Blowin' Smoke

At 75, Red Auerbach muses on the state of pro basketball, the Celtic mystique and why the Dream Team isn't his dream team
November 16, 1992

The words are spoken into a familiar haze of cigar smoke. Times may change, but Arnold (Red) Auerbach does not. It is near the start of his 42nd season with the Boston Celtics, the first day of training camp, Oct. 9, at the Gosman Sports & Convocation Center at Brandeis University. He is supposed to be retired but still is listed as the president of the team and still is a day-to-day presence. About a week earlier his 75th birthday was celebrated at a downtown Boston hotel, where most of the players he had either coached or signed returned for a black-tie gala. He is a professional-basketball eminence, a civic treasure.

The civic treasure uses a plastic foam coffee cup for an ashtray. He is sitting in the trainer's room.

Sports Illustrated: Seventy-five. What do you think when you hear that number?

Red Auerbach: it's not a big deal. I don't think about it. I feel pretty good. I work out a couple times a week, sometimes three times. Racquetball. But I can't do the things I used to do. Instead of running or jogging, I walk. Even that bothers me sometimes.

SI: How many cigars do you smoke a day?

RA: I don't know, maybe eight or 10. But I don't smoke them all the way through all the time.

SI: Do the antismokers ever get after you?

RA: Sure. You can't smoke in restaurants, government buildings, a lot of places. You just keep your mouth shut. Once in a while you get mad because people get unreasonable. I can go someplace, the cigar will be not lit, and as soon as I take it out of the wrapper, some people say, "Boy, does that thing stink." You feel like saying, "I don't like the smell of the perfume or the toilet water you've got on, either," but you don't do that. You walk away. When they get obnoxious, though, you feel like belting them.

SI: After all these years, are you surprised by how successful the NBA has become?

RA: I'd say yes, but I kind of predicted that, if you had the proper management, the public would buy pro basketball. [Commissioner] David Stern's done a great job in marketing the product.

Basically, it all goes back to 46 years ago, when I took the job with the Washington Caps. I gave up the security of being a teacher and a coach at George Washington University to go with the new pro league. What crossed my mind in those days was that unless you had totally poor management, the success of the league would be predicated on the success of college basketball, which was very high in those days. More than any other college sport, including football, the basketball players were readily recognizable. I felt that by being on the cover of so many magazines and by playing without a helmet, without pads, and with the size and ability of these guys, college basketball players would arouse the curiosity of fans around the country concerning how well they would play at the next level.

When Bill Russell was in college, playing on an undefeated team at San Francisco and winning an Olympic gold medal [in 1956], everybody wanted to know how good he'd be in the pros. The same with Bob Cousy, when his Holy Cross team won the 1947 NCAA tournament. You go on and on, every year there were one or two or sometimes three players who received so much national exposure that they aroused everybody's curiosity. You could go from Cousy, Russell, Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Bill Bradley to Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal today. On and on and on. The average sports fan today knows Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning, but he can't tell you who drafted who in football. Or hockey. Or even baseball. So pro basketball, in my opinion, always had a big edge over the other pro sports.

SI: The fact that the game fits neatly inside a television screen doesn't hurt, either.

RA: The adaptability of the game to television. Perfect. The size of the court. You can see the ball. Perfect. The game's also easily explained. It's a simple sport. It's the type of game that everybody plays at every school, in every town, every playground, because it's inexpensive. Basketball, you see, you can play by yourself, and contrary to what people say, it has no real age limit.

I did predict one other thing. I predicted worldwide popularity. Cousy and I used to talk about it, because 35 years ago, when he was playing, we'd go all over the world giving clinics. You could see even then that interest was spreading. They knew me. They knew Cousy. They knew Russell.

SI: Is basketball played better now than it ever has been?

