HomeNewsHistoryFor the Celtics, it All Started in Hopkinton

For the Celtics, it All Started in Hopkinton

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On Thursday, June 6, the Boston Celtics defeated the Dallas Mavericks 108-89 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. 

The C’s got off to a blistering start, with superstars Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis and Jayson Tatum leading the way. With the Celtics up 63 – 42 at the half, it looked as if the result would never be in doubt, but the Mavericks, led by arguably the best all-around player in the NBA, Luka Doncic, made a third quarter run, bringing Dallas within striking distance. But Boston dug in during the fourth quarter and kept pace with the Mavs. The game was put to bed as the Celtics reserves dribbled out the clock, and it was all smiles for the boys in white & green.

With annual revenue in excess of $10 billion, the NBA is an undisputed juggernaut in the world of professional sports, and the Celtics rank 4th overall, with revenues of $443 million during the 2022-2023 season.

But long before the multi-million dollar enterprise the Celtics have become, there were two men, both from Hopkinton, whose undying love of sport – particularly basketball and hockey – laid the foundation for the decades of success the team has enjoyed.

George V. Brown

George Vincent Brown was born in 1880 in Hopkinton, and lived on a dairy farm on Hayden Rowe Street known as Maplewood Farm. He was a three-sport athlete at Hopkinton High School, graduating in 1898. He later married Elizabeth Gallagher, and the couple had seven children; four sons and three daughters. 

George was a tireless champion of many sports, notably ice hockey (which at the time was nascent in the US), track & field, and boxing. At the age of 19, George was hired as an assistant Athletic Director for the Boston Athletic Association (BAA). The BAA, which is known primarily as the host of the Boston Marathon today, was at the time a members-only club whose mission was to “encourage all manly sports and promote physical culture,” according to its 1890 Yearbook Constitution. The original BAA clubhouse was located in Copley Square, now the site of the Boston Public Library.

George was active in coordinating the Boston Marathon, and during his tenure as Athletic Director, saw the start line moved from Ashland to its present location in Hopkinton. For 33 years, from 1905 to 1937, Brown was the starter of the marathon. A statue on the Hopkinton Town Common commemorates his role. 

Brown also managed the BAA’s Boston Arena, which is now known at Matthews Arena, home to Northeastern University Men’s Hockey, Women’s Hockey and Men’s Basketball. By 1924, the NHL had expanded to the United States, and the Boston Bruins were formed, playing at the Boston Arena. But their residency was short-lived, and they jumped to the newly constructed Boston Garden in 1928. 

Then the Depression hit, and the Madison Square Garden corporation, owner of the Boston Garden, ran into trouble. The Garden was purchased from MSG in 1934 by Boston business magnate Henry Lapham, who recruited George to run the facility.

George died of a stroke in 1937, and his eldest son, Walter, succeeded him as manager of the Boston Garden. At the time, Walter stated his belief that “Boston should have a basketball team”. Walter, who lived on Maplewood Farm in Hopkinton and also had a house in Newton, mortgaged his Newton home and founded the Celtics in 1946 for a sum total of $2,000. 

Along the present day Center Trail in Hopkinton was a rail line, which ran behind Maplewood Farm, and the train would stop to pick Walter up for his daily commute into Boston.

Sadly, on May 4, 1952, the barn at Maplewood Farm burned to the ground, along with a collection of 30 years of BAA material, which had been stored in the structure. Witnesses reported billowing clouds of smoke that could be seen as far as five miles away. High winds exacerbated the blaze, and sparks ignited the roof of a neighbor’s house 200 feet away. With the help of his counterpart in Milford, Hopkinton Fire Chief Joseph Pyne and his team extinguished the fire. Elizabeth Brown, son Thomas (Hopkinton’s postmaster), and her daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Peter Burke, made it out safely, as did “Nocono”, a saddle horse, at the expense of Mr. Burke’s eyebrows, which were singed in the rescue.

Building the Celtics

Columnist Phil Elderkin, Sports Writer for the Christian Science Monitor, wrote in 1964 that Walter Brown had invested “nearly one million dollars in the Celtics before he got his first winner.”

He owed hotel bills in every city on the circuit. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t pay – he couldn’t. His house was mortgaged to the hilt and every dime he owned was tied up in pro basketball.

But once the Celtics became an attraction, Elderkin wrote, Brown paid his debts quickly. “He never deserted his early friends. An intense sense of loyalty was one of his greatest virtues.

