coach worth his salt can explain how to win a basketball game.
But try this one on for size: How do you win 16 NBA titles
in 29 seasons? The only man qualified to answer that question,
Red Auerbach, passed away in October of 2006.
The architect of the Celtics and the man who taught the fledgling
league how to hang championship banners, Auerbach won it all
nine times while working the Boston sidelines, and earned
another seven rings seated just behind the bench. He was there
in the 1940s when pro hoops took its first uncertain steps,
and remained an important part of the game when it stumbled
in the 1970s. An iconic figure to rival any in American sports,
Auerbach made Celtic green the color of basketball, and cigar
smoke the ultimate symbol of victory.
Auerbach was born on September 20, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York.
here for today's sports birthdays.)
He was one of Marie and Hyman Auerbach's four children. A
Russian Jewish immigrant, Hyman owned a deli and later entered
the dry cleaning business. Red (who was originally known around
his neighborhood as "Reds") got his famous nickname
thanks to a shock of red hair that had long disappeared by
the time the NBA was being filmed in color. He was a tough
kid, who swing first and asked questions later. Red had the
heart of a hustler, but was not immune to hard work.
up in Williamsburgh, just a walk across the bridge from the
playgrounds and gymnasiums of the Lower East Side, one of
the many evolutionary hotspots for basketball in the 1920s
and 1930s. He played his first organized games on the rooftop
court at PS 122, and continued onto the varsity at Eastern
District High School. Red was quick but not fast, big but
not tall. He would grow to a height of only 5-9. Despite intermittent
bouts of asthma, he made himself the fittest player on the
team by running wind sprints after practice.
up at a time when Brooklyn actually had a couple of the nation’s
top professional basketball teams. The old American Basketball
League was a loose confederation of barnstorming clubs that
operated from 1925 to 1931. The Brooklyn Arcadians starred
Nat Holman, Rusty Saunders and Red Conaty. Later, the Conaty-led
Visitations also called Brooklyn home. Neither team was able
to survive the Depression, and pro ball receded into the heartland
until the National Basketball League began in the late 1930s.
the local failures, Red exhibited a keen understanding for
the business side of basketball. He raised money for his neighborhood
team, the Pelicans, by staging a game and dance at the YMHA.
During the Depression, this combination was not unusual—fans
would watch the game from above on the running track, then
move to the dance floor to finish off the evening. Red rented
the building and hired the band, which was led by future comedian
senior year at Eastern, he was named Second Team All-Brooklyn
by the World-Telegram. He often boasted of this achievement
among his NBA All-Stars, typically drawing a derisive response.
Red would point out that there were more players in Brooklyn
in the 1930s than in the entire state of Indiana.
much of a student, Red nevertheless had a plan—after
graduating in 1935, he decided to make a career of coaching
and teaching basketball. He hoped to get a scholarship to
Columbia, which had a good basketball team, but was rejected.
He did not apply to NYU because the school compelled its athletes
to major in business. Red preferred to concentrate on physical
education. Nat Holman tried to get him a scholarship at CCNY,
but his GPA was too low.
up at Seth Low Junior College in Brooklyn, where one of his
classmates was Isaac Asimov. During a scrimmage at the school’s
court, he was spotted by George Washington College coach Bill
Reinhart, who offered him a scholarship to the D.C. school.
Red moved to the nation’s capital in 1936 and never
style of streetball did not go over well with teammates or
opponents, all of whom he battled while at GW. By his senior
year, however, he was the team’s leading scorer. Red
also began learning about the advantages of the fast break
during his final season. The rebound and long pass, when executed
properly, created a 3-2 advantage in transition. The Colonials
went 38-19 during Red’s three seasons, and beat Minnesota,
St. John’s and Ohio State during the 1937-38 season.
