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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Celtics Legend Red Auerbach, 89, Passes Away

The 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


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At Monday, October 30, 2006 8:51:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

For some reason I never thought he would die. Of course we all do. I read somewhere he was sick, but I was like he'll be ok. But he was that type of person. Growing up a Knicks fan I hated the Celtics. My father used to tell me about the Celts v. Knicks battles during the 60s and 70s and the constant coaching wars between the two Reds. The racism in the world, especially Boston, never stopped him from change and improving the NBA.

I hope NBATV shows all of the Red on Roundball episodes. I need to buy all of his books. He made the league I love what it is.

At Monday, October 30, 2006 3:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I think that it would be great if NBA TV or ESPN Classic would put together all of the Red on Roundball episodes.

At Tuesday, October 31, 2006 12:40:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

Today they showed Dr J wearing an AllStar jersey when the AllStar game was in Milwaukee. Pistol Pete had his Jazz jersey. They were being defended by Brian Winters and Bobby Dandridge.
Yesterday I saw the one with Bob McAdoo and Bill Russell rebounding. I also saw free throw shooting with Rick Barry and Jamaal Wilkes. I could watch that all day.

At Tuesday, October 31, 2006 12:42:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

I think its on VHS. I need to get it ASAP.

At Tuesday, October 31, 2006 12:50:00 AM, Blogger illest said...


A website I know you will like with many old NBA games and who announced them. Plus he has Red on Roundball

At Tuesday, October 31, 2006 5:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I've seen the one with Doc and Pistol, working the two man game under Red's watchful eye. When I interviewed Dr. J he told me that one of the joys of his career was the brief time he spent as an Atlanta Hawk teammate of Pistol Pete's (during the 1972 preseason, before Doc was forced to return to the Squires and finish out his contract with them). Pistol Pete and Doc played one on one or two on two after practice to hone their skills and get more familiar with each other, something that Doc then did with George Gervin later that season when the Iceman joined the Squires. Gervin has mentioned how much those sessions with Doc helped his game but he did not know that it was Pistol Pete who impressed upon Doc the importance of working one on one after practice and away from the coaches to improve their understanding of each others' games. I thought it was cool that Gervin learned something from Pistol Pete without even realizing it and he agreed. Obviously, Doc and Gervin each worked on their games individually before that, but what Doc told me is that Pistol Pete's idea was that they should not only practice with the team and then do individual drills by themselves on their own time but that two or four guys should play against each other, away from the coaches, to really get a good feel for each other's game. Even three decades later you could sense that Doc would have loved to have played 10 years with Pistol Pete to let that feel completely develop. If there is any video of the couple preseason games that they played together (which I doubt that there is) that would make some great viewing! Just picture Pistol handling the ball in the middle with Doc on one wing (and Lou Hudson on the other)--it's like the Showtime Lakers, but several years before Magic entered the NBA.

At Tuesday, October 31, 2006 12:48:00 PM, Blogger illest said...

Thats very interesting. Because Im sure a one one one game occured during the taping of Red on Roundball. I will definitely be buying Red on Roundball from that guy whose website I sent you.

Lou Hudson is very underrated player. And hes not a Hall of Famer. What a shame.

At Tuesday, November 14, 2006 12:16:00 PM, Blogger illest said...

The Red on Roundball DVD is wonderful. I noticed no Knicks players in the DVD. Probably has something to do with the Auerbach/Holzman rivalry even though some of the segments were done in the Garden. Ex-Knicks Henry Bibby and Mike Riordian are on there though.


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