Breaking the Color Barrier

As President of the Boston Garden, Walter’s commercial acumen and knack for promotion far exceeded his father’s. Walter began building the Celtics dynasty by recruiting legendary coach Red Auerbach in 1949. One of Brown’s first pickups in the 1950 draft was point guard Bob Cousy, a College of the Holy Cross graduate known for his flashy style and exceptional ball handling ability. Critics at the time decried the selection, arguing that Cousy “lacked the poise” to make the team. One scout wrote in his report: “The first time he tries that fancy Dan stuff in this league, they’ll cram the ball down his throat.

Cousy had been picked up by the Chicago Stags, but that team folded shortly after. Cousy was among three players available for a “dispersal draft” and Walter drew Cousy’s name out of a hat. Cousy would go on to become a 6-time NBA Champion, NBA MVP, 13-time All-Star, and 8-time assists leader, among many other accolades.

All-American Chuck Cooper played for the Celtics from 1950-1954.

But it was Brown’s second pick in the draft that was most controversial. There was an unwritten rule among the all-white owners that black players would not be drafted into the league. Reportedly, Walter Brown never agreed with this rule, nor did a handful of others, including New York Knicks owner Ned Irish, but they were in the minority. 

In 1950, in a small room with all owners gathered, Brown announced “Boston takes Chuck Cooper of Duquesne University.”

“Walter, that’s a Negro,” one of the other owners reportedly stated. 

“I don’t care if he’s striped, plaid or polka dot. Boston takes Chuck Cooper of Duquesne University,” replied Brown, emphatically. 

And with that, the NBA’s color barrier was broken, encouraging other owners to draft black players. In the same year, the Washington Capitols drafted Earl Lloyd and the Knicks took Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton.

The Greatest Celtic of All Time

Even with Cousy, between 1950 – 1955, the Celtics were a middling team, barely above .500 in any season. Coming in to the 1956 draft, coach Auerbach, and undoubtedly every other coach in the league, had his eye on University of San Francisco star Bill Russell. A towering center, Russell led USF to consecutive NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. 

But the Celtics, with the 14th pick in the draft, knew they were a long shot to get Russell. Auerbach convinced Brown to trade two of their best players to the Saint Louis Hawks (now Atlanta Hawks) in exchange for the second pick. But the Rochester Royals (now Sacramento Kings) had the first pick, and were likely to select Russell.

In what would prove to be perhaps the greatest sports bargain of all time, Walter called the owner of the Royals and offered him a deal. 

Along with other arena presidents, Walter was a part owner in the Ice Capades. In exchange for the first pick of the draft, Brown offered Royals owner Lester Harrison the Ice Capades free for one week, and Harrison took the deal. 

Russell would go on to lead the Celtics to a record 11 championships, cementing their place in basketball history.

Legacy

Walter Brown is credited with many other accomplishments. He was the coach of the first American World Champion hockey team, the Massachusetts Rangers, in 1933. He coached the 1936 Olympic (commonly known as Hitler’s Olympics) Bronze medal team and headed USA Hockey, who won Olympic Gold in 1960. As the president of the Garden, he hosted ice shows, the BAA Games, women’s indoor softball, presidential campaign speeches, and even Winston Churchill. He was the president of the Boston Bruins from 1951 – 1964.

Walter Brown is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, USA Hockey Hall of Fame, National Hockey League Hall of Fame, and the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame. Walter also created the incredibly popular NBA All-Star Game.

Until 1983, the NBA Championship trophy was named for Walter Brown, and although it was renamed for Commissioner Larry O’Brien in 1984, in the hearts of true Celtics fans it will always be known by its former name. Fingers crossed, when the Celtics win their 18th championship in a few weeks, it will be that trophy they hoist to the rafters. If they’re at the Garden, as the players look to the sky, they’ll see uniform #1, which was retired in Brown’s honor in 1964.

Walter Brown was instrumental in innumerable charities, including the Jimmy Fund, B’nai B’rith, Variety Club, and the Knights of Malta. He died of a heart attack in September 1964. A devout Catholic, Walter is buried in the family plot at Saint John the Evangelist Cemetery in Hopkinton.

“What he was, what he did, what he said, and what he thought for the good of his fellow man, each time the lights go up in the Boston Garden and down through the years, he will be freshly remembered,” said Father Joseph Doherty, at a memorial gathering for Walter Brown at the Jimmy Fund Auditorium in November 1964.


A profound thanks to author Tom Burke, nephew of Walter Brown and grandson of George Brown, for contributing the history and memorabilia in this article.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Kudos to HopNews for the timely and informative article about two of our town fathers. Who knew that Hopkinton had such a strong legacy of inclusion. As Chairman of the town’s Historical Commission, I am humbled by historic information that I should have known but am grateful that I now do.

  2. What a great story – this community has so much to celebrate and take pride in. It really does “all start here”.

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