RA: I've said this before. You talk about the Dream Team—great team. From my era—and believe me, I don't live in the past, I live in the future—I could put together a team that could beat the Dream Team 50 percent, 60 percent of the time. I'll give you an example. Can you see a team composed of Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the centers, with maybe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Nate Thurmond on the bench? At forward I'll take Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit, Dolph Schayes, Dr. J. At the guards I'll take Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek. The Dream Team would have a little edge in the backcourt with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. But up front we'd be much better. We're bigger, better rebounders, and we'll block more shots. I'm not taking anything away from David Robinson or any of these other current guys, but Russell was superior. And you have nobody today who could handle the power of Chamberlain. Nobody to stop Abdul-Jabbar. Who do you have to stop Baylor? Cousy is the same size as John Stockton. Who'd you rather have? Cousy or Stockton? I'd take Cousy.

They say today's players are bigger, stronger, smarter. I don't know about that. There are just more of them. We might've had 20 great players in our era, while today there might be 50. That's all.

SI: The rise of the black player has been a big thing in the league, hasn't it?

RA: Oh, my god, yes. To me, a person always has been a person, whether he could play or couldn't play, regardless of his religion or color. If he were better than the next guy, hey, he should play.

SI: Was there a league rule barring black players?

RA: There was no rule. It was just taken for granted—at the pro and college level. For example, in 1940, when I graduated from George Washington, no team in Washington could play against a team that had a black player. And this was the nation's capital.

SI: Was signing Chuck Cooper, the league's first black player, in 1950, as big to the NBA as the signing of Jackie Robinson was to baseball?

RA: It was big, but not like Jackie Robinson. Cooper was a super guy. He was a gentleman, a great athlete. He had everything going for him. Before the draft that year I told Walter Brown, our owner, that the best player out there was Chuck Cooper. Walter said, "Let's take him." That was it. Then things changed around the league, little by little. It's just the evolution of life, and we happened to be involved—rightfully so.

SI: Now, though, the Celtics are sometimes charged with being racist, with preferring white players over black. There was that book, "The Selling of the Green...."

RA: I didn't read it. I won't read it. People have told me about parts of it. I don't even want to talk about what those guys said about us, it's so ridiculous. It's just an extreme way to sell a book, like a supermarket tabloid. We don't look at the skin. I don't care if we have 10 blacks or 10 whites. If that's what it takes to win, then that's what we're going to do.

SI: What has been the Celtics' secret of success?

RA: One thing is that our players always were happy. We treated them as people. That was the Celtic mystique, or pride, or whatever you call it. We have a history of taking care of our own. For example, Cousy and Tom Heinsohn are our TV announcers. Rick Weitzman is a scout. Dennis Johnson is a scout. M.L. Carr is our community relations guy. We hired Dave Cowens to teach the big men. All our coaches, except two, Bill Fitch and Jimmy Rodgers, have been Celtics. Hey, Larry Bird is in the front office now. As a result, we got a reputation: If you play in Boston, and keep your nose clean, the Celtics will take care of you. A lot of teams take the attitude that "I'm paying this guy all this money, and the day he plays his last game, the hell with him." I bet we have 10 times as many former players at our games as any other team.

SI: Do you stay in touch with all the former Celtics? There must be—what?—two or three hundred, at least.

RA: I'm in contact with a lot of them. I hear from fid Macauley. Frank Ramsey calls every six weeks. It makes you feel good. What makes me feel old is that a lot of the guys I coached are grandfathers.

SI: How do you feel about the huge amounts of money players earn today?

RA: It's bizarre. Very few players are worth the money they're making. To me, for a player to be worth millions of dollars, he should be able to sell tickets. Very few people in the entire history of the NBA could sell tickets. There were Russell and Chamberlain. Then you had Cousy, with his flashy style. You had Ernie DiGregorio, a little kid against big guys. Bill Bradley sold a lot of tickets in New York. He turned the Knick franchise around more than anybody else....

SI: More than Walt Frazier and Willis Reed?

RA: Oh, my god, yes. When Bradley was overseas, with the—what-do-you-call-it?—the Rhodes Scholarship, the Knicks were averaging. I'm guessing now, seven or eight thousand fans a game. The day he came in, they immediately went to 12, 15 thousand and even higher. Right from the first day, he sold an extra 3,000 tickets. Then, of course, you have Jordan, Bird, Magic—they sell tickets. But a lot of great players couldn't sell tickets.

