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A son of New Orleans became The Man in Dorchester

Bruce Seals spent 30 years in Boston, steering vulnerable kids in all the right directions. He died this week at 67, long before his time.

Bruce Seals was often surrounded by kids at the Boys and Girls Club.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File/1995

For the 30 years he spent in Boston, Bruce Seals might as well have had NOLA stamped on his forehead.

He was pure New Orleans: the accent, the laid-back attitude, the dry humor, the “Where y’at?”

At 6 feet 8 inches, he was a big easy.

He ended up in Boston because his wife, Shirley, took a job here.

“She followed me for years,” Bruce once explained, sitting in his cramped office at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dorchester. “‘Bout time I returned the favor.”

Bruce Seals was a professional basketball player. He played for the Seattle SuperSonics and had his signature moments. One night the legendary Dr. J, Julius Erving, drove the lane, poised to deliver one of his patented dunks. Bruce came from behind and blocked the shot.

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All ball.

A photo of that iconic, in-your-face block hung in the clubhouse sandwiched between Dorchester’s two hills, Savin and Jones, and kids would stare at it wide-eyed, then look at Bruce and ask, “That’s you?”

It gave him instant street cred with kids, many of them poor, many of them vulnerable, who played basketball and floor hockey and swam at the clubhouse on Deer Street.

If you asked Bruce Seals what kept him in a place so different than his beloved New Orleans, he’d give you a two-word answer: the kids.

He took genuine interest in them, encouraged them, disciplined them, loved them, some with tough love.

“Kids need parameters,” he told me, “We give them that. And most of them blossom in that situation.”

As news of Bruce’s death, from cancer at 67, spread through Dorchester and beyond, Bob Scannell, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dorchester, sat at his desk, trying to explain the impact the man he hired 30 years ago had.

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“He changed the lives of thousands of kids for the better,” Scannell said. “How many of those were lives he saved? We’ll never know, but it was a lot.”

The kids who spent their days at the club spent their nights elsewhere, many in difficult home situations, or on the street, at intersections where you could go the right way or the wrong way.

Bruce Seals steered many down the right road.

Max Barbosa was one of those kids whom Bruce took under his wing. When Max was young, he didn’t like playing basketball in front of people.

“What relaxes you?” Bruce asked Max.

When Max said music, Bruce told him to hum a tune in his head while dribbling. It worked. Max went on to star at Cathedral High and played college ball at Eastern Nazarene.

“Bruce used to say, ‘Whatever problems you have outside the club, leave ‘em outside. We want kids here feeling happy and safe’,” said Max, 29, a driver for the MBTA.

Denitra Seals said her dad didn’t push her or her brother, Bruce Jr., to become the Division 1 collegiate athletes they became — she in volleyball, he in basketball — as much as encourage them. Her father valued girls as athletes just as much as boys.

There was a girl from Meetinghouse Hill, Teresa Pina, who showed promise as a young basketball player. Bruce boosted her confidence and sharpened her skills by having her play with the boys. She earned All-City honors at Charlestown High, attended Stanford University, then played ball at UMass Boston.

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After Shirley died in 2005, from cancer at just 51, the bounce in Bruce’s step that got him all the way to the NBA seemed slightly subdued.

But he picked himself up and soldiered on, for the kids, not just Denitra and Bruce, but the hundreds for whom he was a father figure.

“My father was the epitome of a self-made man,” Denitra said. “A simple man who lived an extraordinary life and strongly believed in the principle of reaching back to help others once he achieved success. In his 30 years of mentoring, he touched the lives of thousands of young people. We’d like to think of that as his legacy.”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.