When the Boston Celtics Played at Pieri: The Forgotten Story of How Dean Influenced the Start of a Dynasty
Only the foggy memories of alumni and grainy digital newspaper archives preserve the story of the exhibition matchup between the Boston Celtics and Cincinnati Royals on the campus of Dean College.
Nearly 65 years ago, on the brink of a dynasty, the Boston Celtics came to campus as part of a 15-game preseason barnstorming campaign across New England and New York. For the last several decades, the Oct. 17, 1958 matchup that featured eight future basketball Hall of Famers lay dormant and erased from recent memory.
Beyond Dean, details were also scant.
The Celtics have neither pictures nor stats from the matchup. Time stripped away scenes from the memory bank of basketball Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, the last living member of the 1958-59 Boston Celtics.
“It was the same movie being played night after night after night,” Cousy said. “It didn’t matter whether it was Dean or Bangor High, the format, the scenario and the result - we didn’t win all the time, it wasn’t that big a deal, but it was all the same.”
But within the annals of Dean College, this was anything but the run-of-the-mill game.
Of the eight Hall of Famers, three were named to the NBA’s 75th-anniversary team last year. The players that took the court in Pieri Gymnasium accounted for 43 All-Star game appearances and 28 All-NBA selections. There was a league MVP, an All-Star Game MVP and a Rookie of the Year.
Beyond the sheer statistics, the men on that court rise above the game of basketball: Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Frank Ramsey, Tommy Heinsohn.
'The Forrest Gump of academic institutions'
The photo stopped Sarah Lindblom.
As archivist for Dean College, Lindblom spends hours each day scouring through hundreds of dusty boxes filled with thousands of documents, photos and even clothing. She once found a wedding dress.
Yet, when she came across a black-and-white photo of a pair of basketball players in jerseys bookending four men in suits, she paused.
“There are so many photos in the archives of people at events or receiving awards,” Lindblom said. “But there was something about that one where I felt, this isn’t just any old basketball game and this isn’t any old year.”
Lindblom immediately shared the photo with Lawson, who confirmed the figures standing inside Pieri Gymnasium influenced history far behind campus.
The photo showed two basketball giants: Bill Russell, a civil rights pioneer and the man who set the standard for winning in professional sports, and John Havlicek, like Russell a basketball Hall of Famer and the Celtics' all-time leading scorer.
Between Russell and Havlicek stood Red Auerbach, the Celtics coach and considered one of the best ever; former Dean President William Garner; Louis Pieri, class of 1916, Celtics co-owner and namesake of the College’s gym; and Joseph Martin, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“In studying Dean’s history, it emerged for me that Dean is like the Forrest Gump of academic institutions,” Lawson said.
The small academic institution situated in a city that demands it still be called a town has hosted a former President - William Howard Taft - and music legend Bruce Springsteen. This photo was the latest example of the small institution outpunching its weight.
But its discovery also prompted more questions than it answered. It was taken during the 1965 centennial celebration, which is widely known. As part of the celebration, the Celtics played a “Green and White” exhibition game. Lindblom uncovered hundreds of documents associated with the centennial celebration. But another picture lumped in with the photos from the 1965 event stopped Lindblom and Lawson again.
This photo appeared within a newspaper clipping and featured Pieri and Walter Brown, who owned the team with Pieri. Brown died in 1964,a year before the 1965 game. All that remained of the newspaper was the article describing Brown and Pieri at a Cetlics game inside Pieri Gymnasium. It meant another game, prior to 1965, occurred.
“It’s always, you have one question answered and then you have 10 more,” Lindblom said. “Absorbing information intellectually, it’s easier to be in limbo and to have no idea of where you’re going. You find that serendipitous piece and it solidifies things but then you get a million more questions.”
Lindblom found the answers through a college yearbook from 1958.
Brown, along with Garner, Martin and Pieri, appear on the fourth page of the 1958 Dean “Megaphone.” On the next page, a photo shows Bill Russell about to dart to the basket to corral a potential rebound - proof that beyond the 1965 intrasquad scrimmage, a 1958 exhibition against the Cincinnati Royals also occurred.
