Commentary

Celtics' success traced, in part, to the fortunes of a blind son

Updated: May 18, 2008, 6:54 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- Campbell Grousbeck sits at his granite kitchen counter, attacking a steaming dish of pasta and broccoli. He sips a pink vitaminwater, power-c (dragonfruit), and, being an acutely social 15-year-old, he asks a guest his favorite flavor.

"Uh," the guest says, trying to buy time, "the red kind."

This is not a good answer, for a number of reasons, but Campbell doesn't flinch.

"What are the ingredients?" he asks.

"Blueberry and, hmmm …"

"Pomegranate," Campbell says, triumphantly. "That's triple-X, triple antioxidants."

Yes, in fact, that's it -- XXX. Now, this is a solid effort for anyone, but well, here's the thing: Campbell Grousbeck is blind. How does he know that?

"Campbell," his father says, smiling, "is a pretty smart guy."

[+] EnlargeCampbell Grousbeck
Courtesy Grousbeck familyCampbell Grousbeck's father, Wyc, calls his son "a pretty smart guy." Campbell, who attends the Perkins School for the Blind, is the reason his family is back in Boston.

The apple apparently doesn't fall far from the tree. Campbell's father, Wycliffe "Wyc" Grousbeck, is the chief executive officer of the Boston Celtics. In 2002, he led a group of local investors who purchased the NBA franchise.

It now has been 22 seasons since the league's most decorated franchise won a title. That the Celtics still are a threat to hoist a 17th championship banner this season is largely a result of the aggressive, spare-no-expense leadership of Wyc and his partners. And that Wyc found himself in position to buy the team, oddly enough, can be traced directly back to Campbell's blindness. So, as you watch Kevin Garnett elevate under the basket and swat away the shots, and see Paul Pierce and Ray Allen singe the twine, know this:

It's all happening because of a sweet, slight boy who can't see any of it.

"We would be out in California, probably, and my golf game would be a little bit better, but I wouldn't be getting ready for a playoff game tonight," Wyc said several weeks ago. "If not for Campbell, we wouldn't be here."

Said Wyc's wife, Corinne: "We would never be out here if it were not for Campbell. I mean, that's a real example of following the child. We followed him clear across the country."

Adjusting expectations

Wyc Grousbeck grew up in Weston, Mass., a wooded suburb west of Boston. His father, Irving, took his four children to Fenway Park and Boston Garden several times a year, and those experiences created a profound bond with the professional sporting teams.

Irving co-founded Continental Cablevision Inc. in 1963, and he and his partner, Amos Hostetter, ultimately sold it for $11.5 billion. Wyc attended Noble and Greenough, a prep school in nearby Dedham, and, later, Princeton University, where he earned a degree in history. After earning a law degree at the University of Michigan and an MBA from the Stanford Business School, he spent four years as a venture capital lawyer in Silicon Valley. He had married Corinne, whom he met at Michigan, and they were living in the Bay Area with 3-year-old Kelsey when Campbell was born in 1992.

[+] EnlargeCampbell Grousbeck
Courtesy Grousbeck familyCampbell's parents - Wyc and Corinne, right -- knew that the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., was the best place for their 2-year-old son.

"Everything was going to just sort of fall into place," Corinne said, "and we were going to live in California and have this happily-ever-after kind of life."

But soon, they noticed Campbell wasn't like other babies. He didn't respond to visual stimuli. They took him to eye specialists and eventually learned he had Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), an inherited retinal degenerative disease characterized by a severe loss of vision at birth.

"It hits you pretty hard," Corinne said. "Most of it was [feeling] sorry for him, a lot of sort of grieving over expectations that are not going to be met."

After the Grousbecks worked themselves out of their "disbelief haze," they aggressively confronted the problem. Wyc investigated the science and technology that might restore Campbell's vision. Corrine went to the local library and sifted through piles of materials. Everything she found pointed to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass.

[+] EnlargeHelen Keller and Anne Sullivan
AP PhotoHelen Keller, at 12, with her teacher Anne Sullivan in 1892. Keller was born in Tuscumbia, Ala., and lost her sight and hearing after an illness at 19 months. Sullivan taught Keller to speak, read and write. Keller died in 1968 at age 87.

