|HARRY MANGURIANRight man, right time|
Horseman stabilized Celtics
Harry Mangurian was a big man with the ponies. I really had no idea just how big until he died last Sunday and the tributes came pouring in.
I guess all you need to know is that he won the 2001 Eclipse Award of Merit for his lifetime contributions to the sport of thoroughbred racing. I learned how he was the leading North American breeder by earnings four consecutive years (1999-2002), that he was the leading breeder by individual stakes winners from 1999-2001, and that he was twice recognized as the national Breeder of the Year (1998, 2000) by the Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association.
And all I knew was that he owned a horse farm in Florida.
All of this is very interesting. To me, Harry Mangurian was the guy who saved the Boston Celtics from being turned into the Anchorage Iceboxes or Key West Keystone Kops by buying out John Y. Brown. If that guy had maintained any kind of influence with the team, Red Auerbach really would have gone to New York, Larry Bird would never have signed here, and there is a very real possibility the Boston Celtics would have ceased to exist.
So, yes, say a prayer for the man, or whatever it is you do to honor the distinguished deceased. Harry T. Mangurian was a very important figure in the history of Boston sports.
"That was a very dark and difficult time in the history of the franchise," asserts Jan Volk, then the Celtics' assistant general manager and later, of course, the successor to Auerbach as GM. "I think Harry Mangurian is underappreciated and under-recognized for who he was and what he did for the team at that particular point in time. Some of it was circumstantial, but he certainly provided a necessary alternative to John Y."
"He was an owner at a very interesting time," said NBA commissioner David Stern. "He had a colorful and interesting partner, and he was a key component in holding that team together at a very difficult time."
The Mangurian money had come from a family furniture store in Rochester, N.Y. Harry T. Mangurian Jr., born 1926, died 2008, parlayed the money he made from the store into a merger with the General Portland Cement Company. He had interests in banking, real estate, and construction. He founded Drexel Investments Inc., a Fort Lauderdale-based firm that constructed and sold 10,000 units in South Florida.
He entered sports by buying into the Buffalo Braves, who were, for a brief time, an important part of the fabric of life in Western New York. He was John Y. Brown's partner in the great team swap of 1978, when Irv Levin bought the Braves from them and moved the franchise to San Diego, with the two Buffalo owners assuming control of the Celtics. The man who brokered that deal was a bright young league counsel named David Stern.
John Y. Brown was the bombastic big mouth married to the Miss America/CBS-TV personality, Phyllis George. Harry Mangurian was the so-called "silent partner." (With John Y., there was no other kind). He wasn't exactly the loquacious type, but he had excellent powers of observation, and he must have recognized what his partner was doing to this historic franchise and knew only he could stop Brown from destroying it.
Accordingly, he bought out Brown when the latter decided to run for governor of Kentucky and was in firm control of the team when it came time to sign the No. 1 draft pick from 1978 before a calendar year expired, or the Celtics would lose the rights to Indiana State star Larry Bird.
There is a longstanding urban myth that Harry muscled aside his GM to take control of the Bird negotiations with agent Bob Woolf. Not quite, says Volk.
"But he played a role, absolutely," Volk recalls. "He was the owner. He had to play a role. He didn't do any of the negotiations that I know of. But it was the biggest rookie contract in the history of the league and it had to be approved by the owner. He had to take the risk on it."
"Horses," Bird says. "That's the first thing I think of with Harry Mangurian. I remember being in contract negotiations and he said he couldn't pay me that number because it was more than one of his horses was worth. It gave me a good laugh."
Though Mangurian may have started out as John Y's "silent partner," Volk quickly discovered after Mangurian took charge that he was now working for a demanding and inquisitive owner.
"He was a very, very strong-minded guy," says Volk. "He was a hands-on, active owner. He wanted to know everything that was going on, and we would talk for hours every day, more than once."
"He was a complete gentleman," remembers Stern. "He was protective of the Celtics and viewed them as under constant assault from the Lakers and the Knicks."
Volk's first major experience with Mangurian came when John Y. personally traded three No. 1 picks that had been carefully collected by Auerbach to the Knicks for Bob McAdoo.
"That deal was done without Red's input or approval, and, in fact, with Red's disapproval," Volk explains.
That was bad enough. But when Mangurian discovered that as part of the deal the Celtics would be assuming a rather large financial obligation to McAdoo that carried over from the contract he had originally signed with Buffalo, he said no.
"He said to me, 'I don't care how you get it done; that has to go away,' " Volk says. "He was decisive and he was smart."
He was probably the most stable owner the Celtics had known since Walter Brown, and now we're going back to the mid '60s. He was the owner when the Celtics went from 29 victories in 1978-79 to 61 in 1979-80 and then to a 14th championship the following year. He just wasn't in it for the long haul, selling the team to the triumvirate of Donald Gaston, Alan Cohen, and Paul Dupee for $18 million in 1983 and then heading down to Florida for good. That was more than 150 stakes winners ago.
Messrs. Gaston, Cohen, and Dupee rode the NBA wave before selling to the current ownership for $360 million. No one ever heard Harry Mangurian complain. He liked his horses and he liked his life in Florida. But it is too bad people forgot about him, because every Celtics fan owes him thanks.
"He was the right guy at the right moment for the Celtics franchise," maintains Volk. "It's fortuitous that he was there."
Save a little spot for him in your Winner's Circle of Boston sports, OK?
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.