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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Bill Russell on Red Auerbach

"Red's theory was 10 players, two baskets, 13,000 people, one basketball--and we will decide what is done with that one basketball."--Bill Russell on Red Auerbach

This summer, NBA TV aired a wonderful show titled "Red and Me: Bill Russell." It is a half hour tribute to Red Auerbach that is narrated by Bill Russell and contains a lot of footage from their great partnership. This program conveys a lot of insight about the dynamics of the coach-player relationship. This insight is all the more important and powerful because Red Auerbach and Bill Russell were the two driving forces behind the most successful dynasty in North American team sports history: the Boston Celtics, who won eight straight NBA championships and 11 titles during Russell's 13 seasons.

The show begins with Russell explaining his definition of friendship: "To be a true friend, you accept the other person as they are and they accept you as you are. The thoughts about each other are always, 'What can I do to make my friend's life better?'" Next, Russell recalls a moment from his first NBA game: he blocks a shot but the referee calls goaltending. Auerbach argued so vociferously that he was whistled for a technical foul and this support made a deep impact on Russell: "First time that I had a coach who went to bat for me. After the game, I said, 'Thanks for looking out for me.' Red says to me, 'Russ, loyalty is a two-way street. I can't expect my players to fight for me if I won't fight for them.'"

Another formative moment in their relationship happened toward the end of Russell's rookie season, when Auerbach asked him to come to the arena early because he wanted to talk to him. Russell remembers, "We're sitting in Boston Garden and he says, 'I want to tell you something. You're the best player playing basketball.' I said, 'I know that' (Russell delivers his trademark laugh). He says, 'I know you knew that but I may be the only other person who knows it. These guys don't know what you're doing. I want you to know that I know.' Here is a coach saying that he is so glad I'm here. That was such a comfort." Maybe it seems obvious now that Russell was the best player in the NBA at that time. Maybe it even seems obvious that his coach should realize that and say it to him--but how Auerbach delivered that message and when he delivered it (right before the playoffs) showed a keen understanding of psychology. Auerbach made Russell feel appreciated while at the same time providing a standard for him to meet. If it is as easy to coach great athletes as some people think then why are there so many documented cases of great athletes feuding with their coaches and even orchestrating their firings? Yet right from the start, Auerbach established that he would fight for Russell, that he saw greatness in Russell that others did not yet see and that he expected to continue to see greatness from Russell.

Just as Auerbach stood up for Russell, on occasion Russell stood up for Auerbach. Russell remembers one time when Auerbach was arguing and holding up the game. The opposing coach--Russell does not name him but merely says that he used to play center, so most knowledgeable fans can probably figure out who he means--told Auerbach to shut up and sit down. Russell jumped right into the fray: "I told him, 'Who are you talking to? Are you talking to Red, the little guy? If you are going to tell somebody to sit down and shut up, tell me that--and see what happens.' Everybody was shocked because they had never heard me say anything. So, after the game Red says, 'Hey, Russ, thanks for looking out for me.'" Russell again lets loose his trademark laugh as he recalls his answer: "'I wasn't looking out for you; I never liked that guy anyway.'"

Auerbach used to always say that you handle animals but you deal with people. Russell explains exactly how that philosophy applied to their relationship: "The way that he used to coach me is that we would have these conversations. Like one time we were leading the Eastern Conference by 12 games, I think. Red says to me, 'I'm so mad at you I could bite the head off a 10 penny nail.' 'What are you mad about?' He said, 'You are just taking it easy, finishing out the schedule. Well, even you aren't that good. You have the centers who are playing against you terrorized but if you start taking shortcuts then some of them are going to get the idea that they can play against you. Once they believe they can play against you, they can play against you. What you have to do if you want to win a championship is finish this season by creating as much terror and havoc as you can possibly come up with.'" While Russell describes this conversation, the footage consists of him running down Jerry West from behind to block what looked like a wide open layup and then a newspaper headline flashes across the screen: "Celtics Still Reign."

Russell says that after he won his first regular season MVP (1958) that Auerbach pulled him aside and said that during the next practice he was going to yell at him but that to disregard it; Auerbach just wanted to show the rest of the team that no one was above criticism. Russell again laughs uproariously as he finishes the story: "You know how they give people an unlimited budget? He went over it. Oh, I got so annoyed with him." The fact that Russell looks back on this episode fondly shows that he understood that it was nothing personal and for the greater good of the team (Kevin Loughery did something similar at times with Julius Erving when the New York Nets won two ABA titles in three seasons).

Often, Auerbach and Russell would engage in marathon sessions of playing gin rummy after a basketball game: "I always lost. He was probably a better gin player than he was a coach and that's saying something. We would play gin almost all night and talk about the (basketball) game. He said, 'My mission as a coach is to develop two things--a system and an atmosphere--and then get the hell out of the way.' While he was putting that system in, every step of the way he asked us what we thought of it. He would receive your ideas, assess them and figure out how to use them. That way the players were vested in the outcome. I never heard him say, 'My way or the highway' or anything like that."

Auerbach did not believe in setting a curfew for his players because then he would have had to follow them around and enforce it (Joe Lapchick also did not believe in having too many specific rules and restrictions for his players, a philosophy that his protege Bobby Knight adopted). One time, though, the Celtics had a chance to break the NBA's single season winning streak record and Auerbach imposed a curfew. The next game the Celtics got routed and Auerbach apologized to the team: "He said, 'Guys, I blew this one and it will never happen again.' He was big enough to say, 'I'm sorry.'"

Auerbach built up such a feeling of family and loyalty that the players actually trained their replacements. Arnie Risen mentored a young Russell, Frank Ramsey helped John Havlicek and guards Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman guided K.C. Jones and Sam Jones. Russell explains that the Celtic attitude was, "The guy next to you on the bench is your teammate, not your rival" (this echoes what Kenny Smith--who played for Russell early in his career--told me that he said to a young Sam Cassell when they both played for the Houston Rockets).