After these victories, a bid to the NIT Tournament was out
of the question—Ned Irish did not want a big-time school
upset in Madison Square Garden.
his future wife, Dorothy Lewis, while at GW. After graduation
in 1940, he stayed on at the school, running the intramural
sports program in exchange for allowing him to pursue his
Masters degree. He also coached high school ball at St. Alban’s
Prep. The salary from this job enabled Red and Dot to tie
the knot. Fro there, he hooked on as a coach and teacher at
Washington’s Roosevelt High, where he recruited a clumsy
6-5 teenager named Bowie Kuhn to play for the team—then
cut him a day into tryouts.
the Navy in 1943 and was transferred to the Physical Instructors
School in Maryland. Also in his unit, which was trained to
condition Navy fliers, were major leaguers Johnny Mize and
Johnny Pesky. Next he was sent to Norfolk, where his old coach,
Bill Reinhart, was a commander. Sports was a big deal at the
base. Phil Rizzuto and Bob Feller were stationed there, as
were college hoops stars Red Holzman and Bob Feerick. Red
coached the basketball team, which twice beat the all-African-American
Washington Bears. This was quite an accomplishment given that
the Bears had won the 1943 World Professional Basketball Tournament
in Chicago. The team's top stars were Pop Gates and Chuck
those in the stands for the victories over the Bears was Mike
Uline, an ice-machine millionaire who owned a sports arena
in Washington. After Red was discharged in 1946, Uline offered
him a coaching job in the newly formed Basketball Association
of America. With a wife and new child at home, this was a
risky proposition for Red. He had a job at $3,000 a year waiting
for him at Roosevelt, and was building the kind of resumé
that would have led to a long and rewarding career teaching
and coaching high school sports. Red, age 28, demanded a $5,000
salary. Uline agreed, and Red took the BAA job.
exception of Uline, all of the BAA’s original 11 owners
had ties to pro hockey. The concept of the league was to share
the arenas in the big NHL and AHL cities, filling those seats
with 48-minute basketball games. Maurice Podoloff, president
of the AHL, was made BAA president.
a free hand in the assembly and coaching of the Washington
Nationals, as Uline professed no expertise in the sport of
basketball. From his Navy days, Red understood that the best
guards came from the New York metro area, the fast-break players
were in the midwest, and the tall trees needed for pivot play
were on the west coast. So while the other BAA built clubs
from their local markets, Red went shopping nationwide. His
starting five in 1946-47 were Navy pals Bob Feerick and John
Norlander, John Mahnken, Fred Scolari and Bones McKinney.
McKinney was Red's major coup. The UNC star had already promised
the Chicago Stags he would play for them, but Red intercepted
him on his way through Washington and signed him to a $6,500
contract in a hotel washroom.
of starters—supported by bench players Ivy Torgoff and
Bob Gant—reeled off 17 straight victories early in the
BAA's 60-game schedule and the Caps finished atop the Eastern
Division by 14 games over Eddie Gottlieb’s Philadelphia
Warriors. The season ended in frustration, however, when the
Stags beat Washington in the playoffs, taking two games in
the Caps’ arena, where they had gone 29-1 during the
regular season. The Caps were relocated to the BAA’s
Western Division for 1947-48 and finished with 28 victories
in the league’s reduced 48-game schedule. Only one victory
separated the four West clubs, and Washington lost the a play-in
game with the Stags 74-70 for their second early exit in two
returned to the East in 1948-49 and finished first in the
division with 38 wins. This time, they reached the BAA Finals,
where George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers—who jumped
from the rival National Basketball League—defeated them
in six games.
in 1949, the BAA and NBL merged to become the National Basketball
Association. Red, in turn, found himself out of a job. Recognizing
that the team would need to rebuild, and having taken the
Caps to the Finals, he had asked Uline for a three-year contract,
and the owner turned him down. Red took a job as an assistant
coach at Duke, and realized almost immediately that college
ball was not what he wanted.
weeks into the 1949-50 season, Red was contacted by Ben Kerner,
the blustery owner of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. The team
played its game in the midwestern cities of Davenport, Moline,
and Rock Island. After starting the year slowly, the Blackhawks
needed a new coach. Kerner offered Red a two-year deal for
$17,000, plus the authority to make trades. He got to work
immediately, making trades involving more than two dozen players
in his first six weeks at the helm. Tri-Cities played 28-29
ball the rest of the way, as Red filled the roster with better
but still marginal talent. It would be the only losing record
of his pro coaching career.
also his only year with the Blackhawks. When Kerner traded
one of Red’s favorites, John Mahnken, and informed him
of the deal after it was done, Red knew his time with the
team would not last.