'Expose this wonderful game'
On October 5, 1958, the Boston Celtics announced a 15-game preseason schedule beginning the following day, including 13 contests against the Cincinnati Royals, according to the Boston “Sunday Advertiser.” Fourteen of the 15 games would be in 14 days in 14 cities or towns across six states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.
They played the final exhibition on Oct. 21 against the St. Louis Hawks in Cincinnati.
“We were basically seeding the area, not only the Celtics but the game of basketball,” Cousy said. “Basketball was not a big sport in New England in the ‘50s. Any school that had a gym that held a couple thousand people would be a victim to us.”
The Celtics played in Franklin, specifically at Dean, on Oct. 17, which coincided with Homecoming to dedicate the school’s new $300,000 gymnasium named in honor of Pieri.
Cousy appeared on the front page of the Oct. 16 issue of “The Sentinel” publicizing the game.
The ceremony to dedicate the gym in Pieiri’s name was scheduled for 8 p.m., while the game started “promptly at 8:45” p.m.
“The game plan was simply to expose this wonderful game and this wonderful team to the public and hope that that would translate to [fans coming to] Boston to see the team. This was all part of it,” Cousy said.
'It’s unheard of today'
The Celtics arrived at Dean on the brink of the greatest run of consecutive championships in the history of professional sports.
Led by Cousy and Russell, a rookie during the 1956-57 season, the Celtics had won their first NBA championship over the St. Louis Hawks in seven games. Cousy was the league MVP. The following season, in a finals rematch, the Hawks beat the Celtics in six games.
Despite that loss in the finals, the 1958-59 Celtics began their barnstorming tour of New England and New York as league favorites again, according to league pundits and even those on campus.
An article entitled “The Scores and Rebounds of Homecoming” in the 1958 Dean “Megaphone” read, “They are not in top form yet by any means, but that is only natural. Within two weeks they will be in mid-season form and will be the team on the run with the other members of the N.B.A. pursuing. They will have to be on their toes at all times. My prediction is the Celtics in 58-59 will be hard to stop.”
The prediction ran true as the team that played at Dean won more than 72 percent of its games and swept the Minneapolis Lakers in the finals - the Celtics' first of eight consecutive championships.
“In terms of a 15-year period, the Celtics did something from 1957 to 1969 that had never been done before by an American professional sports team. It will never be done again - winning 11 championships in 13 years. It’s unheard of today.”
In 1958, when the Celtics arrived at Dean they had traveled more than 1,200 miles in 12 days – as far north as Houlton, Maine, which borders Canada, and as far west as Glens Falls, New York. Dean represented the closest the team had been to Boston since it departed for the opening game in Bangor, Maine.
Every mile of that barnstorming trip, the players drove in their own cars.
“We roomed together all through these tours,” Cousy said. “We’d stayed in the same broken down little Mickey Mouse fire traps that these small towns had. These places that I’m sure have all burned down by now.”
Pieri Gymnasium still stands.
Before the gym debuted in 1958, the College held indoor athletic events on the second floor of Memorial Hall.
“They had a track running around the top of the gym,” Red Morris ‘59 said. “You couldn’t watch the games from the floor. So we needed a new gym. That was a big deal, building a new gym. Now you had a floor and bleachers.”
During his time at Dean, Morris played basketball for the College. He remembered practicing in the old gym and having baseline jump shots hit the side of the track that hung over the court.
“You had to watch where the hell you were shooting,” Morris said. “That’s why the gym was a big deal.”
The new gym, which became Pieri Gymnasium, cost $300,000, about $3.2 million in 2023 money.
In coverage of the first game in the gym, reporters asked President Garner during the dedication how the College could justify that cost.
“While I respect the right of any person to hold the opinion that physical education is not important, I certainly cannot agree,” Garner said in the “Franklin Sentinel.” “Every commission which has ever been appointed to study the needs of education in the past 50 years has included health as one of the objectives.”
Some of the first sneakers to squeak on the court were those of Bill Russell and Bob Cousy as the Celtics christened the court against the Royals.
