Monday, January 31, 2011

Red Auerbach: Basketball’s Game Changer


The only correct actions are those that demand no explanation and no apology.
Red Auerbach

Basketball is like war in that offensive weapons are developed first, and it always takes a while for the defense to catch up.
Red Auerbach

Natural abilities are like natural plants; they need pruning by study.
Red Auerbach

Red Auerbach [1917-2006]: “He who believes in nobody knows that he himself is not to be trusted.”
Photo Credit: Steve Lipofsky
Source: Basketballphoto

We need more people like Red Auerbach, who placed  ability above politics, and in doing so made sure equality was a word  that meant something. In 1950, as  rookie coach with the Boston Celtics, Auerbach made American professional basketball history by drafting the league’s first African-American player, Chuck Cooper.

He didn't stop there, finding talent where it existed, and added new African-American players to his squad, including Bill Russell, Tom Sanders, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, and Willie Naulls. In 1964, these five players became the first African-American starting five in the National Basketball Association.

Auerbach spent 60 years in basketball, truly one of its pioneers, the majority, 57 years, with the Boston Celtics. One of his most astute moves as a coach was bringing Bill Russell to the Celtics
Auerbach carefully crafted a competitive team, and his moves culminated with an April 29, 1956 transaction that sent Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to St. Louis for the Hawks’ first-round pick; with that selection, the Celtics chose Bill Russell. This blockbuster trade would spur the Celtics into the most dominant franchise in pro basketball history and helped spawn the legend that is Auerbach and the Celtics.
There’s more. When Auerbach gave up coaching to become the Celtics general manager in 1966, he appointed Bill Russell as his successor. Russell became not only the first African-American NBA coach, but the first African-American coach of any professional sports team.

To put things in perspective, Auerbach’s coaching decisions were all taking place against the the fight for civil and equality rights in the U.S.,  led by Martin Luther. King. Jr., the noted civil rights leader. But Auerbach was oblivious to what was taking place politically.

His interests were primarily basketball. “First of all, I had no idea that I started five black players until a writer pointed it out to me a few weeks later,” Auerbach said. “It didn't make a difference to me what color any of my players were. I was putting the five best players out on the court so that we could win.”

And win he did. He ran a simple offense of seven set plays, and never had a league-leading scorer. Even so, under his guidance he compiled an  incredible record of 938-479 (.662) in the regular-season and an equally impressive 99–69 (.589) in post-season  play, the former ranking fifth in NBA history.

In various capacities, as a coach, and front-office man, Auerbach enjoyed 16 NBA championships, says the Boston Globe:
Auerbach coached the Celtics to nine NBA titles in the 1950s and ’60s, including a record eight in succession from 1959-66. He then moved to the front office, where he was the general manager, president, vice chairman of the board, and franchise guru, helping the team to seven more championships, the last in 1986. Auerbach was, truly, an NBA original, starting in the league when it opened for business in 1946, as coach of the Washington Capitols.
 Growing Up in Brooklyn, NY

Arnold Jacob Auerbach was born to Marie Thompson and Hyman Auerbach  in Brooklyn, New York, on September 20, 1917. He was one of four children the couple raised. Hyman was a Russian-Jewish immigrant from Minsk (now Belarus), and Marie was American-born. The father had left Russia when he was 13.

The couple owned a dry-cleaning business in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which is where Arnold spent his whole childhood, a walk across the bridge from the gyms and playgrounds of the Lower East Side. He was called Red since his early years, for his flaming red hair. Auerbach first attended PS 122 (primary school), and then played basketball as a 5-foot-10 guard at Eastern District High School, where he was named on the all-scholastic second team in his senior year.

In 1937, Auerbach left New York for good, attending George Washington University in Washington, D.C, on a basketball scholarship, where he was not only excelled on the court, but in the classroom. (Apart from a stint in the navy, Auerbach has lived in Washington since then, only maintaining an apartment in Boston) He graduated with a M.A. in 1941. It was then, under coach Bill Reinhart, that he started to understand the importance of the fast break in basketball, in which three forwards quickly go down the court against two defenders.

He married Dorothy Lewis in the spring of 1941 and they had two daughters, Nancy and Randy. He began coaching St Albans Prep School and Roosevelt High School in Washington, DC, and then, in 1943, he joined the US Navy for a three-year hitch, where he coached its basketball team in Norfolk, Virginia. 

Auerbach spent the first three seasons of his pro career with the Washington Capitols (1946–49) before moving on to the Tri-Cities Hawks for one campaign (1949–50). Walter Brown, who owned the struggling Boston Celtics, appointed Auerbach to lead the squad into what would ultimately become the greatest franchise in pro basketball annals. Auerbach became coach of the Celtics in 1950.

He would remain with the Celtics for the next 57 years, until his death in 2006.

Auerbach with his trademark cigar
Source: AP File photo, 1966
Cigars & Chinese Food

Auerbach is known for a couple of things besides basketball and coaching the Celtics to victories: cigars and Chinese food. In a story, Red Auerbach: True Stories and NBA Legends, which NPR reported in November 2004, we get a glimpse on why Chinese cuisine became paramount in Auerbach's travels:
Throughout his nomadic life as a basketball coach, Red Auerbach had always eaten Chinese food after games. His reasoning was simple: in almost any NBA city, there was always a Chinese restaurant that had late-night carryout. He would call ahead, pick the food up on his way back from the arena, and eat it in his room. What's more, because he always asked for the food steamed, it didn't sit heavily in his stomach the way some other food might. He slept easily and woke up feeling fresh and ready to make the trip to the airport and on to the next city. 
Auerbach loved Chinese food so much that at one time he was part-owner of a Chinese restaurant in Boston. Then there's the cigars. He became known for smiling and lighting his cigar, a Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur, at court-side when his beloved Boston Celtics were assured a victory. That gesture undoubtedly infuriated many people, notably opposing players, but Auerbach was his own man.

He was known to be abrasive and opinionated, but many successful people share such traits. He was also loyal to his players. Auerbach was cut from a different cloth, from a generation of hard-nosed, big-hearted men. All those traits defined him. And he was successful in what he did, including grooming talent. Fourteen of his players are in the Hall of Fame, and thirty became coaches. That's no small achievement.

And for the little boy who grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, winning was everything. As Hall of Famer K.C. Jones, who played and coached for the Celtics, once said: "He had such a high degree of intelligence. But at the same time, he just wanted to win. It didn’t matter if it was at basketball or anything else. We used to play racquetball and he would cheat and be foaming at the mouth. He did whatever it took to win."

Among his many honours was the following: inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1969; named by Professional Basketball Writers Association of America as the greatest coach in the history of the NBA in 1980; voted one of the NBA’s 10 Greatest Coaches in history in 1996, inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame; and the symbolic retirement of his number 2 jersey in January 1985 at the TD Garden, the home of the Boston Celtics.

Arnold ‘Red’ Auerbach died of a heart attack in Washington, DC, on October 28, 2006. He was 89 years old. He had a traditional Jewish funeral, except one small touch:  Auerbach's casket was draped in Boston Celtics green, in keeping with his quip that the "Boston Celtics are a way of life."

Auerbach was buried at the King David Memorial Gardens in Falls Church, Virginia, a Washington suburb, on October 31, 2006.