1950-51 campaign found Red coaching the Boston Celtics for
owner Walter Brown. Brown had lost a small fortune on the
Celtics, and desperately needed someone who understood pro
basketball from the backboards to the bench to the boardroom.
Red’s first act was to not draft Bob Cousy of Holy Cross,
the most popular player in New England. Cousy, whom Red called
a “local yokel,” was the kind of flashy player
he despised, so he took center Charlie Share instead.
and the press howled, but Cousy went undrafted until Kerner
and the Blackhawks picked him up. After refusing to sign with
Tri-Cities, Cousy was dealt to the Stags, who promptly folded.
He ended up on the Celtics anyway and helped Boston finish
second in the East with a 39-30 record. Bones McKinney was
also on the '50-51 team, as was Chuck Cooper (who today is
hailed as one of the NBA’s African-American pioneers).
a mobile center who dumped in 20 a night, was the scoring
star of the Celtics. But it was Cousy’s behind the back
dribbling and no-look passes that electrified crowds at the
Boston Garden, and eventually made a believer out of Red.
The tipping point was the point guard's ability to find open
teammates, which forced enemy defenders to stick close to
their men at all times. The Celtics made the playoffs, but
lost to Joe Lapchick’s New York Knicks.
shooting guard Bill Sharman in 1951-52, after his old Washington
team went under, and his fastbreak offense began working like
a charm. The only thing the Celtics lacked was a dominant
rebounder, a deficiency that would keep them from advancing
in the rugged playoffs of the 1950s. They lost to Knicks again
in 1952 and 1953, and the Syracuse Nationals in 1954, 1955
and 1956. During this time, Red’s coaching genius did
not go unnoticed. He published an extremely influential book
in 1953—Basketball for the Player, the Fan and the
Coach—which was translated into several languages
and reprinted many times in the 1950s and 1960s, as the Celtics
started to roll up championship after championship.
At the end of the 1955-56 season, Red targeted the player
he needed to make his strategies work: Bill Russell, who had
led the University of San Francisco to 55 straight wins. Boston
traded Macauley and rookie Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks
for the rights to Russell. To make sure that Rochester didn’t
take the center with their #1 pick, Celtic owner Brown offered
the Royals’ owner, Lester Harrison, the Ice Capades
free for a week. In the days when no one was making much money
on the NBA, this looked like a sweetheart deal, and the Royals
selected Sihugo Green.
Russell was acquired, Red had to outbid the Harlem Globetrotters
for his services. The big man joined the team after the Melbourne
Olympics, playing in Boston's final 48 games and leading the
league with 19.6 rebounds per game. With Cousy, Sharman, rookie
Tom Heinsohn, forwards Frank Ramsey and Jim Loscutoff, the
Celtics had an unheard-of six players scoring in double figures.
It was at this time that Red established a precedent that
would serve him well during the 1960s. On a team of stars,
each player had to accept a diminished role, and learn to
take their greatest pride in winning.
now-devastating fastbreak was triggered by Russell, who sealed
off the lane with positional defense, shot-blocking and rebounding.
Opponents settled for outside shots, which enabled the Celtic
guards to release, and Russell often finished the breaks he
started with his bullet outlet passes. Boston reached the
NBA Finals for the first time in 1956-57, and won a thrilling
seven-game series against the Hawks. Russell averaged a remarkable
24.4 rebounds in the postseason. The fantastic finish overshadowed
the other highlight of the series. Before one of the games
in St. Louis, Red took the court armed with a tape measure,
suspicious that the baskets were raised to throw off Boston’s
shooting. When his old boss Kerner challenged him, he punched
the Hawks’ owner in the mouth.
dropping the 1958 Finals to the Hawks, Red‘s men took
the NBA title each year from 1959 to 1966. These teams were
a dynasty in every sense of the word. One star after another
blazed through the Boston Garden, often beginning as a bench
player or specialist and then growing into a full-fledged
superstar. Even when the team faced game-altering immortals
such as Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, and Wilt
Chamberlain, the Celtics always had enough weapons to win.