The school, founded 179 years ago, became famous for successfully educating Helen Keller in the late 19th century. Today's 38-acre campus sits along the Charles River and exudes the charm and cheer of an Ivy League institution.

When Wyc and Corinne visited, they were impressed by the independence of the students, making their way to class confidently with canes, and the low student-to-teacher ratio. They knew almost immediately that it was the place for their 2-year-old son. Before their first morning there ended, they knew they had to call a realtor.

"You sort of go with your gut," Corinne said. "We almost did a 180-degree turn from what everybody advised us to do. We just kept thinking that this is what we need to do.

"Wyc didn't have a job when we came out here, and we had no idea where to live. We took a huge risk uprooting the family to come 3,000 miles across the country."

Land of the Giants

Campbell Grousbeck started at the Perkins School in 1995. Wyc landed a job at Highland Capital Partners, a venture firm outside Boston, and specialized in start-up medical technology investments. The market was friendly, and business boomed. Wyc found himself the managing partner of a company managing $1.8 billion in funds.

[+] EnlargeSteve Pagliuca and Wyc Grousbeck
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaCeltics owners Steve Pagliuca, left, and Wyc Grousbeck at the Boston offices in 2006. This past season, the Celtics staged the largest one-year turnaround in league history - from a 24-58 regular-season record in 2006-07 to 66-16 this season.

Years earlier, he and his father had looked into buying the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants. And now, in the winter of 2002, the Boston Celtics appeared to be in play. Wyc called a friend, Steve Pagliuca, of the investment firm Bain Capital, and suggested they make a run at the team, which had been struggling under the ownership of the Gaston family. In December 2002, Wyc, his father and Pagliuca were introduced as the new owners of the Celtics.

Before the news conference, Wyc and Pagliuca met with the players and coaches at the team's practice facility. The magnitude of the day hit when Wyc ducked into the locker room to wash up.

"I'm trying to find the sink, and the counter comes up to my chest and the faucets are up here, and I'm trying to find the mirror," he remembered. "I'm saying, 'I'm in the Land of the Giants. What have I done?'

"The whole feeling in the beginning was, 'Let's get this right. This is not just any team. This is the Celtics.'"

Before the Celtics were eliminated from the playoffs in 2003, Wyc and Pagliuca visited with former All-Star guard Danny Ainge.

"They were trying to get me to come work for the Celtics, and I was really touched by the story of Wyc and his family," Ainge said. "Knowing that northern California is where the family is from, knowing that that was where they wanted to settle down -- and they came to Boston for one reason, and that was the Perkins School for the Blind. They wanted to give Campbell the best education possible.

"I was really impressed by that. The guy I was going to work for had a good perspective in life and a good heart."

Ainge signed on as general manager, and coach Doc Rivers arrived in 2005. The return to glory, however, was not immediate. The 2006-07 season began with the death of Red Auerbach at age 89, and the Celtics finished 24-58. The NBA's second-worst record included a franchise-record losing streak of 18 games.

The culture began to change on June 28, 2007. Encouraged by Wyc and his partners, Ainge sent the Celtics' No. 5 overall pick and two players to the Seattle SuperSonics on draft day in exchange for All-Star guard Ray Allen and the choice that would become Glen "Big Baby" Davis. On July 31, Boston traded for 10-time All-Star forward Kevin Garnett. It was the biggest trade for a single player in league history, and it changed the face of the Celtics. Later, pricey backups James Posey, Sam Cassell and Eddie House were added.

The Celtics' payroll is approximately $75 million, which puts them roughly $7 million above the league's luxury tax cutoff. That means they will be assessed a dollar-for-dollar tax after the season.

"The thing I've learned with [this management group] is they encourage me to spend money," Ainge said. "All I can tell you is Steve and Wyc and Irv, they're very competitive. I think there's competition in the market. The Patriots are winning [three Super Bowls], the Red Sox are winning [two World Series]. We love the fact that the Red Sox and Patriots have set a standard for this city, just like the Celtics set a standard in the 60s, 70s and 80s."

