Celtics Legend Red Auerbach, 89, Passes AwayThe phrase "one of a kind" is an overworked cliche but what better way is there to describe Arnold "Red" Auerbach than that? He was actively involved in the NBA from its inception in 1949-50 until his death on Saturday at the age of 89. In fact, his coaching career actually preceded the name "NBA": he coached the Washington Capitols to a 49-11 record in 1946-47 in the Basketball Association of America, which was renamed the National Basketball Association after merging with the National Basketball League three years later. Auerbach coached the Boston Celtics from 1951-1966, winning nine championships in 16 seasons, including a record eight straight from 1959-1966. Phil Jackson is the only other NBA coach to win nine titles but--as Auerbach was quick to point out--Jackson inherited his teams, while Auerbach built his rosters from scratch, acquiring numerous Hall of Famers, the most prominent being Bill Russell. Russell won 11 championships in his 13 years as a Celtic and is the greatest winner in the history of North American professional team sports.
Auerbach retired as pro basketball's all-time winningest coach, a mark that stood for nearly three decades. He was only 48 when he left the bench, but he no longer wanted to deal with the day to day grind of coaching--so he tapped Bill Russell to be the sport's first African-American coach and Russell led the Celtics to two titles in three years before he retired. Meanwhile, Auerbach continued to use his keen eye for talent to acquire the personnel who would lead the Celtics to two titles in the 1970s and three more in the 1980s.
Auerbach's early Celtics teams were not unlike the current Phoenix Suns--offensive juggernauts led by a great point guard, but not strong enough inside or on defense to win a championship. He had the vision to realize that Bill Russell's defense and shotblocking could provide the last piece to Boston's championship puzzle. That may seem obvious in retrospect but at that time the center position in the NBA was generally manned by big, slow giants who were productive scorers. Russell was undersized even in that era but possessed great quickness, tremendous leaping ability and keen intelligence for how to play the game and how to make his teammates better.
Auerbach had a great answer when he was asked once about "handling" his players: "You handle animals; you deal with people." His focus was on winning, not putting on a show. The Celtics only had a handful of plays but the plays had numerous options and he trained his players to run them all with precision. Even Auerbach's trademark victory cigar, which on the surface seemed to be an act of showmanship, had a deeper meaning. Don't you hate it when you see coaches mugging for the camera, screaming and yelling when their teams are up (or down) 20 with two minutes to go? Auerbach did, too, so when the game was out of reach he sat back and smoked a cigar, sending a simple message: My work here is done.
He was a visionary in so many ways. For example, he came up with the idea of the "sixth man," first using Frank Ramsey in that role and then later John Havlicek; Kevin McHale, another Auerbach acquisition, was a brilliant sixth man for years in the 1980s before becoming a starter. Auerbach's idea was to bring a player off of the bench who was at least as good as the starters, if not better. That player would have a tremendous advantage playing either against tired starters on the other team or bench players who were not as talented. Of course, it helps to have a deep team if you are going to employ this philosophy but Auerbach constantly kept the Celtics stocked with talent. Perhaps his greatest coup other than obtaining Russell was drafting Larry Bird. At the time, the NBA had a rule that junior eligibles--juniors whose college classes had graduated--could be drafted and that team would have a year to sign that player. The Celtics had briefly fallen on hard times and some people thought that it was risky to use a first round pick on a player who wouldn't be available for a year (Bird had announced his plans to stay in school for his senior year). Auerbach's reply was that a year was not such a long time to wait for a player of Bird's caliber.
In a March 22, 2002 article titled Seeing Red After All These Years, lifelong Celtics fan and ESPN.com Bill Simmons provides a vivid portrait of Auerbach, including this interesting detail: Auerbach's five favorite non-Celtic players to watch (who were active in 2002) were "Kobe ... Iverson ... Kidd ... Shaq ... and that kid from Minnesota (Garnett). I like Kobe the most."
The Boston Celtics have already announced that they will dedicate the 2006-07 season to their fallen patriarch, a fitting tribute to one of the pioneers who not only built that franchise but did so much to shape the entire history of the game of basketball.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:12 AM