Among the team’s standouts during this remarkable eight-year
championship run were Cousy, Russell, Sharman, Heinsohn, Ramsey,
K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Tom Sanders, John Havlicek and Don
Nelson. Driving the dynasty was Red, chomping on his cigar,
working the officials, and doing everything under the sun
in his relentless quest for victory.
Prior to the 1966-67 season, Red announced his retirement.
He became Boston’s full-time general manager and handed
the reins over to Russell, making him the first African-American
coach of a major sports team. Three seasons earlier, Red had
fielded the NBA’s first all-African-American starting
lineup, with veteran Willie Naulls playing in front of Heinsohn.
When Red hired Russell, he wasn’t looking to break barriers.
As he put it, “The only guy besides me who can coach
Russell is Russell.”
improved their record under their new player-coach, but fell
to Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs.
Boston returned to the championship podium under Russell in
1968 and 1969, while Red pulled the strings behind the scenes
to retool the team for the 1970s.
so by scouting, drafting and signing the likes of Don Chaney,
Jo-Jo White, Paul Westphal and Dave Cowens. The Cowens pick
was an Auerbach classic. Sensing that the tough, mobile center
would provide the kind of presence that Russell had, Red scouted
him personally during his senior season at Florida State,
which had gotten little press because of NCAA probation. All
eyes were on Red when he walked into the arena, and he knew
it. To throw off other teams looking at Cowens, Red stormed
out of a game at halftime saying loudly, “I’ve
seen enough.” He then grabbed the Red Head with the
team’s first pick in the 1970 draft.
Bill Russell, 1958 Topps
Celtics won the NBA East every season between 1971-72 and
1975-76, and claimed the NBA title in 1974 and 1976. Auerbach
engineered deals for veteran rebounder Paul Silas and ABA
star Charlie Scott, and groomed his former star, Heinsohn,
into a winning head coach. Later in the decade, he hired Bill
Fitch, who returned the club to the NBA Finals after a couple
of down years.
of the 1980s were the last team that truly bore Auerbach’s
mark. He found role players Cedric Maxwell, Chris Ford, M.L.
Carr, Nate Archibald and Gerald Henderson to support emerging
stars Larry Bird, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale. Bird was
Red’s Russell-like coup. Basketball’s Great White
Hope, he was a fifth-year senior at Indiana State. The Celtics
took advantage of a loophole and drafted him as a junior in
1978, and waited for him to finish his college career. Red
had visions of Bird playing in the NCAA Tournament and NBA
playoffs the same spring, but Indiana State made it to the
national championship game, thwarting this plan. He signed
Bird that summer, after a year of waiting, and the Celtics
returned to the top of the East with 61 wins in his rookie
correctly that Bird was the perfect Celtic. He embodied the
creativity of Cousy, the shooting of Sharman, Heinsohn and
Sam Jones, the intensity of Russell and the workhouse attitude
owed Red much for this move. Wracked by financial instability,
drug rumors and a decline in fan interest, the league benefited
immeasurably from Bird being with the Celtics. The NBA’s
most traditional franchise had its throwback superstar. Meanwhile,
Bird’s college rival, Magic Johnson, had revitalized
the league's West Coast glamour franchise in Los Angeles.
These two would elevate the NBA to major sport status again,
just in time for Michael Jordan to boost it into the stratosphere.
Larry Bird, 1980 Sport
Interestingly, Red had strongly opposed the three-point shot
after the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. But once Bird joined the
Celtics, he became one of its most ardent supporters.
reached the NBA Finals in 1981 and beat the Houston Rockets
for the championship. Guards Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson
came aboard in the early 1980s, helping the Celtics win it
all again in 1984 and 1986 under former star K.C. Jones.
title was Red's 16th as coach, GM and president of the Celtics,.
Only Phil Jackson has been able to match his nine NBA championships
on the sidelines. Red ran the day-to-day business of the Celtics
until the mid-80s. After that, he continued to serve as team
president. He held that position until the day he died from
heart attack on October 28, 2006.
very end, Red was the NBA’s master communicator. Regardless
of his role with the Celtics, he had the ability to sit down
with a player and learn about him as a person and a player.
After just a handful of conversations, Red was able to understand
what he was all about, and how to motivate him. This skill,
as much as any other, defined his genius from basketball’s
stone age to its modern era.
Red Auerbach book
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