All the evidence suggests that Arnold (Red) Auerbach of the Boston Celtics is one of the more interesting people in American sports. Leaving aside the astonishing string of championships his teams had in the '50s and '60s, Auerbach is notable among sports figures for his sharp intelligence, innovative mind, fierce loyalties and remarkable candor. He'd make a great subject for a book.
But it's got to be said about Red Auerbach: An Autobiography (Putnam, $9.95)—great subject, lousy book. It was written by Auerbach (or, presumably, tape-recorded by him) in collaboration with Joe Fitzgerald, a youngish Boston columnist who writes like a sports-page oldtimer—and that's not a compliment. With the exception of a few swearwords, this is just another old-fashioned sport autobiography, the gee-whizzical tale of (gulp!) the tough coach with a heart of gold.
The details of Auerbach's career are familiar to many fans: Brooklyn boyhood, college at George Washington, coaching apprenticeship in high schools and in the wartime Navy, his first taste of the pro game with the Washington Caps, then on to Walter Brown's Celtics and, eventually, the greatest coaching record in the history of pro basketball. Since we know all that, we read an Auerbach autobiography for a different reason: we want to know the secret of his success, the why behind the what of his career. In this book, however, we get little beyond Fitzgerald idolizing Auerbach, and Auerbach being unbecomingly—and unconvincingly—modest.
It's easy to assemble a list of the qualities that made the Celtics great: conditioning, discipline, team play, Bill Russell, execution, pride, loyalty, Bill Russell. Directly or obliquely, Auerbach talks about all that, and so do players and other associates whom Fitzgerald has interviewed. For example, Bob Cousy on Auerbach: "The criterion for judging any coach...is whether or not he gets the most out of his talent." But this still doesn't explain why a short, rotund, tough-talking and frequently obnoxious guy from Brooklyn should have turned out to be a giant in a game of giants. We get long ribbons of anecdotes and play-by-play recitals, and a fair amount of repetition, but there is scarcely a moment of real reflection or introspection.
May 1, 1977
Perhaps it's enough just to let the record speak for itself. It certainly says a lot, but it's natural to be curious about how Auerbach got the magic touch, and here we get precious few clues. The good Auerbach book has yet to be written.