Celtics Forgotten 50: Part 1 — The Early Years
Wins were few and far between for the Boston Celtics franchise during its professional basketball infancy. From their first home game, it was clear that the Celtics were in for an uphill battle to compete not only on the floor, but also for the hearts and minds of a fan base that hadn’t yet quite warmed up to professional basketball.
The team’s first home game drew 4,329 fans. And for those eager to see the game, they had to wait an hour before the game tipped off because the wooden backboard was damaged during warm-ups when a player dunked the ball.
There surely had to be an, “It can only get better from here” mindset at the time for the franchise. Slowly but surely, the wins started to increase as did the attention paid to the Celtics.
But those growing pains laid the foundation for what would become the most storied franchise in NBA history.
1. Saul Mariaschin
Bob Cousy is considered by most as the greatest Boston Celtic playmaker of them all. But his ascension to being an elite point guard may not have ever happened if it wasn't for the unexpected exit of Saul Mariaschin.
While Mariaschin (back row, second from right) is remembered for leading Harvard to its first NCAA appearance in 1946, the 5-foot-11 playmaker also spent one season with the Celtics. Mariaschin had a solid regular season as a rookie in Boston, and was even better in the playoffs before Boston lost its best-of-three series to the Chicago Stags.
However, everything changed that summer when Mariaschin (pronounced mah-ree-ASH-in) got married and went to work for his father-in-law’s fabric apolstery and design company in Los Angeles. His career in the NBA? Done.
That left a huge void at the point guard position for Boston that just a couple years later was filled by Cousy. But as good as Cousy was, there's no telling how he would have fared if Mariaschin, who died in a skiing accident in 1990, had stuck around long enough to build off an impressive rookie season.
2. Ed Sadowski
The Boston Celtics have been a franchise that consistently cranks out superstar players, many of whom eventually found a home in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Well, the run of Celtics stars began with Ed Sadowski.
Ed who, you ask?
A 6-foot-5, 250-pound center, Sadowski averaged a team-leading 19.4 points in 1948 playing in the Basketball Association of America (it later merged with the National Basketball League to form what we know today as the National Basketball Association). Not only was Sadowski the Celtics’ best player, but he did what no other Boston player could do: he catapulted the team into the playoffs.
In addition to paving the way for the first of many postseason journeys for the Celtics, Sadowski was also named to the BAA's First-Team — another first for a Celtic player. Sadowski retired at 32 years of age following two more seasons in Philadelphia and Baltimore, respectively. The former Celtic passed away in 1990. He was 73.
3. Chuck Share
The very first player drafted in the National Basketball Association was selected by the Boston Celtics.
They drafted Chuck Share, who had an undeniable impact on the franchise — but certainly not how he or the Celtics would have anticipated. Share signed with the Waterloo Hawks of the National Professional Basketball League, which folded after just one season.
The Celtics still had Share’s NBA rights, which they soon traded to the Ft. Wayne Pistons for Bill Sharman. And Bob Cousy, who had signed with the Chicago Stags of the NPBL, was available in a dispersal draft in which — you got it — the Celtics acquired him to form one of the greatest backcourts in NBA history, a backcourt that got a nice assist in coming together by Share.
4. Connie Simmons
You will be hard-pressed to find Connie Simmons’ name on any of the Boston Celtics’ all-time leaders list, but he does have a prominent spot in the franchise’s history books.
Simmons (back row, #10) was the original scoring leader for Boston with a team-high 10.3 points per game average during the 1946-1947 season, which was the Celtics’ first in the Basketball Association of America — which would later evolve into the NBA.
For Simmons, a 6-8 forward/center, leading the Celtics in scoring that first year wasn’t his only notable accomplishment. Prior to his first game for Boston, the game had to be delayed for an hour because Simmons splintered the wooden backboard with a practice dunk before tip-off.
It was believed that it was the first time a backboard was broken in professional basketball history.
5. Tony Kappen
When talk centers around players entering the NBA early, often you’ll hear about high school-to-pro phenoms like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant or Moses Malone back in the day. But the first player to play in the Basketball Association of America or the NBA without having played in college was former Celtic Tony Kappen.
The 5-foot-10 guard only lasted one season with the Celtics, averaging 6.5 points per game during the 1946-1947 season.
