The Ballad of Russ and Red

Exploring the ties that bound an NBA odd couple
May 31, 2009

The latest addition to the already corpulent body of Boston Celtics literature is Bill Russell's Red and Me, the Hall of Fame center's deconstruction of his relationship with Red Auerbach, the man who schemed to draft him, built a dynasty around him and then made him pro sports' first African-American head coach. For someone as famously reticent as Russell, one might suppose that the big man had said everything there was to say in his three previous books. Plus, Auerbach, who died in October 2006, wrote or cowrote several tomes about his half century as the uncuddly curmudgeon of this celebrated franchise.

But Red and Me (cowritten by Alan Steinberg) mines some new territory: The idea that the coach and player were—more than mentor-mentee or antagonizer-antagonist—lifelong friends. Granted, this conceit might be partly a device to package old material in new Celtic-green wrapping. But it's nevertheless an interesting subject that plays out well against the backdrop of this year's NBA final four: In today's sports world, can player and coach be, in fact, friends?

The evidence suggests otherwise. During the second round of the playoffs the Magic's Dwight Howard, whose defense-oriented game echoes Russell's, publicly criticized his coach, Stan Van Gundy, for not calling enough plays for him. That didn't happen with Russell and Auerbach, who were united in their efforts to get under the skin of only their opponents. Cleveland's LeBron James and Mike Brown collected hardware together (MVP and coach of the year, respectively) after the Cavaliers' 66-win season, but their relationship over their four seasons together can best be described as Brown's trying to stay out of James's way. It didn't work that way when Red had a whistle around his neck, despite Russell's strong personality.

It was only three months ago that Nuggets coach George Karl suspended his young star, Carmelo Anthony, for a game because Anthony ignored a substitution—one of, oh, 173 times that Karl has clashed with a player during a coaching career that includes stops at Cleveland, Golden State, Seattle and Milwaukee. And, most notably, the Lakers' Phil Jackson criticized his superstar, Kobe Bryant, for being selfish and immature, in the coach's 2004 book, The Last Season. Auerbach almost never bumped heads with one of his own, not in public anyway. As he saw it, books were for enhancing the franchise's hagiography and torching non-Celtics.

So why were Russ and Red able to sustain a lifelong friendship? One factor, in Russell's telling, is that Auerbach recognized his on-court genius (one thing you never get from Russell is false modesty) and treated him more like a colleague than a player. Auerbach famously allowed Russell to set his own practice schedule. Russell would disappear for, in his words, "days at a time," and when he was with the team, he might as likely sit in the stands sipping tea as run through drills.

Russell also writes that they were drawn together by a mutual hardheadedness, united by "the tribulations of our tribes": Russell was an African-American who grew up in the Jim Crow South and the Oakland projects, Auerbach a street-savvy urban Jew. (Tribe, thanks to either Russell or Steinberg, is the word most overused in Red and Me.) If mutual hardheadedness were a prerequisite for friendship, however, you could safely cast Bryant and Jackson as Alphonse and Gaston. And while the special treatment accorded Russell doesn't exist today—no player has disappeared for days since Isaiah Rider, and it had nothing to do with coaching dispensation—superstars such as Bryant and James pretty much set their own practice agenda.

No, two factors in the end enabled Russell and Auerbach to have a relationship that, even allowing for some embellishment by the authors, can be called special: They stayed together, and the Celtics won. Over 13 seasons, from 1957 through 1969, they won nine championships with Russell at center and Auerbach as coach, and they won two more with Russell as player-coach and Auerbach as his front-office strategist and sounding board.

That kind of connection is rare indeed. Jerry Sloan and John Stockton spent 19 mostly successful seasons together in Utah and enjoy a mutual respect that is bound to endure, but they will not be thrown together over the coming decades to celebrate Jazz championships, for there were none. Jackson won six titles with Michael Jordan in Chicago and, at this writing, three with Bryant in L.A. If you want to make Red roll over, just mention that Jackson has won as many rings as he did—but, still, Russell and Auerbach traipsed together over the same battlefield, wearing their eternal green, feeling their eternal sense of satisfaction.

The closest contemporary parallel to Russell and Auerbach seems to be Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, who have been together in San Antonio since Duncan's rookie season, 1997--98. They rule as kind of co-monarchs, Pop always ready to listen when Duncan, behind the scenes, chooses to speak. There is a hardheadedness about Duncan and Pop too, a policy of closing ranks, putting the team first and to hell with what anyone else thinks. And they have won together, four times in Duncan's 12 seasons. But they will never approach the accomplishments of Russell and Auerbach, whose friendship was solidified by the glorious glue of victory.

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Can a player and coach today BE FRIENDS? Evidence suggests otherwise.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY DARROW

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