fb-pixel Skip to main content

Former Celtics owner and Kentucky governor John Y. Brown dies

Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown Jr. hugged his wife, Phyllis George, after being sworn in as the 55th chief executive of the Commonwealth in Frankfort, Ky., on Dec. 11, 1979.Anonymous/Associated Press

John Y. Brown Jr., who turned a string of small-town restaurants into the Kentucky Fried Chicken global enterprise and whose short-lived ownership of the Boston Celtics was contentious and coincided with a dark period in the franchise’s history before he became governor of Kentucky, has died. He was 88.

The Lexington Herald Leader, citing Mr. Brown’s children, said he died from complications that stemmed from COVID-19. His family said in a release Tuesday that “every day was an exciting adventure” for him.

Mr. Brown, a renowned salesman, made a series of deals in the late 1970s that dizzied the Celtics franchise. First, in an unprecedented swap in 1978, he and partner Harry Mangurian traded their ownership of the NBA’s Buffalo Braves for Irv Levin’s ownership of the Celtics. A few months later, he executed a trade that nearly drove legendary general manager Red Auerbach out of town, peddling three future first round draft picks to the New York Knicks for former scoring champion Bob McAdoo.

“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.”

Advertisement



Auerbach reportedly told Mr. Brown that he would quit if he did not sell the team. Mr. Brown complied, selling full control of the Celtics to Mangurian in April of 1979.

McAdoo would only play 20 games for Boston, before Auerbach sent him to the Detroit Pistons for the rights to forward M.L. Carr and Detroit’s two 1980 first-round picks, including the first overall. Auerbach then flipped those picks to the Golden State Warriors for center Robert Parish and the No. 3 pick in the draft, which the team used to add Kevin McHale.

With the drafting of Larry Bird the year before, Auerbach had what would become one of the NBA’s greatest front courts.

Advertisement



Soon after selling the Celtics, Mr. Brown, who had been a leading Democratic fund-raiser, announced his intention to make a late run for governor in Kentucky. Newly married to TV celebrity and former Miss America Phyllis George, he swooped back into his home state and unleashed a barn-storming, six-week campaign that made heavy use of television. Defying political convention, not to mention much of the Democratic establishment, he squeaked by Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane and other candidates in the primary, then defeated Republican Louie B. Nunn, a former governor, in the general election.

He pledged to run the state more like a business and promoted it aggressively in a bid to draw more companies and jobs. But Mr. Brown had the bad luck to take office as a recession was tightening its grip and tax revenues were dropping. He got high marks for keeping the state solvent, but thousands of state employees lost their jobs, and they took it out on him in his future races.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said Tuesday that Mr. Brown was a “remarkable leader who was committed to serving the people of Kentucky.” Mr. Brown will lie in state in the rotunda of the Kentucky State Capitol.

Mr. Brown had first found success in the business world. In 1964, he purchased Kentucky Fried Chicken from Harland Sanders for $2 million. He became president of KFC in January 1965, expanded it, and sold it to Heublein Corp. in a $275 million stock swap in 1971.

Advertisement



In 1969, Mr. Brown purchased controlling interest in the Kentucky Colonels, a Louisville franchise in the American Basketball Association. After the ABA folded, Mr. Brown paid a reported $1 million for half interest in the Buffalo Braves of the National Basketball Association. He wanted to move the Braves to Louisville but was blocked in court.

The Braves franchise was eventually moved to San Diego and became the Clippers

While in office in 1983, Mr. Brown had the first of his heart bypass surgeries. Two months later, having sworn to give up cigarettes and lose weight, Mr. Brown told reporters his brush with death had made him a new man. “It’s sort of being born again to me,” he said. “I think it will change my life, and it needed to be changed. ... I hadn’t eaten the right things, I hadn’t exercised, and I was a freak of nature.”

“He was a true Kentucky original who beamed with pride for his home state and its people,” his family said in the statement Tuesday. “He had many prominent accomplishments, but most of all he loved his family with all of his heart, and we in turn loved him with all of our hearts.”

Mr. Brown’s father, John Y. Brown Sr., served in the US House but lost races for governor and the Senate.

One of Mr. Brown’s sons, John Y. Brown III, added to the family’s political lineage by winning election as Kentucky secretary of state in 1995. He was re-elected without opposition in 1999.

Advertisement



A daughter, Pamela Brown, is a newscaster with CNN.

Mr. Brown was married three times. His marriage to Eleanor Durall Brown ended in 1977. He and George were divorced in 1998. He was wed to another beauty queen, former Mrs. Kentucky, Jill Louise Roach. They divorced in 2003.

In late 2004, a quarter century after selling the Celtics, Mr. Brown defended his moves in a letter to Sports Illustrated responding to an article on Auerbach, which noted that the general manager was “miserable under meddlesome owner John Y. Brown.”

“The McAdoo trade was done for future trade purposes,” Mr. Brown wrote in the letter. He then told The Boston Globe he wanted only “to get my two cents in. ... After hearing Red bellyache for the last 25 years, I figured I might as well respond.”

Mr. Brown said, “I made a bunch of trades because we didn’t have anything there. I had had a better team in Kentucky [with the ABA Colonels]. I knew I wasn’t going to win that battle [with Auerbach]. I was a Southerner. He was a Yankee. But, directly or indirectly, the trades I made rebuilt the franchise.”

While governor, Mr. Brown offered his credo one day in a news conference at his office in the Capitol at Frankfort: “Let me be free; let me be myself. I am different.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.

Advertisement