Don’t Shoot the Irishman: White Coach, Black Player Recall Integrating Boston’s Hardwood

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

BOSTON—“I couldn’t believe we had to go through this to play a basketball game, it was so unreal,” Dorchester, Massachusetts, native Paul Mahoney recalled of the police escort halting afternoon traffic on Morrissey Boulevard so an otherwise all-white basketball team could play with a black player in the 1974 Boston Neighborhood Basketball League (BNBL) championship.

“He truly was a trailblazer when it came to race relationships in the 1970s, when the city of Boston was struggling with serious racial tension between black and white neighborhoods,” Felton Sealey, the 1970s African American teenager, says now of Coach Mahoney.

Mahoney, an ESL teacher at the John W. McCormack in Harbor Point, is likely the only faculty member at his Boston Public School (BPS) middle school old enough to have worked with kids in the neighborhood when it was a nearly all-black enclave called Columbia Point.

“The neighborhood was off limits to whites, it was scary,” Mahoney recalled of the Columbia Point Housing Projects.

In 1974, Felton Sealey was a hoop star playing for 19-year-old Mahoney in the oldest free summer program of its kind in the United States.

The summer of 1974 came months before Phase 1 of forced busing, while on the shoreline of Columbia Point residents endured another crime addled heat-wave to forget. The destitute high rises were reluctantly patrolled but more often ignored, while ambulance crews rarely entered the Point sans police escort. Yet Dorchester natives Paul Mahoney and Felton Sealey fondly remember how they did the unthinkable in August of 1974.

Five-foot-eight with unrelenting energy, Mahoney would venture into the dilapidated Columbia Point housing development to chauffeur Don Bosco legend Sealey to BNBL games in Dorchester’s Savin Hill.

“He took great personal risk at times picking me up in Columbia Point and taking me to play BNBL in Savin Hill, which at that time was a no-go area for black people, especially from Columbia Point,” Sealey told Breitbart Sports.

One afternoon Mahoney stared down a loaded gun. “One time he was late and I parked and ran into the high rise to get him and two kids grabbed me with a gun,” Mahoney explained. But events that day demonstrated that those who help often receive it, too. Mahoney recalled, “Alvin, his older brother took up for me and literally saved my life that day.”

In the early eighties, while head women’s basketball coach at Mass Bay Community College, Mahoney experienced a déjà vu of the handgun variety while picking up players on Roxbury’s Columbus Avenue. “It wasn’t until then that it dawned on me that I could have had a short coaching career.”

Before he flourished for Dick Harter at the University of Oregon or won Catholic and state titles as star of the Don Bosco teams of the mid 1970s, Sealey dominated BNBL games.

Mahoney, who four years earlier was the lone white player on the all-black Titans, still vividly remembers the police escort that froze afternoon traffic, alerting every teenager at Savin Hall Park and driver on Morrissey Boulevard that the game would be played free of racially-charged incidents.

Sealey snuck into Savin Hall Park the back way. He recalls the nagging and the battle cry of the teenagers from the Roxbury YMCA. His black counterparts, the Titans, wondered why someone who looked like Felton would bounce a basketball in Savin Hill or align with an all-white Dorchester squad.

“Play for Roxbury? Why would I play for Roxbury? I was proud of being from Dorchester, so I’m going to play for Dorchester is what I’d tell them,” Sealey explained.

When the Talismen beat the Titans, they handed Coach Al Brodsky’s squad their first ever 15-and-under BNBL loss.

“He beat us all by himself. He was a man amongst boys that day. I had a good team, they had a good team. But Felton was the difference-maker,” recalls Brodsky, who has coached the youth basketball powerhouse since 1966.

The Dorchester squad’s use of a black player was doubted as much as their chances of coming out victorious. Dan Shaughnessy, in his Boston Globe recap the following morning, even titled his piece “The Wrong Team Won.”

“The guy in charge of the championship jackets even pre-ordered them for the Titans before the game. Nobody thought we had a chance,” reflects Mahoney.

“By the grace of God, Coach Mahoney, my all-white teammates, and the basketball community, I was able to play with very few incidents,“ Sealey told Breitbart Sports. “It truly was a high light in my young basketball career to win the league and represent Dorchester in the BNBL regional tournament with a mixed-race team.”

Four decades have passed since Sealey and Mahoney made the half-mile jaunt in a Pontiac Ventura to Savin Hill Park. Today, Columbia Point has been rebranded by urban planners as Harbor Point. The gated development serves a mix of low-income families with subsidized apartments and condos, as well as landing pads for students and young professionals who temporarily deem The Point home.

Up the road, Red Sox owner John Henry plans to develop the property that once housed the Boston Globe, and there are prospects of dormitories at nearby UMass-Boston. Most remarkably, the former site of the Columbia Point High Rises will serve as the Athletes’ Village if Boston hosts the 2024 Olympic Games.

Sealey nears his 25th season coaching professionally and currently serves as the head coach of Al Seeb club, in Muscat, Oman, after successful stints in such countries as Thailand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

“I think how I ended up in coaching and my brother John ended up coaching has a lot to do with a guy like Mahoney. You know, he just judged us by the content of our character and never the color of our skin,” reflected Sealey.

Throughout his 32-year career in BPS, Mahoney spent two decades as disciplinarian of the 9th-grade wing at Brighton High. His removal of a handgun from an unruly student’s waistband even prompted the Boston School Police to revise their approach to emergency response.

In 2010, he became victim to a district-wide pink slip where all teachers acting as school disciplinarians were reassigned to classroom teaching as part of a cost-saving measure. Mahoney transferred to the McCormack in Harbor Point where he teaches ESL and moonlights as the head girls’ basketball coach at the Jeremiah Burke High School.

Fittingly, he will soon culminate a teaching career in the Boston Public Schools just steps from where his dedication to Boston began in Columbia Point.

“I think it’s amazing that towards the end of his career he’s back in the same neighborhood teaching and helping kids the same way he worked with me and my brother,” commented Sealey.

Mahoney’s second floor classroom window is less than fifty yards from the public-housing project’s hallway where a loaded gun was aimed at his temple forty years ago.

“You know when I’m at work, I think of those days a lot, especially when people complain about how bad the city is,” reflects Mahoney. “Today, it’s not even close. They have no idea how bad it really was for the kids growing up back then.”


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