more established competitor, CelticsBlog, through an edgier approach.
“We wanted to find our niche market,” said McKenney. “CelticsBlog was always there, but they were pretty straight-laced, and for us to compete with them we had to be different. We wanted to be more snarky.”
The attitude is evident through digitally modified pictures they publish and their tendency to provoke other Celtics fans on Twitter. Red’s Army also previously ran exposes on Celtics dancers, which the Celtics Media Relations Department cited as a reason to not give the website’s authors press passes.
“We take that as a badge of honor,” said McKenney. “We’re like the rogue Celtics blog.”
McKenney, now the communications manager for the Center for International Development at Harvard University and a father of two boys, said he opened up the website to other contributors besides himself and Karalis in 2010, and along with two consistent writers, has had numerous bloggers contribute to Red’s Army since.
McKenney also said he plans to launch a Boston Bruins equivalent, Ray’s Army—named after a famous player—within the next few weeks.
But for now, with the 2014-15 season underway, the Red’s Army Morning Dump is back, and the snark is in regular season form.
“Red’s Army clearly isn’t at the point that we can quit our days jobs and live off the site—although we’d love to do that,” said McKenney. “But we’ve come along way with it, and have made a nice small business out of it.”