Red Auerbach is a complex man, inspiring a wide range of responses from people. He can be completely tactless, querulous, belligerent without apparent provocation. A moment later he will be the most gracious of companions. Possibly his finest quality is an intense loyalty to his associates, particularly the Boston players. Modesty is not his long suit. For nearly a decade he was openly resentful about not being chosen the NBA's Coach of the Year, an honor he undoubtedly deserved many times but did not receive until last year. Some of his players, including Russell, never warmed to him sufficiently to call him a close friend, but none would deny his genius as a coach.
Of all the misconceptions about him, one of the really serious ones is that he is a lucky guy who was "made" by Russell but that he was at least an expert in the drafting of players. The reverse is more nearly true: he has been terribly underrated as a coach, considerably overrated as a drafter of talent. The latter half of the legend is based almost entirely on his selection of Sam Jones from little-known North Carolina College and John Havlicek out from under Jerry Lucas' shadow at Ohio State. In truth, Jones was not only drafted earlier by Minneapolis (when he was in the Army), he was all but forced on Auerbach by Red's old friend, Bones McKinney. In Havlicek's year, Red really wanted Leroy Ellis, but L.A. took him first and Auerbach was left with Havlicek.
At the same time, Auerbach is correctly praised for his reclamation projects with assorted rejects, has-beens and other wandering basketball waifs ( Gene Conley, Clyde Lovellette, Willie Naulls, Larry Siegfried, Don Nelson, etc.). This is an illuminating insight into his coaching success: he handles the professionals. Yes, Boston would not have been dominant without Russell, but it is false to suggest that this diminishes Auerbach's achievement.
Waiting for his last victory cigar, killing time on an off day in California last week, Auerbach and Celtic President Jack Waldron dropped out to the L.A. Tennis Club, home of so many U.S. champions. Auerbach plays a lot of tennis himself. Perry Jones, the former U.S. Davis Cup captain, escorted Auerbach and Waldron about the club and finally into the trophy room, where $100,000 worth of valuables are displayed.
Red sniffed about, properly impressed, when suddenly he spied one particular trophy and moved quickly to it. It was an engraved silver tennis racket. "Now, that really shows me something," he said. Jones opened the case, took the racket out and handed it to Auerbach. "The people of Newport gave it to William Lamed when he won the nationals in 1911," Jones explained.
Auerbach fondled the racket, turning it over.
"It's the only one in the world," Jones said. "It's the only silver racket in the whole world."
Auerbach said, "Yeah?" And then, gingerly, he put the racket back and went on to examine the rest of the collection.
In Kentucky recently they gave Adolph Rupp a mink basketball. If the Celtics or the people in Boston are looking for a way to honor Red for his eight straight championships, they might keep in mind the only silver racket in the world. Presumably, there aren't any silver basketballs in the world, either.