RED AUERBACH, whosuffered a fatal heart attack last Saturday at the age of 89, was not only assuccessful a coach and general manager as there ever has been in professionalsports but was also, in his promotion of the black athlete, influential farbeyond the basketball court. Then, too, with his bluster and bravado, he was toopponents the most detestable coach since John McGraw managed the New YorkGiants a half century before. Arrogantly brandishing his victory cigar when aCeltics triumph was assured, Auerbach was, in effect, the progenitor of all theshowboating and taunting that have distinguished sports in the modern era. ¬∂Auerbach won a record nine NBA championships with Boston (a mark since equaledby Phil Jackson) before he retired as coach at the young age of 48.Subsequently, as general manager, he rebuilt the team twice with clever tradesand draft picks, so the Celtics became, again, a model franchise during the'70s and '80s, when they won five more titles. Although he began to shuck offsome of his executive duties in 1984, when he was 67, he continued to consultfor the Celtics until his death. In a city rife with historical personages,Auerbach is the only figure for whom a statue was erected while he was stillbreathing. Made of bronze (wags said brass would have been more appropriate),it stands--or rather sits, as it portrays Auerbach on the bench, his fistclassically clenching a game program--in Quincy Market.
Yet from the dayhe took over the Celtics in 1950, Auerbach never resided in Boston, keeping hishome and family in Washington, D.C., while he stayed in a Beantown hotel suite.He also never forgave Boston for failing to sufficiently embrace his team. In1972 he began an address at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, "Let me startoff by saying this is not quite an honor, my being here. I haven't had too muchregard for the Chamber of Commerce in my years in Boston. When the Celtics won11 championships in 13 years, it was ignored in their own town." ArnoldJacob Auerbach, though paradoxical and highly idiosyncratic, was foremost adirect and visceral man.
He came to Bostonafter coaching the Washington Capitols and the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, hiredwithout a contract because pro basketball was then such a dicey proposition ina hockey town that the Celtics' owner, Walter Brown, told his new coach,"If you don't win, there'll be no basketball here next year." Auerbachdid win, but the Celtics would not finally take the championship until1956--57, after he obtained the draft rights to Bill Russell from the St. LouisHawks. Boston lost to the Hawks in the Finals the next season but then woneight titles in a row. Notwithstanding this achievement, Auerbach was oftendismissed as the bald fellow who sent Russell out to jump center and reapedwhat number 6 and his talented teammates sowed. Although the Coach of the Yearaward is now named the Red Auerbach Trophy, he was not voted the honor until hehad won his eighth championship.
Auerbach was neverso suicidal, in his coaching days, as to light up his victory cigar except uponthe parquet at Boston Garden, but he was nettlesome wherever his team wasplaying. There was, however, a method to his madness--he knew that hisobnoxious behavior on the bench drew fire away from his players--but it washardly as if he went against his nature. Auerbach was simply a tiger of anadversary. Wilt Chamberlain so despised him that, until his death, he would notspeak Auerbach's name, referring to him only as "that man I don'tlike." In 1984, when Auerbach was 66, he ran onto the court after a fightbroke out during a preseason home game and headed for Philadelphia 76ers centerMoses Malone, a man 40 years younger and a foot taller. "Yousonuvabitch!" Billy Cunningham, the Sixers' coach, screamed at Auerbach."You never change."
November 6, 2006
"You think I'mgoing to let you take over my building?" Auerbach shouted back as playersheld him away from a bemused Malone.
In contrast to histemperament, Auerbach's coaching was uncomplicated. He was fond of saying thathe coached pros no differently from the players at his first job, St. AlbansPrep in D.C. Victory depended on defense and the fast break. Boston used onlyseven plays. Everybody in the league knew what they were, but the Celtics ranthem so efficiently that they couldn't be stopped. "What made Red such agood coach," said John Havlicek, the legendary Celtics sixth man (a rolethat Auerbach essentially invented), "was his ability to simplify. Peoplealways understood what he said."
Russell calledAuerbach two things: 1) "my friend" and 2) "a genius." He said,"I don't feel I'd have been nearly as effective with any other man who evercoached a basketball team."
Auerbach was alsoa brilliant judge of talent, but notwithstanding his draft coups of Russell,Sam Jones, Dave Cowens, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, he made some ghastlymistakes. In 1963 he spent his top pick on Billy Green, who refused to travelby airplane. Auerbach was lucky, too. He ended up with Havlicek only becausethe Los Angeles Lakers, drafting right before Boston, took LeRoy Ellis, theplayer for whom Auerbach really yearned. And Auerbach got Bob Cousy onlybecause he drew the short straw in the 1950 dispersal draft after publiclyannouncing that he wanted nothing to do with Cousy, who had been a star at HolyCross. "What am I supposed to do," Auerbach asked, "win games orplease the local yokels?"
Of course, inthose antediluvian times, he had to do it all himself. Auerbach was his ownG.M. He never had a scout, never an assistant coach. Perhaps that's why heliked to acquire players at the end of their careers who would be rejuvenatedin Celtics green. He grasped, in a basketball context, what Ben Franklinsupposedly said about why a man should court older women: "They aregrateful as hell."
On matters of raceAuerbach was the NBA's preeminent progressive. In 1950 he drafted the league'sfirst black player, Charles Cooper. When he brought in forward Willie Naulls in1963, after a seven-year career spent mostly with the woebegone New YorkKnicks, the Celtics became, without fanfare, the first professional franchiseto regularly play and then to start five African-Americans. And, mostmemorably, when Auerbach gave up coaching, he appointed Russell to succeed him,making Russell the first black coach in a major sport. To call Auerbach theNBA's version of Branch Rickey, the white man who brought Jackie Robinson intoorganized baseball, is fair enough.
If such exercisesin brotherhood did not always sit well with the citizens of Boston, whopreferred the hapless white Bruins to the stylish black Celtics, Auerbach neverwavered in his intent to field the best team he could. Famously, he deploredstatistics and paid his players on the basis of his own subjective standard:what he thought they had contributed to the team effort. As a coach, he made ita point never to fraternize with the players or their wives, but he remainedclose to his former players even as they grew into their Social Securityyears.
None of hisminions had known him when he had the auburn hair that inspired his nickname.That cognomen was bestowed on him when he was growing up in the Williamsburgsection of Brooklyn, where he was born on Sept. 20, 1917. After he accepted abasketball scholarship to George Washington, however, he never again lived inNew York. He and his wife, Dorothy, who died in 2000, raised their twodaughters, Nancy and Randy, in Washington. At home, he lived a subdued life. Hecollected, of all things, letter openers, which he searched for in his worldtravels. (In his younger years he was something of a basketball evangelist,conducting clinics around the globe.)
Auerbach was anatty man, but of limited taste; in clothes, as in basketball, he stuck withwhat worked for him, so he dressed only in earth tones, leaving the color tohis language and antics. He played tennis and handball vigorously, and while hesmoked about 10 cigars a day, every day, he rarely drank. Never did he imbibecoffee or eat eggs, so--especially alone in Boston, in his suite at the LenoxHotel--it was not uncommon for him to start the day by washing down leftoverChinese food with a Coke. Indeed, he positively thrived on Chinese food.Besides the cheers and the boos, it was the one constant in an NBA career thatbegan when the league was young and unspoiled and a man could smoke indoorsamong friends.
For a gallery of Red Auerbach photos, and ChrisMannix's personal reminiscence of the NBA legend, go to SI.com/nba.
"You think I'm going to let you take over mybuilding?" Auerbach shouted back as players held him away from a bemusedMalone.