Russell says that he and Auerbach rarely talked about the civil rights movement and Russell's activities in that movement but that Auerbach always supported him in whatever he did. One time, though, Auerbach did tell Russell about some prejudice that he experienced early in his coaching career: "The only time that we ever talked about it was one time he told me about when he first went to Boston. There was a local college kid at Holy Cross named Bob Cousy and Red did not draft Cousy. Red told me that one of the writers said to him, 'You have insulted everybody in New England by not taking Bob Cousy. We're going to run you out of town. And besides that, you're a Jew and we don't like Jews either.' I said, 'Wow. How did you handle that?' He said, 'Oh, I just outlived the bastards' and that was one of the few conversations that we had about race. He did not let it have a negative impact on him or his life and that was already my attitude." Perhaps the most striking clip in the whole show is when a reporter asks Russell, "Do you think that you will get some white kids to play basketball with Negro kids?" Russell replied calmly, "I think so. I don't know why not. My kids play with white kids and no one has gotten hurt yet."

When the time came for Auerbach to retire as coach, he appointed Russell to be his successor. Cue another striking clip, as a reporter asks Russell, "As the first Negro coach in major league sports, can you do the job impartially, without any racial prejudice in reverse?" Without hesitation or rancor, Russell answered, "Yes." The reporter retorted, "How?" and Russell continued, "The most important factor is respect. In basketball, I respect a man for his ability. Period."

Auerbach distanced himself from the day to day running of the team so that no one could say that he was looking over Russell's shoulder but at one point Russell said to him, "'I need you to come to practice. I need some help.'" Russell explains, "My feeling was if I have the greatest mind in basketball sitting in an office 100 yards from where I'm practicing and I don't ask him to help me out then I would be extremely unintelligent." Russell coached the Celtics to two titles in three years before retiring. Looking back, Russell declares, "I know that the best possible thing that could happen to me in my professional career was having Red as my coach."

Russell says that in recent years Auerbach would sit at the Fleet Center and watch the Celtics play while smoking a cigar. "He was the one person who smoked cigars in the Fleet Center; it was a non-smoking venue." Russell would sit one row behind him, sometimes pantomiming as if the smoke was bothering him. "We used to enjoy those moments."

"He knew and I knew that I cared a great deal about him and that he cared a great deal about me," Russell says. "We always kept that up to date. There was not a time that we did not have regular conversations...He knew that he was one of the few people who I liked and I knew that he was one of the people that he liked. The reason that I used to kid him all the time is that most people are intimidated by him." The next clip shows Russell interviewing Auerbach and Larry Bird. Auerbach says, "You (Russell) know how this feels because you've been there before. Me, I haven't scored a point." Russell answers, "You kind of brought the guys here who scored the points" and before Auerbach can reply, Bird says to Auerbach, "So you're overpaid" and all three enjoy a hearty laugh.

Near the end of Auerbach's life, Russell would call him to see how he was doing: "I would call him up and let him know that this was somebody who did not care about 'legend' and 'icon' and stuff; all I cared about was this was a friend of mine and all he cared about was this was a friend of his. When he started getting sick in the last couple of years, I'd call him and say, 'Red?' and he'd say, 'What? Who's this?' I'd say, 'William F. Russell.' 'Hey, how are you?' 'The question is how are you?' 'It doesn't get any better but I'm OK.' 'See you later.' That was the way that the conversation would go because I wanted to convey to him that I was thinking about him and I cared about him but I didn't want to drain energy."

Russell concludes, "I do feel a tremendous sense of loss, because if you are fortunate and you have a few friends--because they are so important--if they leave before you do there is an empty space. There is an empty space where a person was in my psyche. There's basically no obvious reason that we would be friends, because we came from such diverse places, but we met in a common place, on common grounds. We both are born, live and die but while we are here there are things that we accomplish. To me, the greatest thing that you can accomplish is friendship. For me, personally, our friendship will last through eternity."

posted by David Friedman @ 10:09 AM



At Thursday, September 20, 2007 12:40:00 PM, Blogger madnice said...

i loved it. the book let me tell you a story was great too. i have the red on roundball dvd which is even better. when red passed all i did was watch all of the footage that NBATV had. people talk about Branch Rickey and how influential he was with Jackie Robinson getting into the MLB (which of course he was). Auerbach should get similar for praise for what hes done for blacks in the NBA. i hated the Celtics growing up but i always liked Red.

At Friday, September 21, 2007 12:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

C'mon, you can tell who the former-center-slash-coach was. Was it Neil Johnston? Harry Gallatin? Red Kerr? I'm betting Johnston. That hook shot was the only nice thing about him.

At Friday, September 21, 2007 4:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Russell did not say, so it's not my place to speculate; all I said is that I believe that fans who are familiar with that era can probably figure out who he meant. I have my own opinion who he was talking about but I could be wrong.

At Friday, September 21, 2007 5:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like a good show.

I saw somebody try to get an autograph by Bill Russell during the Eurobasket in Madrid. He surely should have known better.

"Let Me Tell You A Story" gave a warm and fuzzy feeling, but I think Fernstein made a deliberate decision to be absolutely acritical that hurt the book. For some reason, nobody has ever gotten around to writing a critical history of the Dynasty Celtics - Auerbach would rather tell a good story than the actual truth and he was probably right, but authors are expected to use their judgement.

I mean, it's the Dynasty Celtics, you are not going to find many dark spots there. No need to go whitewashing it.

At Sunday, February 12, 2012 6:28:00 AM, Blogger Mick said...

Russell is the greatest! Red is too, as a coach


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