It’s been 24 years since the Celtics drafted Dee Brown, and there isn’t a day in which someone doesn’t approach him with a forearm covering their eyes or flipping out the tongues of their shoes and pumping them.
It’s one of the fondest NBA memories for Brown, who as a rookie with the Celtics won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 1991. On All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, the lanky No. 7 with the high-top fade and pumped-up Reeboks cradled the ball, covering his eyes with his right forearm, and dunking with his left hand. It was the most unique dunk ever seen back then, until dunkers began using props such as candles, capes, and automobiles.
Brown played 7½ of his 11 NBA seasons with the Celtics, met his wife in Boston, and his children were born here. But Brown is known as much for a mistaken-identity incident with the police in 1990 as he is for streaking to the basket for that dunk a few months later.
On Sept. 21, 1990, Brown, entering his rookie season with the Celtics, was stopped by Wellesley police after being mistaken for a bank robber. He and his then fiancée faced drawn guns from five police officers after a secretary at the bank identified Brown as the potential robber. The description was of a light-skinned man between 6 feet and 6-2. Brown is brown-skinned and 6-1.
Brown and his fiancée weren’t released until Brown showed his identification, but the incident reverberated around the country, especially in NBA circles, concerning race relations in Boston. And it also occurred on the heels of the 1989 Charles Stuart case, in which a white Boston businessman accused an African-American man of killing his wife, prompting a manhunt before Stuart’s brother implicated Stuart as the killer.
That was 25 years ago, distant but a rather uncomfortable memory on the city’s racial résumé. This summer the Celtics will have plenty of cash to attract a premium free agent, a rarity given that the team hasn’t signed an All-Star-caliber free agent in his prime in more than two decades.
Brown, now an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings, played with the Celtics until 1998 but his name was synonymous with the troubles some athletes of color faced in this city. And the question is whether standout players, likely born in the late 1980s, will view Boston as an attractive location to spend their formative years.
Brown believes they should.
“As everyone knows when I first got here, I had an incident in Wellesley with the police, it was 1990, it was quite a while ago, but after that I never had a problem in Boston,” he said. “My wife’s from Cambridge. I’ve still got family up here. I love Boston. I’m always a Celtics’ diehard, always will be. Played here for eight years.
“The thing is, the change happened when KG [Kevin Garnett] came, Paul [Pierce] was here for a long time. Ray [Allen], [Rajon] Rondo, those guys. The second wave of stars after the ’90s. I think they can get free agents here, I really do.”
Brown said he was not embittered by the incident. “My experience, other than the initial one, which I don’t think had anything to do [with racism], it was a case of mistaken identity,” he said. “There’s tension in Boston like there’s tension in New York, tension everywhere else. I really don’t get too caught up in it. The fans are great. They love their Celtics. They love their Bruins and their Patriots.
“I think nowadays, it’s not so much a black and white thing, it’s a green thing: money and Celtics. If you’ve got cap space and guys want to play here, I don’t think an African-American would not come to Boston.”
Not lost on Brown is the similarity between the Celtics when he arrived 24 years ago — an organization ushering its aging stars away — and the current crew that is in total rebuild mode after the departures of Garnett, Pierce, Allen, and Rondo. Two decades ago, the Celtics tried their retool with Brown, Reggie Lewis, Rick Fox, Dino Radja, David Wesley, and Eric Montross. History wasn’t kind to that group.
“It was tough because we had lost Lenny [Len Bias] and then after Larry [Bird] retired, we lost Reggie, it was tough because the two superstars who were supposed to carry the franchise for the next 20 years both passed away,” Brown said. “And I was kind of stuck here by myself for a period of time. It was tough because we weren’t winning. We missed the playoffs a couple of years. But playing with those guys, it made it a lot easier because they were young. Robert Parish was the elder statesman but he left and we kind of took over.”
Brown said what helped the young core’s development was the presence of ex-Celtics such as Dennis Johnson, M.L. Carr, and Cedric Maxwell.
“I don’t think Boston has that stigma in the NBA world as it has in the public eye,” Brown said. “Even with the Patriots, I don’t think they have that problem of, ‘This is a racist team or a team that doesn’t like black players.’ I don’t think it’s that. That’s important. I really don’t think that deters players from coming to Boston.”
Brown said he still talks with former King Marcus Thornton, who told him he enjoys playing in Boston after being acquired by the Celtics in the offseason. In reflection, Brown said the Wellesley incident and the aftermath is something that doesn’t affect his image of Boston.
“I think it helped me a lot because I remember when I first got drafted by the Celtics, my grandfather told me, ‘Boy, you’re going up South,’ ” Brown said. “And I didn’t understand what he meant. But I got up here and the incident happened, all of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what he’s talking about.’ After looking at the incident and going over it in my head, I knew it wasn’t so much of a race thing.
“It didn’t change anything. Two of my kids are born up here. My wife’s from up here. I lived right in Cambridge. I lived in Waltham. I lived in Wellesley after the incident happened, so I moved into the community. It opened my eyes to, ‘You can’t go to this part of town.’ There’s certain places you don’t go, I got more aware of that because I didn’t feel invincible, like most athletes.
“But I never, never, not once, not wanted to be a Celtic.”
Wright hopes to find comfort with Celtics
Brandan Wright was being appeared to be nudged out of the University of North Carolina in 2007, unsure of his decision to leave school. Wright was an athletic center who, at age 19, was not physically prepared for the NBA, but like many of his peers was encouraged to leave because of his potential.
