All-Star game nostalgia

When the National Basketball Association showcases its 33rd annual All-Star Game at the Forum in Los Angeles on Sunday, chances are nostalgia will be left standing outside minus a ticket.

I'd just like to remind everyone that if it hadn't been for a Boston Irishman named Walter Brown, who passed on in 1964, the NBA All-Star Game would never have gotten off the ground as early in the league's growth as it did. Nor is it likely that today's NBA championship trophy, which Walter eventually picked out, would have come from the same family collection that provided the National Hockey League with its Stanley Cup.

It was Brown, back in 1951, in his capacity as president of Boston Garden and owner of the Boston Celtics, who pioneered pro basketball's first East-West shootout after his fellow owners had vetoed the idea.

Walter took a lot of flak at the time from his colleagues for even suggesting the game. The protests, however, were relatively mild considering the turbulence generated the previous year when he made Chuck Cooper of Duquesne the NBA's first black player.

As to the All-Star Game itself, Brown finally got the rest of the league to accept his proposal in the only way he knew how - by agreeing to underwrite the cost if it flopped at the box office. It didn't. The game drew more than 10,000 fans to Boston Garden on March 21, 1951, only 24 hours after the Celtics and the Harlem Globetrotters (as part of a double-header) had played to a capacity crowd in the same arena.

Maybe that doesn't sound like much of a crowd today, but at that time (in a city where they still didn't play basketball in the public schools), it was considered a phenomenal achievement.

When the East won the first All-Star contest 111-94, Brown managed to accept his division's victory matter-of-factly. But when Easy Ed Macauley of the Celtics was voted the game's most valuable player, Walter did what he always did on such occasions - he invited everybody in sight out to dinner, whether he knew them or not. Over the years he would pick up more checks than a 24-hour bus line in Prague.

Today the All-Star Game, with its nationwide fan voting, attracts national press and television coverage.

Brown was also the force chiefly responsible for the formation of the old Basketball Association of America at an arena managers convention in New York in 1946. The old BAA, of course, is today's NBA, only with many more franchises.

Walter had been acting on a suggestion made to him right after World War II by Max Kase, sports editor of the New York Journal-American, who was convinced that the public was ready to throw its financial support behind a pro basketball league. Kase knew that arena operators were always on the lookout for any new attractions that could keep the lights on in their buildings a few extra nights a year. Max reasoned that if those same operators also owned the teams that played in their buildings, cost could be held to the minimum.

Basically Kase was right, even if his timetable turned out to be a little premature. Eventually pro basketball caught on with the fans, but not until a lot of red ink had been spilled. In fact, by the start of the league's second season, three of its charter members, Cleveland, Detroit, and Toronto, were out of business.

By 1948 the board of directors of Boston Garden, who owned and operated the Celtics with Brown as president, were so far in debt that they put the team up for sale. Walter bought the franchise for some ridiculous figure like $2,500, with one catch. He would also be assuming all of the Celtics' existing financial obligations, and they were heavy.

Brown spent nearly a million dollars on the Celtics before he got his first world champion in 1956-57. The team was led by Bill Russell and Bob Cousy and coached by Arnold (Red) Auerbach. In the meantime, Walter owed hotel bills in every city in the league in which the Celtics played road games.

It wasn't that Brown wouldn't pay - he couldn't! Personal stocks had been liquidated and his house had been mortgaged and remortgaged until every dime he owned was tied up in pro basketball.

But few hotels ever pressed him. That's because hotel managers who were familiar with his other role as president of the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League knew that he always paid his bills. Once the Celtics began their run of 11 world titles in 13 years, Brown satisfied every creditor. And when better hotels and better deals were offered the team elsewhere, Walter never deserted his early friends. An intense sense of loyalty was perhaps his greatest virtue.

Brown may have been the only man during the Depression years of the 1930s to ever turn down the gift of a Rolls-Royce.

''It wasn't a new car, but it was in extremely good shape and belonged to one of the Boston Garden directors,'' Walter told me years later.

The director had switched to a late-model Plymouth because he didn't think it was too smart, with so many people standing in bread lines, to be seen in such a luxury automobile.

''The director told me he wasn't using the Rolls any more and that if I wanted it, I could have it,'' Brown said. ''I was tempted, but then I thought of my salary, which was $50 a month, and said no.''

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