But unlike those who followed Kappen who entered the league straight out of high school, he didn’t make his BAA/NBA debut until he was 27 years old, having previously played professionally with the Jersey Reds (1936-1937) of the American Basketball League, the Brooklyn Visitation (Metro Basketball League and ABL), Baltimore Clippers (1939-1940), New York Jewels (1940-1942) and New York Gothams (1945-1946).
6. Togo Palazzi
Togo Palazzi (pictured, left) was an All-American in the 1950s at Holy Cross and was selected with the fifth overall pick by Boston in the 1954 NBA draft. But what many remember about his time on Boston’s roster was how it ended.
The Celtics put him on their inactive list in 1956 to make room for Bill Russell who was joining the team after leading the United States to an Olympic gold medal. Boston would go on to win the franchise’s first NBA title that year while Palazzi reportedly asked for a trade which the Celtics granted by sending him to the Syracuse Nationals where he would play for another three seasons.
“I was sad to leave,” Palazzi said in a 2005 interview. “But I wanted to prove I could be an NBA player and I did.”
7. Chuck Cooper
The Boston Celtics have been a pioneering franchise when it comes to race relations. At the epicenter of their efforts was the selection of Chuck Cooper as the first African-American draft pick in NBA history.
Cooper, who was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last year, was the first pick in the second round of the 1950 NBA draft after leading Duquesne to a 78-19 record in four years which included leading them to a national ranking as a senior while earning All-America honors.
He averaged 6.7 points and 5.9 rebounds throughout six NBA seasons, the first four in Boston.
8. Art Spector
There are several names that come to mind when you think about the Boston Celtics’ building blocks of success.
Art Spector (front row, second from right) isn’t one of them.
But the 6-foot-4 forward’s place in Celtics history is cemented with him being the first player signed by Boston, when the franchise established itself in 1946 and participated in the Basketball Association of America.
Spector, a Philadelphia native who played collegiately at Villanova University, wound up playing a total of four seasons in Boston and averaged a career-high 6.0 points per game during his rookie season with the Celtics.
9. Sonny Hertzberg
Every rookie could use a savvy vet to lean on right? For Bob Cousy, that player was Sonny Hertzberg.
A savvy 5-10 playmaker from New York City, Hertzberg was seen by some as an extension of head coach Red Auerbach on the floor, which makes sense considering he played for the legendary coach in Washington before later being traded to Boston.
He would appear in 133 NBA games, averaging 10.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.
10. Ed Ehlers
There’s something about the Boston Celtics and drafting wings with the No. 3 pick.
They did so with Jaylen Brown in 2016, and followed up by doing it again with Jayson Tatum a year later.
But drafting wing players began from the outset when Boston used its first round pick in 1947, third overall, to select Ed Ehlers, was a 6-foot-3 wing player who also played some in the frontourt.
Ehlers would prove to be more than just a solid NBA pickup after being drafted by the Celtics as well as the Chicago Bears and New York Yankees, respectively, in 1947.
11. Don Barksdale
Don Barksdale’s time in Boston only lasted two seasons (1953-1955) and came at the twilight of his career.
But the impact he had on the NBA was one of the more below-the-radar success stories of the league’s shift towards integration.
An Olympic gold medal winner and All-American at UCLA, Barksdale was also the first African-American to appear in an All-Star Game (1953) as well as the first to play for the men’s basketball team at the Olympics (1948).
12. Gene Conley
Few athletes enjoyed the kind of multi-sport success of Gene Conley (standing, #17) who won championships in both Major League Baseball and with the Celtics in the NBA.
The 6-foot-8 forward was a standout pitcher, playing 11 seasons with four All-Star selections in addition to being part of the Milwaukee Braves’ World Series squad in 1957.
With the Celtics, Conley was part of three championship teams (1959-1961) which included a stint with the Celtics followed by him playing with the Boston Red Sox.
13. Bennie Swain
Playing behind Bill Russell didn’t afford many opportunities to showcase one’s talent, but there was no denying the potential shown by Bennie Swain.
As a rookie on the 1959 championship team, Swain averaged 4.5 points and 4.6 rebounds while playing just 12 minutes per game.
Indeed, his future with the Celtics looked extremely bright until he suffered a career-ending knee injury during the summer following his rookie season.
Swain would begin to teach science and coach at the high school level before passing away on June 19, 2008 — two days after the Celtics brought home Banner 18.