RED AUERBACH, who
suffered a fatal heart attack last Saturday at the age of 89, was not only as
successful a coach and general manager as there ever has been in professional
sports but was also, in his promotion of the black athlete, influential far
beyond the basketball court. Then, too, with his bluster and bravado, he was to
opponents the most detestable coach since John McGraw managed the New York
Giants a half century before. Arrogantly brandishing his victory cigar when a
Celtics triumph was assured, Auerbach was, in effect, the progenitor of all the
showboating and taunting that have distinguished sports in the modern era. �
Auerbach won a record nine NBA championships with Boston (a mark since equaled
by Phil Jackson) before he retired as coach at the young age of 48.
Subsequently, as general manager, he rebuilt the team twice with clever trades
and 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 off
some of his executive duties in 1984, when he was 67, he continued to consult
for 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 still
breathing. Made of bronze (wags said brass would have been more appropriate),
it stands--or rather sits, as it portrays Auerbach on the bench, his fist
classically clenching a game program--in Quincy Market.
Yet from the day
he took over the Celtics in 1950, Auerbach never resided in Boston, keeping his
home 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. In
1972 he began an address at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, "Let me start
off by saying this is not quite an honor, my being here. I haven't had too much
regard for the Chamber of Commerce in my years in Boston. When the Celtics won
11 championships in 13 years, it was ignored in their own town." Arnold
Jacob Auerbach, though paradoxical and highly idiosyncratic, was foremost a
direct and visceral man.
He came to Boston
after coaching the Washington Capitols and the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, hired
without a contract because pro basketball was then such a dicey proposition in
a 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." Auerbach
did win, but the Celtics would not finally take the championship until
1956--57, after he obtained the draft rights to Bill Russell from the St. Louis
Hawks. Boston lost to the Hawks in the Finals the next season but then won
eight titles in a row. Notwithstanding this achievement, Auerbach was often
dismissed as the bald fellow who sent Russell out to jump center and reaped
what number 6 and his talented teammates sowed. Although the Coach of the Year
award is now named the Red Auerbach Trophy, he was not voted the honor until he
had won his eighth championship.
Auerbach was never
so suicidal, in his coaching days, as to light up his victory cigar except upon
the parquet at Boston Garden, but he was nettlesome wherever his team was
playing. There was, however, a method to his madness--he knew that his
obnoxious behavior on the bench drew fire away from his players--but it was
hardly as if he went against his nature. Auerbach was simply a tiger of an
adversary. Wilt Chamberlain so despised him that, until his death, he would not
speak Auerbach's name, referring to him only as "that man I don't
like." In 1984, when Auerbach was 66, he ran onto the court after a fight
broke out during a preseason home game and headed for Philadelphia 76ers center
Moses Malone, a man 40 years younger and a foot taller. "You
sonuvabitch!" Billy Cunningham, the Sixers' coach, screamed at Auerbach.
"You never change."
"You think I'm
going to let you take over my building?" Auerbach shouted back as players
held him away from a bemused Malone.
In contrast to his
temperament, Auerbach's coaching was uncomplicated. He was fond of saying that
he coached pros no differently from the players at his first job, St. Albans
Prep in D.C. Victory depended on defense and the fast break. Boston used only
seven plays. Everybody in the league knew what they were, but the Celtics ran
them so efficiently that they couldn't be stopped. "What made Red such a
good coach," said John Havlicek, the legendary Celtics sixth man (a role
that Auerbach essentially invented), "was his ability to simplify. People
always understood what he said."
Auerbach 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 ever
coached a basketball team."
Auerbach was also
a brilliant judge of talent, but notwithstanding his draft coups of Russell,
Sam Jones, Dave Cowens, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, he made some ghastly
mistakes. In 1963 he spent his top pick on Billy Green, who refused to travel
by airplane. Auerbach was lucky, too. He ended up with Havlicek only because
the Los Angeles Lakers, drafting right before Boston, took LeRoy Ellis, the
player for whom Auerbach really yearned. And Auerbach got Bob Cousy only
because he drew the short straw in the 1950 dispersal draft after publicly
announcing that he wanted nothing to do with Cousy, who had been a star at Holy
Cross. "What am I supposed to do," Auerbach asked, "win games or
please the local yokels?"
Of course, in
those antediluvian times, he had to do it all himself. Auerbach was his own
G.M. He never had a scout, never an assistant coach. Perhaps that's why he
liked to acquire players at the end of their careers who would be rejuvenated
in Celtics green. He grasped, in a basketball context, what Ben Franklin
supposedly said about why a man should court older women: "They are
grateful as hell."
On matters of race
Auerbach was the NBA's preeminent progressive. In 1950 he drafted the league's
first black player, Charles Cooper. When he brought in forward Willie Naulls in
1963, after a seven-year career spent mostly with the woebegone New York
Knicks, the Celtics became, without fanfare, the first professional franchise
to regularly play and then to start five African-Americans. And, most
memorably, when Auerbach gave up coaching, he appointed Russell to succeed him,
making Russell the first black coach in a major sport. To call Auerbach the
NBA's version of Branch Rickey, the white man who brought Jackie Robinson into
organized baseball, is fair enough.