Growing up in Brookline, Robert Kraft would have to be a little sneaky if he wanted to keep up with the late-night Celtics and Bruins games.
“My parents thought I was sleeping,” he told Boston.com. “But I used to listen to the games on my transistor radio. I kept it under my pillow.”
Decades later, Kraft doesn’t have to be nearly as crafty to find a way to catch the games. The New England Patriots owner is often spotted at the TD Garden — most recently for Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers — to watch the teams compete firsthand.
“It’s just not the same on TV,” he said Wednesday. “TV is great, and you get more views of great plays, but I always preferred being in the locale.”
When Kraft sits courtside — he sometimes prefers to go “incognito” and watch from seats they have upstairs — the Garden’s video board will often cut to him during a timeout. He happily waves or pumps his fist to the delight of the cheering crowd, who without a doubt always gives him a roaring applause. The overwhelmingly positive response, as Kraft puts it, “beats the alternative.”
For those familiar with Kraft’s story, his frequent attendance at the Garden should come as no surprise. After all, he purchased the Patriots in 1994 following years of avid fandom as a longtime season-ticket holder.
“I’ve been a big Boston sports fan since the good Lord put me on the Earth,” he said.
When Kraft was born, the city had just two of their current sports franchises: The Red Sox (established in 1901) and the Bruins (founded in 1924).
The Celtics were founded in 1946 — five years after Kraft was born. The organization got off to a slow start, finishing with a losing record in each of their first four seasons, but things improved when the legendary Red Auerbach took over as head coach for the 1950-51 season. That same year, the C’s acquired guard Bob Cousy. The next year, they traded for guard Bill Sharman.
After the 1956 NBA Draft, Auerbach traded for center Bill Russell and the team never looked back. The trio would go on to become multi-time NBA champions as well as three of Kraft’s favorite players.
“I liked Sharman and Cousy because I knew I’d always have to play guard,” he joked. “I liked Russell for being so dominant.”
Kraft commended Auerbach for doing “such an outstanding job,” despite offhandedly acknowledging “there were fewer teams then, so it was a little easier.” After the Auerbach era, Kraft said he enjoyed watching talented player after talented player come to Boston, including Larry Bird and Kevin McHale in the ’80s.
But before the slew of heated championship battles between the Celtics and Lakers, Kraft was following a different rivalry: The Bruins versus the Montreal Canadiens. He said he loved watching the B’s take on Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion and the Habs because of “the great competitiveness.”
Two of his favorite Bruins, however, came from the next decade: defenseman Bobby Orr and center Phil Esposito. Naturally, Orr’s “shot heard around the world” during the 1970 Stanley Cup Final was one of the high points of his fandom.
Kraft witnessed two Stanley Cups and 16 NBA titles before the turn of the century, but the ’90s weren’t nearly as prolific. During that time, the Red Sox were still fighting the Curse of the Bambino and the Patriots had yet to win a Super Bowl.
“None of the Boston sports teams really accomplished what we hoped,” Kraft said.
“So to have all the teams doing well is really special.”
The Patriots turned things around, however, in 2001 when they won the franchise’s first Super Bowl title with head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. What followed was a succession of nine more Boston sports championships: four Super Bowl rings, a Stanley Cup title, an NBA title, and three World Series rings.
The Patriots had only hosted one playoff home game, which they lost to the Houston Oilers, in the 34 years before Kraft had purchased the team. Now? They’ve played 25, and won 22, home games during the postseason.
“We were privileged to kick off the success, and the other teams have done an outstanding job,” Kraft said. “What’s going on right now, I mean, is pretty incredible. … I have a deep affinity for all the teams here.”
While New England couldn’t close out its sixth Super Bowl title in February, both the Celtics’ and Bruins’ playoff dreams are still alive after recently clinching Game 7s . The Red Sox sit in first place in the AL East, while the Revolution are off to an 8-4 start. To have four teams playing in May is a rarity for other cities.
“I was privileged to be able to sit in the stands for the seventh Bruins game and see them win and for the seventh Celtics game and see them beat Milwaukee,” Kraft said. “The energy in the arena was so overpowering and so electric and contagious.”
That type of atmosphere is what drove Kraft to purchase the Patriots.
“To be honest, it’s the passion I felt sitting with the fans in the stands that allowed me to buy the Patriots and feel comfortable paying the highest price ever paid for a sports franchise,” he explained.
Although he undoubtedly is a fan of winning games, which the Patriots certainly have, Kraft is also a fan of, well simply being a fan.
“What I really love about it more than anything, at this period in our country, when you’re privileged to sit with your fellow citizens, there’s nothing more fun than the communal experience of enjoying the games,” he said. “With fans at a live event like that, you get a certain feeling and that energy feeds off one another.”
“In this world of divisiveness — you know, political divisiveness — to be able to create that sense of unity and community and rooting for the home team and winning, it’s really cool,” he continued.
In Boston, specifically, he said he believes the fans have taken on an even greater role, as their intensity and dedication has helped drive the teams.
“They’re genuine,” he said. “The fans in Boston, if they feel you’re giving it your best shot and you’re genuine, they’re with you. It’s not like — well, I don’t want to mention other parts of the country — but I think fans in the Northeast, and especially Boston, have helped push all the franchises.”