It took Wright four years and three NBA teams to find comfort, to prove to the league that he was not Anthony Randolph or Joe Alexander or Donte Greene, that his athleticism and skill demanded respect and playing time, that he could contribute on a winning team.
Wright had cemented a backup role at center with the Dallas Mavericks for 3½ seasons, aiding an older team with his energy, defense, and shot-blocking. At age 27, Wright had finally found a team that didn’t require stardom, rather asking for consistency.
Wright was part of the deal that sent Rajon Rondo and Dwight Powell to the Mavericks, joining Jae Crowder and Jameer Nelson in the package to Boston. And after establishing his niche in Dallas, he has had to do it again with the Celtics. And this time, there is mounting pressure of impending free agency and what will likely be the richest contract of his career.
So far with the Celtics, his minutes have been greatly reduced from Dallas, as coach Brad Stevens tries to blend in five big men for three slots. Wright said he is just trying to make the adjustment to a new organization that has placed more emphasis on development, and less on short-term success.
“I’m trying to get as comfortable on the court as I was in Dallas, I was in a pretty good groove overall,” he said. “It’s going to take time. I’m a patient guy. I’m not panicking or anything, or frustrated. I’m just trying to learn everything I can.”
Wright is aware of impending free agency. He is entering his prime years and athletic, defensive-minded centers come at a premium.
“It’s part of it — it’s unfortunate getting traded during the season but I’ve got to prove my worth,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of good things the last three years. It’s going to be an adjustment period here, whether it takes five, 10, 15, 20 games. I’m not worried about that at all. I think if I can go out and help a team, whether it be here or wherever else, I think I’ll be fine.”
Change is something that Wright has become accustomed to since Day One. He was drafted by Charlotte with the eighth overall pick in 2007, and traded to Golden State on draft night. He spent three years with the Warriors before being traded to the Nets. He signed as a free agent with Dallas. The constant change doesn’t make the latest one any easier.
“It’s tough because you get comfortable,” he said. “I was in Dallas for four years, so I got real comfortable there, comfortable with the community, comfortable with the players and the coaches. There was a lot of continuity going on and boom, you go into a new situation, a team that’s fighting at the bottom of the [playoff] standings, a young team, a young coaching staff, a team that’s in transition. It’s definitely a big change but I’m looking forward to embracing the challenge.”
Although it required years for Wright to develop into a productive NBA player, he has no regrets about his journey. He still would have left coach Roy Williams and North Carolina after one season.
“You always want to stay but I thought it was time to go,” he said. “There’s no place for getting experience like the NBA. You hear all these guys talking about the experience in college, well 99 percent of those guys won’t be playing in the NBA. You can only get experience up here. It paid dividends for me.
“I took my lumps early, just like everyone else. I had a lot of injuries but these last four years have been a great blessing to me.”
Frye embraces career, new role with Magic
The sports news cycle moves so fast that the four-year, $32 million contract Channing Frye signed with the Orlando Magic in July was overshadowed by the move of LeBron James, among other lucrative deals involving more prominent players.
Yet it was a landmark deal for a player whose career was nearly ended by heart issues. During the 2012 offseason, Frye was diagnosed with an enlarged heart and missed the 2012-13 season with the Phoenix Suns. Cleared to play, he returned for the next season, averaging 11.1 points and shooting 37 percent from the 3-point line.
After spending two seasons rebuilding with mostly younger players in Orlando, general manager Rob Hennigan sought a floor-stretching big man and signed Frye for his 3-point prowess and leadership. As the Magic’s starting power forward, Frye is averaging 8.1 points and shooting 41.7 percent from the 3-point line, 17th in the NBA.
Frye approaches his leadership role on an emerging team seriously, and understands his tour in Orlando can be viewed as a second chance after nearly losing his career.
“Last year was like every game, and this is going to sound [corny], but every game I was extremely grateful to play,” he said. “I was always thinking like, ‘Man, what if I couldn’t be here? The game would be taken away.’ Last year that was my motivation. This year it’s different. It’s not as familiar of a situation. It’s a new team, different guys. Now it’s like you really love basketball and it’s a challenge, but I accept this challenge and I’m ready to go with these guys. We fix one or two things, we’re going to be solid.”
The Magic are at that “good enough to lose close” stage with players such as Tobias Harris, who infuriated James last week with trash talk before the four-time MVP responded with a 15-point fourth quarter in Cleveland’s win. Nikola Vucevic, Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, and Evan Fournier make up the rest of the Orlando core.
“I love the young guys on the team, they’re extremely talented, they work hard,” Frye said. “For me, it’s just a process. Sometimes it’s frustrating but I had to take a step back and say, ‘Hey, we all had to go through this process.’ Some things you’ve just got to be better at. Some things it just comes down to playing basketball.”
Not all veterans respond favorably to being leaders. Jameer Nelson was traded from a title-contending team in Dallas to the Celtics, and has embraced being a role model for the younger players. Frye is in a similar position. The Magic are at least 2-3 years from contending in the Eastern Conference. Frye is just one of four Orlando players over the age of 25.
“The leadership thing is something that is earned and they put so much weight on that, but really I’m just out there to do my job, right?” he said. “And that’s what leaders do, they do their job every night. You ask me to go underneath the screen, I’m going to go underneath the screen.
“Those are the type of things we all need to do and we all need to be leaders. I may be one of the veterans here, for me I understand the ins and outs of the game. For us, it’s one thing to say it but it’s another for them to go through it, see it, and then understand it.”