SI: Do you think pro basketball players are the best athletes in the world?

RA: I do. Many years ago I got a team of NBA players together that could've probably won the Super Bowl. [Former Celtic center and current Cleveland Cavalier general manager] Wayne Embry, at 250 pounds, could have played football in those days. I said to him one day, "Can you imagine what a tackle you could have been?" He said, "Tackle, hell, I'd be a tight end." Then you had guys like Dave DeBusschere and Baylor, weighing 235, 240 pounds—with speed. They'd be linebackers. Havlicek could've played quarterback. Woody Hayes told me once that Havlicek would have been the best quarterback in Ohio State history if he had come out for football.

SI: Who is your favorite player of all time? Is there one guy?

RA: No, I liked a lot of them. There were just a few I didn't like. I loved Russell, not only for his ability, but for his mind. Russell is a brilliant man. The fact that he has an unusual personality that offends a lot of people has had no effect on me. We're still friends. He was at my house 10 days ago. Then you have guys like Havlicek, Cousy, Heinsohn, all those class guys. Who wouldn't love them?

SI: Did you say that Bird was the best all-around player you ever saw?

RA: No. It would be a heart-wrenching decision to have to pick between Bird and Russell. The question you have to ask is, Who are the other four guys on the court? To make a snap choice, an out-and-out pick, you can't do it.

SI: What about Jordan?

RA: He's great. I could make a case for Jordan, Magic, Bird, Russell, even Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar being the greatest player who ever lived. But you do have to ask, Who are the other four guys? If Michael Jordan doesn't have a center or a power forward on his team, he's not going to beat you. He can't do it by himself. If you have Russell, you have to have a ball handler in the backcourt. Even the greatest need someone else.

SI: Which of the rings do you wear?

RA: This one's '69. I think it's the prettiest, and it's the lightest. The others are too heavy. I keep 'em at home. I don't have 16 rings, anyway, you know. Some years we didn't give out rings. We gave out a tie tack with cull links or a watch or something else. I must have seven rings, nine rings, I don't know.

SI: Have you ever been close to leaving the Celtics? In 1978 you appeared ready to become general manager of the Knicks.

RA: Oh, my wife didn't want me to go. I agreed in principal with the Knicks, everything was fine, but then my wife talked to me again. A few Celtic fans talked to me, too. I still would have gone if [former Celtic owner] John Y. Brown hadn't sold the team. The chemistry between the two of us was bad. He thought he knew a lot more than I did. He wouldn't listen. He made deals behind my back, like the one with the Knicks for Bob McAdoo that cost us three first-round picks. That kind of thing. I'm glad I stayed.

SI: Yet, you never moved to Boston from your home in Washington, D.C. Why?

RA: It wasn't feasible. My daughter has asthma. She couldn't live up here. She went to college at the University of Rhode Island, and only lasted about a month because of the climate. She was in the hospital most of the time.

SI: Considering the state of the league, would you like to be starting over in the basketball business?

RA: It's a lot easier today. At the same time it's a lot harder. Your travel is a snap. You have chartered jets. You have people handling your bags. You have secretaries, equipment managers. All you have to worry about is the team. Then again, it has become too complicated. You know, basketball is a simple game. Now they have all these assistants. The videotapes. The machines. It's really not necessary, but if one team docs it and has any element of success, everyone copies it. The Bulls won the last two years, and if they had live assistants, everybody else would have to have five assistants.

SI: Finally, how do you think the Celtics will do this season?

RA: I don't know. If we have a lucky year, I think we'll be highly competitive. Luck is so important. Take the Bulls. They had no major injuries the last two years. The Lakers were going real good for a while, then they started having injuries. They lost Magic, James Worthy and so on. In the last few years we started having injuries that kept us from being as good as we could have been. Give us some luck and we'll be fine.

PHOTOMANNY MILLAN PHOTOJERRY BUCKLEYAuerbach's 1957-58 team (from left): Ramsey, Bill Sharman, Russell, Cousy, Heinsohn.

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