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Bruce Brown’s road to the NBA Championship began in Boston

Esteban Bustillos
Bruce Brown’s road to the NBA Championship began in Boston
Bruce Brown PHOTO: KYLE TERADA/POOL PHOTO VIA AP

The first time Brendan Kent laid eyes on Bruce Brown on a basketball court, he knew he was in trouble.

Kent, who is now the director of athletics for Wakefield Public Schools, was on the coaching staff at Melrose High School when he was assigned to go scout rival Wakefield Memorial High School during Brown’s freshman year there. What he saw next he’ll never forget.

“So, I go to the Wakefield gym, I sit down, and literally just as I sit down, [Brown] steals the ball on defense, goes the length of the court and just goes up and slams it in, dunk — as a freshman,” he said. “And I just remember immediately texting the head coach saying, ‘We have a problem.’”

Brown, now a key member of the Denver Nuggets, has plenty of stories just like that in his journey to the NBA Finals. Approaching game 5, Brown was averaging 11.8 points per game coming off the bench for Denver in this year’s NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, including a scorching Game 4 performance last Friday where he racked up 21 points, including 11 points in the fourth quarter, on 8 of 11 shot attempts and made two free throws to help put the Nuggets within one win of the franchise’s first ever NBA championship.

But just like any NBA player, Brown’s success didn’t start in the arena. The Dorchester native’s foundation started on courts in Boston and Wakefield, where he spent his first two years of high school, and where many friends and coaches knew he’d be special.

Brad Simpson was the longtime head coach at Wakefield when Brown came there through the METCO program, though Simpson says Brown was originally going to enroll in school in Milton. But when Brown’s mother was told there wouldn’t be enough room on the bus for both Brown and his younger brother, she sent them to Wakefield instead.

“So, I don’t play the lottery anymore,” Simpson said. “’cause I won it when Bruce switched schools and came to Wakefield.”

Brown spent only two seasons at Wakefield before heading off to Vermont Academy and eventually the University of Miami for college. But in that short time, Simpson already had an idea of what kind of player Brown would become.

One day, before practice in Brown’s freshman year, the coach had a foretelling conversation with him.

“I sat him down and I said, ‘Bruce, this is how it’s gonna work, if you don’t know this already. I’m gonna watch you on TV someday.’ I was thinking Division I college basketball, I wasn’t thinking professional basketball,” Simpson said with a laugh. “And I said, ‘You can’t stay at Wakefield, I know how it works. Hopefully, we’ll have you for a couple of years, but some prep school’s gonna scoop you up, you’re gonna reclassify and then you’re gonna go to a DI school. So that’s the plan.’ And that’s pretty much what happened.”

Although he played high school ball outside the city, Brown’s legacy in Boston is much the same as it is in Wakefield. Leo Papile founded the Boston Amateur Basketball Club, a youth program, in 1977. Since then, the BABC has included future NBA players like Brown, Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, Georges Niang of the Philadelphia 76ers, Terance Mann of the Los Angeles Clippers and others.

Papile said Brown will be in his program’s hall of fame. The BABC stresses a “we, not me” mentality, something Papile has watched Brown carry to the pros, as he has stayed in touch with many of his early teammates.

“You know, those significant team accomplishments, I think, is how he’d want his obituary [written], you know, for the basketball game,” Papile said. “Not that he was averaging ‘x’ amount of points, or he had [21 points] in a big fourth-quarter explosion in a … fourth game of a championship. I think he’d rather see it that he was a member of an NBA champion [team], … knowing him as well as we do.”

Even though everyone could see Brown’s potential growing up, it’s not every day you see someone you know drop buckets in the Finals. For Simpson, watching his former pupil excel on the game’s biggest stage has been a pinch-me moment.

“You’ve gotta kind of sit back and take stock and say, ‘Holy s***, this is a guy that I coached!’” Simpson said. “It’s like, I’m not looking at him like a coach, I’m looking at him like a fan. I mean, I’m in his fan club. I’m a card-carrying member of Bruce Brown’s fan club.”

Brown spent two seasons apiece as a bit of a nomad with the Detroit Pistons and the Brooklyn Nets before finding a professional home in the Rocky Mountains. And while the Finals are where big names like Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray shine, it’s players like Brown that can help push a series over the edge.

Speaking after his Game 4 performance, Brown said the journey he’s had wasn’t too heavy on his mind

“I knew coming into the league what I could do. It was just, a team had to give me a chance,” Brown said to the Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn. “And [former Detroit Pistons coach] Dwane Casey did. I started my rookie year, I did very well. So, I thank him for that. But now, doing that on this stage, it’s amazing. But I’ll think about it when we’re done.”

Update:

Bruce Brown and the Denver Nuggets won the NBA championship June 12, defeating the Miami Heat, 4-1.

basketball, Bruce Brown, Denver Nuggets, NBA