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Wakefield boys basketball coach Brad Simpson is a little torn as the Celtics prepare to take on the Nets in a crucial Game 3 at TD Garden on Friday.
Simpson wants to support his hometown Celtics, who are trying to fend off a haymaker punch down 2-0 to the Nets. He also wants to support the best player to come through his program: Nets guard Bruce Brown.
“It’s really fun to talk about Bruce for me,” Simpson told Boston.com this week. “Definitely brings back a lot of good memories, good feelings. I just want him to do well.
“If the Celtics can’t beat [the Nets], I don’t want anybody to beat them.”
Brown is part of a Boston basketball community that he feels is overlooked by national talent evaluators.
“I always had a chip on my shoulder,” Brown told Boston.com earlier this week. “People from Boston … they didn’t really give us the respect that we wanted, so I was always overlooked. I played in [Nike’s AAU circuit] EYBL for three years, and nobody even talked to me. So really, I was just pissed off and I wanted to show people that I was better than they thought.”
Brown spent two years at Wakefield before transferring to Vermont Academy — a high-powered NEPSAC prep school. By the time he committed to Miami, he was a top-100 prospect and firmly on the NBA’s radar. His athleticism and winning attitude made him an attractive prospect, and he carried that winning attitude into the NBA — cementing his spot as a hard-nosed role player.
Nets coach Steve Nash called Brown, who started 37 of the 65 games he played this year, “one of my favorite guys.”
“It’s been fun to watch him develop into this role, this version of a Swiss Army knife for us,” Nash said. “We all recognize his value.”
Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC) director Leo Papile brought Brown into his program at a young age. He isn’t surprised Brown is a major contributor, even on a team that employs Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.
“If the Nets told him he had to stand on his head today and ride a unicycle upside down at halftime, he would just go practice on the unicycle,” Papile told Boston.com.
The first time Chris Coblyn met Brown, the future NBA starter was a gangly seventh-grader. Coblyn, who is now the executive director at the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester, was the school’s basketball coach. At the time, Davis had a solid basketball program, but Brown was a step above his peers.
“The funny thing is that the same things that he did as an eighth grader are the same things that he was able to do in high school,” Coblyn said. “Those are the same things he was able to do in high school, and then the exact same things he can in the pros.”
Coblyn started putting out feelers to find exposure for his talented guard. He approached BABC, and BABC coaches were impressed when they saw Brown play with a junior AAU team.
Coblyn informed them that Brown was just an eighth grader.
“That was something that kind of took them aback,” Coblyn said. “Then they were like, ‘Oh we definitely need this kid.’”
Years later, Brown has stayed in touch with Coblyn. He visited Davis on multiple occasions after graduating (“No fanfare, we don’t call the media,” Coblyn said). When he visits, Brown chats with students about playing basketball at the highest levels.
On draft night in 2018, Coblyn ignored a call from an Atlanta number, watching the coverage intently.
The caller left a message. It was Brown’s mother. Brown wanted to touch base with his old coach before he went to the arena.
That meant a lot to Coblyn.
“It was the most important day of his life,” Coblyn said. “His mom said, ‘I knew he was going to want to talk to you.’ I’m sure a bunch of people were there, and he thought about the little guy. So it was cool.”
Brown’s presence at Davis left a mark — since he graduated, many of the area’s best middle-school players end up at Davis. Coblyn attributes that directly to Brown.
Once, when Brown was at Miami, Coblyn called and asked if he would explain to a talented group of Davis players how to become a Division I player. Brown happily obliged, speaking to the kids on his way from study hall to the weight room. He talked about the foundational work necessary to make it at the Division I level.
One of the Davis players listening intently was Terrence Clarke — perhaps the best Boston prospect in recent history, who died tragically in a car accident last month.
“I think it definitely had an impact on those kids at that age to be able to connect with somebody that grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same school as them and gave them a clear path to reaching their goals,” Coblyn said.
After middle school, Brown attended Wakefield High as part of the METCO program that enrolls Boston students in high-performing public schools. Before his freshman year, Brown played in a summer league with other Wakefield players.
Brad Simpson came to one game to watch his incoming players with a friend. As the kids went through layup lines, it was clear one player was particularly athletic.
But when soon-to-be freshman Brown elevated for a dunk, Simpson’s friend fell off his seat.
“I’m not making this up,” Simpson said. “He was leaning forward on the seat on the bleachers. He fell into where you put your feet.”
