John Doherty, 84; Celtics team doctor during 1960s championship dominance

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / September 2, 2011

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How Dr. John Doherty became the official team physician for the Celtics was so random that it not only defined his remarkable career but also made for a story that lasted a lifetime.

While he was a surgeon at Glover Memorial Hospital (now Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital), Dr. Doherty, known as Jack, performed emergency surgery on a fellow Needham resident named Walter Brown, saving his life.

What Dr. Doherty did not know was that Brown was the founder and owner of the Boston Celtics.

Soon after Brown’s recovery, he took his surgeon out to lunch and offered him a chance to become the Celtics team doctor. Dr. Doherty spent 10 seasons in that position from 1959 to 1969 - nine of those were championship seasons - and after that he continued his work with Glover for the next three decades along with work at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center.

Dr. Doherty passed away Tuesday from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

He was 84.

A father of 13 children and a World War II Navy veteran, Dr. Doherty graduated from Boston College in 1949 and Tufts Medical School four years later.

And just six years after finishing Tufts, Dr. Doherty was overseeing the health of one of professional sports’ most successful franchises.

Dr. Doherty formed relationships with the Celtics greats, which gave him the opportunity to witness some of their greatest games at the Boston Garden.

“I used to sit behind the Celtics bench with my brothers, and my dad brought us to a lot the championship games,’’ said his son Chris. “And after the championship games he would even take us into the Celtics locker room to meet the players. Young kids in giant land, it was just phenomenal, just the best memories I’ve had. I used to bug my dad about getting the signed autographs of the Celtics to bring home and I’d wake up one morning and there on my closet door would be a signed picture of John Havlicek and Bill Russell, who rarely gave autographs.’’

The role of the team doctor was different back then. In those days, being hurt could mean an athlete losing his job. So many Celtics were not clamoring to get checked up by Dr. Doherty unless it was something serious.

But Dr. Doherty bonded with the players, especially Russell and Tom Heinsohn. And his large family was often the source of kidding from the players.

“We used to tease him about being a good Catholic in the fact that he had so many kids,’’ Tom ‘Satch’ Sanders said. “We know that doctors are well paid, but 13 kids, that’s something else. Jack was a real nice man.’’

Sanders said Dr. Doherty’s most significant contribution may have come with forward Jim Loscutoff, who returned to play after a serious disc problem in his back.

Chris remembers Russell visiting the Doherty home in Needham.

“He’s walking in the doors of our house, he is ducking, his head and shoulders are above our doorway,’’ he said. “It was just amazing, it was like giants and munchkin-kind, it was just phenomenal. And his wife said to my mother, ‘I don’t know what washing machine you have but for all these kids, Bill, I want you to get whatever washing machine they have for us.’ ’’

Dr. Doherty owned a private practice for 35 years, was medical director at Campion Health Center, and served as a physician for the Poor Clare Nuns in Jamaica Plain for 25 years.

In addition to his 13 children and wife of 58 years, Mary, Dr. Doherty is survived by 28 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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