Red Auerbach (1917–2006), one of the most successful sports coaches and executives over a half-century, was the mastermind behind the Boston Celtics' 16 National Basketball Association (NBA) championships, the most in the NBA and third most in professional sports.
The strident Auerbach, among other qualities, was a master strategist, a sharp judge of personnel, and a racial pioneer. "Auerbach was fiercely competitive, sometimes to the point of boorishness," Peter May wrote in the Boston Globe after Auerbach died in October of 2006 from a heart attack at age 89. He was the first coach to have won 1,000 games, including playoffs; 14 of his players are in the Hall of Fame and 30 became coaches.
Auerbach was raised in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. His father, Hyman Auerbach, was an immigrant from Minsk, Russia, who ran a dry-cleaning store. His American-born mother, Marie (Thompson), worked at a deli. Auerbach played basketball at Public School 122 and starred as a 5-foot 9-inch guard at Eastern District High School. "In my area of Brooklyn there was no football, no baseball," Auerbach told Ken Shouler, editor and writer for Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia , in an article for the ESPN.com website. "They were too expensive. They didn't have the practice fields. We played basketball and handball and some softball in the street." Hyman Auerbach did not approve of his son playing basketball, but did not intervene.
After attending Seth Low Junior College, a Brooklyn-based division of Columbia University, for one season, Auerbach transferred to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He lettered for three seasons at GWU and learned a running style of basketball under Coach Bill Rein-hart that would serve as a prototype for his Celtics teams.
He earned his bachelor's degree at George Washington, then got a job as basketball director of St. Albans, a prominent prep school in Washington, D.C. "Coaching, not playing, was his future," Shouler wrote. Auerbach married Dorothy Lewis in 1941, got his master's degree from George Washington and worked for Roosevelt High School in Washington. There he taught history, health, and physical education. Auerbach launched his publishing career—he wrote five books on basketball—with an article on indoor obstacle courses for the Journal of Health and Physical Education. He also refereed games for supplemental income. From 1943 through 1946, Auerbach served in the U.S. Navy.
After leaving the service, Auerbach began his professional coaching career guiding the Washington Capitols in 1946–47, the initial season of the precursor of the NBA, the Basketball Association of America. In Auerbach's second season there, Washington reached the NBA Finals, losing to the Minneapolis (now Los Angeles) Lakers. Auerbach left Washington amid a contract dispute and, after coaching the Tri-Cities Blackhawks of Iowa in 1949–50, quit when he discovered that owner Ben Kerner had traded a player without consulting him. The Celtics had finished 22-46 that season and owner Walter Brown was seeking a new coach. Brown, deep in debt and on the verge of disposing of the team, accepted the recommendation of advisers and hired Auerbach.
One noteworthy asset Auerbach had in Boston was flashy guard Bob Cousy. But strangely enough, Auerbach bypassed him at first, drafting a bigger player. Cousy was a three-time All-American at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, about 30 miles west of Boston, and would have been seen as a popular choice. Auerbach instead drafted 6-foot 11-inch center Charlie Share and said tersely, according to Shouler: "Am I supposed to win here, or take care of local yokels?" Cousy went elsewhere, but when teams folded, he went into a dispersal draft and Boston drew his name out of the hat. Cousy looked past Auerbach's slight and signed for $9,000 a year. He would become an NBA First Team all-star for ten straight seasons before retiring in 1963.
Still, the Celtics couldn't win because they lacked a big man in the middle. That would all change in 1956, when Auerbach pursued Bill Russell, a 6-foot 9-inch center out who had led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships and 55 straight victories, and the United States to an Olympic gold medal. Boston, however, would have to trade up in the college draft to obtain Russell. The Rochester Royals and St. Louis Hawks each selected ahead of the Celtics. While the Royals were inclined to draft center Sihugo Green, Brown offered an extra incentive: He would arrange for Rochester to get the lucrative Ice Capades show. Auerbach recalled to Shouler: "Walter got him the Ice Capades, and [Rochester team manager Les] Harrison said, 'I give you my word that we'll stay away from Russell." Auerbach then called St. Louis owner Ben Kerner, and offered 20-points-per-game guard "Easy Ed" Macauley, and Cliff Hagan for the rights to draft Russell.
What Auerbach got from that deal was 11 championships in 13 years, including eight straight from 1959 through 1966. He gave up coaching after 1966 to concentrate on his general manager duties. Russell revolutionized the game with his defense and shot-blocking, which more than compensated for his modest scoring statistics. He would not merely swat balls away, but would do so in a teammate's direction. His rebounds would set into motion the patented Celtics fast break. "The teams of the Celtics era were built on defense and running," May wrote. "Russell dominated the boards and blocked shots. Cousy ran the break. [Bill] Sharman, [Tom] Heinsohn, Frank Ramsay, and Sam Jones delivered at the other end." Russell also knew how to win when absolutely necessary. He won all 21 "winner-take-all" games in college and the NBA.
Auerbach named Russell his successor as coach. The center, who was player-coach for three seasons and won two titles, was the first African-American coach of a professional sports team. Chuck Cooper, also a Celtic, had been the NBA's first black player, in 1950. In the mid-1960s, Boston also fielded the first all-black starting five in the league.
He also selected under-the-radar players that fit into his system—the more intelligent, the better. John Havlicek played second fiddle to Jerry Lucas at Ohio State and tried out for the National Football League's Cleveland Browns, then prospered as Auerbach's initial "sixth man," or first replacement off the bench. Havlicek saved Boston from playoff elimination in 1965 with a famous steal to preserve a seventh-game victory in the Eastern Conference final against the Philadelphia 76ers. Forward Tom "Satch" Sanders, an intellectual social activist who later coached Harvard University, added a cerebral touch. Auerbach also obtained journeymen such as Don Nelson and Bailey Howell who contributed to Celtics championships. "He was a master at handling people—a master psychologist," Howell told Shouler. "Red Auerbach's coaching philosophy was simple: Only one statistic mattered," Lisette Hilton said on the ESPN Classic website. "At the end of the game, he wanted the number next to his team to be greater than that next to his opponent."
