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dan shaughnessy

Why the late Phyllis George will always be linked to the Celtics

Phyllis George and John Y. Brown on their wedding day in 1979, when Brown owned the Celtics.
Phyllis George and John Y. Brown on their wedding day in 1979, when Brown owned the Celtics.G. Paul Burnett/Associated Press

Former Miss America and CBS Sports television pioneer Phyllis George died last week at the age of 70. A lovely and talented woman, George was an underrated TV talent who joined CBS’s “The NFL Today” in 1975 and blazed a trail for female reporters who later covered the National Football League.

George also had an amazing number of connections to the Celtics. Her breakthrough at CBS came when she interviewed Dave Cowens in Weston in 1974. The foreword for her 2002 book “Never Say Never” was written by Rick Pitino. In 1979, George married John Y. Brown, owner of the Celtics and the man who triggered a trade that forever altered the future of the franchise and almost made Red Auerbach quit.

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George might have had something to do with Brown’s fiasco trade. She was engaged to him in February of 1979 when he traded three of Red’s first-round draft picks to New York for scoring champ Bob McAdoo. Nobody ever said anything on the record, but it has long been speculated that Brown made the trade to impress Miss America, who was a McAdoo fan.

"When he made the trade for McAdoo, we heard it was because Phyllis George was enamored with McAdoo,'' Cowens said this week. "We heard he made that deal to impress her.''

Red was not impressed.

"He made one great big deal that could have destroyed the team, without even consulting me,'' Auerbach said in 1990. "He did ruin it. We just happened to put it back together again, luckily. One wrong guy can ruin it so fast your head will swim. He was here nine months, but it was long enough to nearly destroy what we’d spent 30 years putting together.''

Auerbach was a certified coach/GM legend when Brown acquired the Celtics in 1978. Red had built the Bill Russell dynasty of the 1950s and ’60s, then rebuilt the team in the early 1970s with Cowens, John Havlicek, and Jo Jo White.

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Then came the dark days. The 1977-78 Celtics went 32-50. Two months after that season ended, John Y. Brown became owner of the Celtics in an unusual franchise swap with Celtics owner Irv Levin for the Buffalo Braves. Brown had already been owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken, the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, and the NBA’s Braves when he came to Boston.

"I remember negotiating with him,'' said Cowens, a Kentucky native. "I met him at the airport and we hammered out my contract. He was resistant, a tough negotiator. That ended up being the year [1978-79] they fired Satch [coach Tom Sanders] so the [expletive] had me coach the team and never paid me any more money.''

Dave Cowens recalled some battles with former Celtics owner John Y. Brown.
Dave Cowens recalled some battles with former Celtics owner John Y. Brown.John Tlumacki

Cowens was player-coach of the Celtics in February 1979 when Brown — accompanied by Phyllis George — made his late-night McAdoo deal with Knicks boss Sonny Werblin.

It was the last straw for Red. He told Brown that he would quit if Brown did not sell the team. In April 1979, Brown sold full control of the Celtics to his partner, Harry Mangurian.

Auerbach was back in control and made it count. He was able to sign Larry Bird (drafted in ’78 before his final year at Indiana State) before Bird could re-enter the NBA Draft. Then, in the summer of 1979, Red pickpocketed Detroit Pistons coach Dick Vitale (yes, that Dick Vitale), sending McAdoo to Detroit for the rights to M.L. Carr and Detroit’s two 1980 first-round picks.

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Red turned that deal into Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in a subsequent trade with the Warriors. McAdoo played a total of 20 games for the last-place Celtics of 1978-79.

Thank you very much, John Y. Brown.

Thank you, Phyllis George.

"She was a real nice lady,'' Cowens remembered. "I was running my summer camp the year we did that interview. She hopped into my Suburban and we went back to that little poolhouse I lived in in Weston. We actually had a good time. That was a long time ago, man. I tried to make her feel comfortable.''

George’s Associated Press obituary reported that her Cowens interview convinced CBS to commit to her. She was working on a 13-week tryout contract when "a popular interview with reluctant Boston Celtic star Dave Cowens soon earned her a three-year deal.''

"I was glad I could do something for Miss America,'' said Cowens.

Phyllis George had a unique spot on Boston sports history.
Phyllis George had a unique spot on Boston sports history.Suzanne Vlamis/Associated Press

Five years later, George’s husband was torturing Cowens’s boss.

"That was a tough time for Red,'' recalled Cowens. "Red kept telling me, ‘I can’t take it anymore. This guy won’t listen to me.’ ''

When Brown sold the Celtics and announced he was running for governor of Kentucky, Auerbach warned voters, "Watch out for that guy. He’ll trade the Kentucky Derby for the Indianapolis 500.''

Brown won the election and served four years as Kentucky governor.

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"I’m sure Phyllis helped him get elected,'' said Cowens. "And she did a good job as First Lady of Kentucky.''

Phyllis George and John Y. Brown divorced in 1998. She never remarried.

"I first met Phyllis in 1976 when I was covering the Patriots,'' said CBS Sports veteran/NFL Hall of Famer Lesley Visser, who broke in with the Globe when George was making her bones with “The NFL Today.”

"She captivated everyone with her natural charm. She gave young women a chance to see someone in a role they might never have imagined. She was a true American icon.''

Did George ever talk about her days as First Lady of the Celtics?

"She’d say, ‘I loved Boston Garden, but I remember it was quite smoky,' '’ said Visser.

Especially if you were sitting near Red Auerbach.

RIP, Phyllis George.


Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.