Early in Brown’s high-school career, Simpson saw where Brown’s basketball career was headed and sat him down for a conversation.
“Bruce, you’re only going to be at Wakefield probably this year and maybe another year, and then you’re going to go to prep school and then I’m going to see you playing on TV,” Simpson recalled telling Brown.
“Well Coach, that’s the plan,” he answered.
Every morning at 6 a.m., Brown boarded a bus and traveled an hour to Wakefield. He played both basketball and football, and he was so good at both, Leo Papile wasn’t certain which sport he would ultimately pursue.
“We don’t tell kids they will be [professionals],” Papile said. “We think that’s kind of dangerous. But we would say among ourselves, ‘If God ever created a pro athlete …’
“If he took up baseball, he’d be in the 600 home-run club.”
Brown, however, said that while he enjoyed the physicality of football and sought out contact, he was a basketball player at heart.
“Football was just fun, just the fun of it,” he said. “I just loved basketball.”
Brown’s friends loved playing basketball with him. The future five-star prospect was enthusiastic and supportive — as quick to help a high-school teammate off the ground as he is Durant or Harden.
Also: Playing with an NBA-caliber athlete is fun. Brian Dickey, a teammate in both basketball and football, remembered throwing an alley-oop to Brown on a fast break in his first varsity game.
“That was probably one of my favorite memories playing basketball at all,” Dickey said. “It was pretty special just to get to play with someone that talented. How many high school basketball players can say that, especially as a sophomore?”
Chris Calnan played both basketball and football with Brown as well. He remembered Brown going off as a freshman to lead Wakefield to the Eastern Mass finals, as well as an angry dunk on a 6-foot-6 Division II prospect during his sophomore season when Wakefield fell in the Eastern Mass semifinals.
“That’s just the type of kid he was,” Calnan said. “No matter how good he was or what what the situation was, he was trying to go hard all the time and set a good example.”
Brown remains close with his friends from Wakefield. He stayed with Calnan for two months during the pandemic and plays golf with the same group of friends whenever he’s back in town.
Several of Brown’s friends from Wakefield traveled to Brooklyn to watch him take on the Celtics in Game 1. Like Brown, who watched Rajon Rondo intently as a youngster, most are Celtics fans. Still, they raided Brown’s closet for Nets gear to wear to the game.
“Even though I’m rooting for [Jayson] Tatum to do something crazy and I’m analyzing the Celtics, I’m still wishing for Bruce to do the best,” Calnan said.
As Brown’s career progressed, his Wakefield friends were elated watching him work his way into a spot starter for a championship contender. Calnan still marvels that his good friend plays alongside Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.
“He knows we’ve loved him since we hung out with him the first time,” Calnan said. “We always keep in touch with him no matter what happened. I think he really understood that love. He’s definitely got something special, and he’s the man about it.”
Brown takes a lot of pride in his home region. When he returned to Boston in 2020 for a game against the Celtics, he sported a pair of shoes with “DORCHESTER” written on the back and Wakefield’s Warrior mascot on the side.
After his rookie season, Brown gave away school supplies and backpacks in Roxbury. When he signed with Nike, Brown gave gift cards to METCO students remembering what it was like to wish for nice shoes at Wakefield.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t have much,” Brown said. “My mom worked to make ends meet. So I just want to help everybody. I’m really fortunate to be in the position I’m in.”
Watching Brown is surreal for Simpson, who shuttled Brown and other METCO kids back and forth from McDonalds in high school. The athletes ate burgers and fries and discussed their favorite basketball players.
“Now, the first time seeing [Brown] was like, ‘Hey, you know what? He’s my favorite player,’” Simpson said. “I didn’t look at him as a coach. I looked at him as his biggest fan.”
Brown watched with interest as the Celtics took on the Wizards, thinking about a chance to play in front of his friends and family in Boston. He hopes he doesn’t airball his first shot again, like he did his rookie season, but he’s excited to experience a TD Garden crowd in the playoffs, even as an opponent.
He’s also proud to be one of a handful of NBA players to come from Boston.
“Honestly, I never even really thought about that,” Brown said. “But yeah, it’s cool. I’m probably the only one from Dorchester to make it to the league. Everybody else is from like Roxbury. …
“Just trying to show kids back home that they can make it, no matter your circumstances. They can make it out and be successful in life.”
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