Boston won two more titles in the mid-1970s with center Dave Cowens and guard Jo Jo White as the team's linchpins, then the Celtics fell into decline. Transient ownership aggravated the problem, which hit its nadir in 1979 under the ownership of John Y. Brown—no relation to Walter Brown. Brown meddled in the team's affairs and sarcastically addressed Auerbach as "living legend" during executive meetings. Auerbach was on the verge of taking a general manager's job with the New York Knicks when Brown agreed to sell the team to finance a (successful) run for Kentucky governor. With Brown gone, Auerbach stayed.
Auerbach then made another of his shrewd moves that paid dividends for the Celtics. In 1978 he drafted Larry Bird, then an unknown forward at Indiana State, after Bird's junior year. Bird led the Sycamores to the NCAA title game as a senior, losing to Magic Johnson and Michigan State before joining Boston for the 1979–80 season. Bird led the Celtics to three championships and five Finals appearances from 1981 through 1987. Bird's supporting cast included center Robert Parish and forward Kevin McHale. Veteran backcourt man Dennis Johnson, yet another Auerbach acquisition, contributed to the 1980s title run.
The Celtics' fortunes, however, took a tragic turn in June of 1986. About two weeks after their 16th title, they used their second choice overall in the draft to select forward Len Bias from the University of Maryland. A few days later, Bias died of a cocaine overdose in Washington, D.C. In 1993 star guard Reggie Lewis died of an irregular heartbeat while working out. Boston has yet to win another title.
The cantankerous Auerbach clashed often with referees and amassed $17,000 worth of fines. He even brawled with Kerner, the Hawks' owner, during the 1958 finals and had other skirmishes with opposing players and fans. His trademark celebration involved the lighting of a victory cigar at the end of games, which critics saw as arrogant. "To the world outside his own huddles and locker room he was ornery and miserable, a boisterous dymano who peered at you through cigar smoke after his troops had impaled yours," Shouler wrote. He was a master at one-upmanship. In the mid-1960s, Auerbach signed Russell to a new contract worth $1 more than Russell's principal rival, Philadelphia 76ers center Wilt Chamberlain.
Auerbach's ways sometimes hurt the team's marketing, some teams maintained. He countered by saying that a winning team sells itself. The Celtics drew lackluster crowds during their championship reign in the 1960s, and even had their games relegated to FM on radio while hockey's Boston Bruins, a last-place team at the time, frequently sold out and were accessible on AM radio.
His acknowledgement of female journalists was grudging. When Boston Globe reporter Jackie MacMullan sat next to Auerbach during a college game in 1983, he said to her: "Aren't you the cheerleading coach?" He objected to MacMullan's presence in the locker room, saying: "You don't belong in there."
Auerbach eventually yielded operational duties and kept the title of team president, living in Washington. His presence, though, still loomed. The club stripped him of the president's title in the late 1990s when Rick Pitino became coach, general manager and president, but Auerbach got it back when Pitino left. In 2002 he approved the hiring of general manager Danny Ainge, a guard from the championship teams of the 1980s.
Auerbach underwent heart surgery, but continued with an active life, playing racquetball and making frequent public appearances. Boston, meanwhile, honored him with a statue at its downtown Quincy Market. His cigar smoking remained legendary. The menu on the Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain read: "No cigar or pipe smoking, except for Red Auerbach."
He died in Washington of a heart attack on October 28, 2006, three days after receiving the Lone Sailor Award from the United States Navy. "Forgive me. Red was so stubborn, I assumed he would live forever. Or maybe I just hoped that was true," wrote MacMullan, who recalled a roughly 20-year rapport with Auerbach well beyond their initial testy exchange. "Our relationship was a work in progress, but over time, I grew to love Red Auerbach. We developed a quirky sort of professional friendship that included spirited debates on women's issues, on the merits of different eras, on the best blacktop playgrounds in the country. He grew to appreciate my love of the game, and became one of my most trusted sources." The many extensive tributes to Auerbach included rebroadcasts of famous Boston Celtics victories, run on the NBA Channel and ESPN Classic.
Auerbach's casket was draped, appropriately enough, in Boston Celtics green. He was buried in Falls Church, Virginia, a Washington suburb. "It was time to say good bye to a truly great American, a man who, had he not channeled his talents into basketball, could have been a Speaker of the House or corporate CEO," wrote Bob Ryan, a longtime basketball columnist for the Boston Globe and commentator on the ESPN "Sports Reporters" show.
The funeral ceremony paralleled Auerbach's bent for simplicity. "The rabbi said the family had directed that the ceremony be 'brief' and 'punctual,'" Ryan wrote. "He read the 23rd Psalm. He read the Kaddish, or prayer of mourning. The casket was lowered. An American flag was placed inside. And that was it. No muss, no fuss, no frills. How positively Auerbachian."
Associated Press Newswires, August 3, 2005.
Los Angeles Times , January 25, 1986.
New York Times , January 25, 1986.
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Auerbach profile, Basketball Hall of Fame, http://www.hoophall.com/halloffamers/Auerbach.htm (December 17, 2006).
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"Tough Man Had a Tender Side," Boston Globe , October 29, 2006, http://www.boston.com/sports/basketball/celtics/articles/2006/10/29/tough_man_had_a_tender_side/ (December 1, 2006).