'A big deal'
Morris walked into the packed gym and saw hordes of students and Franklin residents surrounding Cousy and Russell.
Morris gravitated toward another player: The Royals’ Maurice Stokes.
In high school, Morris listened to collegiate basketball games on the radio.
“That’s what we did in the 50s,” Morris said.
He tried to listen to every St. Francis College basketball game, specifically to hear the heroics of Stokes.
“I applied to St. Francis but got refused. So here we are years later, I’m at Dean and who’s there but Maurice Stokes,” Morris said. “He was my focus. He was sitting over there. Everyone was running around getting to see Bob Cousy and all these other guys. Me? Holy cow. This guy Maurice Stokes, he was a star. I couldn’t believe he was there. I talked to him more than any of the other basketball players.”
Stokes didn’t play in the exhibition. In the final game of the previous season, Stokes fell to the floor after driving to the basket. His head slammed to the hardwood and he was knocked unconscious. Three days later, he went into a coma and was paralyzed for the remainder of his life. When the Royals came to Franklin, Morris remembered Stokes watching from the sidelines due to the injury.
In the 15th and final game of the Celtics 1958 exhibition tour, Boston played the Hawks in Cincinnati as part of a doubleheader to raise money for Stokes. More than 5,500 attended the contest, according to the Associated Press. The game raised more than $10,000.
At Dean, Morris and about 1,200 others witnessed the Celtics defeat the Royals 100-85, according to media reports. Hall of famer Tommy Heinsohn led the scoring with 22 points. Russell chipped in with 16 and Cousy had 11.
“It was the first game,” Morris said. “That was a big deal. The Celtics and the Royals. And for me, speaking with Stokes, that was amazing. We didn’t have cell phones back then. You didn’t walk around with a camera. So I don’t know if there were any pictures taken of anything.”
'Connected to the World'
The magnitude of the names and stars descending upon Dean College in 1958 would today bring thousands of photos both from the school and through social media. Six decades ago, as Cousy pointed out, basketball wasn’t what it is today. The photos in Dean’s archives confirm that.
The photos of the event come through the lens of the era, Lindblom said. Photos of unrecognizable men far outnumber any photos of Russell or Cousy. Only three known photos of Russell from the game exist. His back is to the camera in two of them. No known picture of Cousy at the game exists.
“You get so used to seeing the white-male perspective, especially the further back you go,” Lindblom said. “It’s not even a gender thing or a race thing. Whenever you’re looking at a document, you think, what’s the society that created it? Clearly, they weren’t thinking that decades from now people are going to be interested in this.”
The Celtics returned to Dean again on Oct. 22, 1965 as the seven-time defending NBA champions to celebrate College’s centennial with an intrasquad “Green and White” scrimmage.
Even as NBA royalty, the Celtics were still relegated to the undercard, listed as the third of five items on the program, behind “5 bands” and “floats.”
Other highlights of the day included the Franklin Rangerettes and antique automobiles in a parade that drew more than more than 12,000 people according to the Franklin Sentinel. Franklin’s population in 1965 was 14,712, according to state data.
“In researching all of Dean’s history, a thesis emerged that this little place was connected to the world in significant ways that were surprising,” Lawson said.
'Keep doing big things'
With the uncovering of the 1958 game and new photos showing Bill Russell inside Pieri Gymnasium, Dean College in February honored the legend who graced the court in 1958 and 1965.
On Feb. 18, the Bulldogs men’s basketball team wore black warmups that featured Russell’s last name and his No. 6. The women’s basketball team also honored a basketball icon in Maya Moore, with her name and number on the back of t-shirts.
The front of the shirts read “Black History Month.”
It’s a moment that connected Dean’s past to its present.
But without Lindblom uncovering the histories behind the games, the link to the 2023 Bulldogs and the 1958 and 1965 Celtics wouldn't exist.
“It’s inspiring to today’s faculty staff and students to keep doing big things - to feel like they have an obligation to carry on this tradition of importance and to feel inspired,” Lawson said. “Inspiration is so important. If you can imagine yourself doing it, then you can do it.”
Written by Michael Bonner.