Led by Garnett, Allen and Pierce, the Celtics posted a league-best record of 66-16 during the 2007-08 regular season and became the NBA's leading headline. It was the largest one-year turnaround in league history. Garnett was named the defensive player of the year, and Ainge was voted executive of the year.

"We never wanted to look back and say, 'If only we'd done a little bit more,'" Wyc said. "We've exceeded our expectations already this year, but we haven't exceeded our hopes. We're hoping for the whole thing."

Small victories

Celtics Green, one of the most famous, instantly recognizable colors in all of sport, is something Campbell Grousbeck can't comprehend.

"Campbell or his classmates, they'll say, 'Oh, green, sure. That's the grass,'" Wyc said. "But they don't really know. He doesn't really know. He grasps a lot of things we don't -- sound, smell and touch -- but colors are just in his imagination."

What is Campbell's life like?

"I think if somebody told me that I was going to lose my vision, I probably would never get out of bed," Corinne said. "I find it overwhelming. I mean, every time that we've done an exercise where they show us what it's like to use a white cane and travel across campus … it's so hard to fathom that as his reality, that I almost can't go there -- because it is his reality."

[+] EnlargePaul Pierce
Steve Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesChildren at the Perkins School for the Blind paint Paul Pierce's hands. Pierce and other members of the Boston Celtics have visited the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass.

Campbell's first words came at Perkins when he was on horseback. According to his father, Campbell said, "Go faster." But sometimes, Corrine said, the daily victories are small.

"He learned to tie his shoes this year," she said. "Try tying your shoes with your eyes closed. He's 15 years old, and I could not have been happier."

Campbell sings in the school choir and plays a variety of sports.

"He runs track for Perkins. He wrestles for Perkins. He's on the swimming team. He's a three-sport athlete. Maybe he can be an NBA ref some day," Wyc said, laughing.

Clearly, he had used the line before. On the serious side, he stressed, Perkins teaches its students the invaluable gift of independence.

"What we've learned being around blind people is that they want to try and cope with all the challenges themselves," he said. "One of the challenges that he faces is that everyone wants to help him so much. Visually impaired people, as they grow up, it's the independence they really seek."

Wyc and Corrine have worked hard to raise Perkins' profile and have been heavily involved in fundraising. Corrine was co-chairwoman of the 2008 Perkins Gala, which raised a record $1.2 million that will be used to support the school's work on campus and around the world.

In 2006, Wyc formed a partnership with Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee, whose daughter, Jada, also has LCA. They named their joint effort Project 3000 for the approximately 3,000 people in the United States who suffer from the disease. Their goal: genetic testing for each individual affected. Ultimately, they hope to identify the genetic cause of LCA and produce a cure. About 12 LCA genes already have been discovered. Clinical trials of gene replacement therapy have been successful in dogs.

Campbell occasionally attends Celtics games. The noise in the sold-out, 18,000-plus-seat TD Banknorth Garden can be daunting, so Campbell wears noise-cancelling headphones. Sometimes you can find him under the stands in the locker room, hanging with his father and Ainge, who often watch the game on a big screen.

Campbell can't see Pierce, Garnett and Allen, but he has met them and can give detailed accounts of their hairstyles, which he's felt with his fingers. Campbell knows their voices and their personalities intimately. Using models, his parents have explained the dynamics of the game. When he sits courtside, he likes to put his feet on the court.

"He can feel the vibrations of the players as they're running," Corinne said. "I think he knows when they're coming sooner than we do. It's really amazing what he can take in from just listening to the ball. He can hear it go in. He'll say, 'Oh, that was a basket.'"

Campbell probably was destined to attend the Perkins School, to lead his family back to Boston and resurrect a proud franchise.

A dozen years before her grandson was born, Wyc's mother, Sukey, volunteered at the Perkins School. She held babies while families toured the facilities.

"I do feel that out of anything bad, goodness arises," Sukey said. "And I do feel that Campbell is a gift to our family. I think the Celtics and Perkins connection is a beautiful thing, out of happenstance."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.