Icon interesting on, off the court
The Boston Globe
October 30, 2006
What most people don't realize is that Red Auerbach married the prettiest girl in town. Even in her 70s, Dorothy (Lewis) Auerbach was an elegant presence in the finest Sophia Loren sense, and one can only imagine what a head-turning traffic-stopper she must have been when young Arnie Auerbach slipped that ring on her finger oh so many years ago.
But should we be surprised? We already knew Red had an eye for talent. Well, yes, there was the problem with his original dismissal of Bob Cousy as merely an overrated favorite of the "local yokels," but in time Red proved he knew how to make better use of The Cooz's singular talents than anyone else ever could have imagined.
The Cousy episode was one of the very few professional misjudgments in the career of the most important non-playing person in the history of professional basketball. That's a non-negotiable premise. Red was coaching the Washington Capitols when the Basketball Association of America (BAA) began play there in 1946 (the BAA merged with the National Basketball League three years later to form the National Basketball Association) and he was still the Celtics' team president almost 60 years to the day from the BAA's first game. No one in NBA history ever has had more influence on the sport.
We also know that no sports person (which would include Connie Mack and George Halas) ever was associated longer with any team. Red Auerbach was the embodiment of the Boston Celtics for nearly 57 years.
The Red Auerbach folklore is extensive: The seven basic plays, plus options. The victory cigar. The Chinese food. The legendarily bad driving. The way he protected the owner du jour's money even better than he did his own. The love of Asian art and furniture. The letter opener collection. The image of him with the rolled-up program battling such referee foils as Sid Borgia and Mendy Rudolph. The love of tennis and racquetball. The chutzpah to draft the NBA's first black player, Chuck Cooper, in 1950; the further chutzpah to start five black players in the 1964-65 season; and even more chutzpah to name Bill Russell his successor when he retired from coaching in 1966.
And more: The fact that during the Bird Era he was not to be disturbed between 4 and 5 in his office because that's when he watched "Hawaii 5-0." The cab driver who may have persuaded him not to leave Boston for the Knicks. The pioneering '50s and '60s State Department trips that spread the basketball gospel to Europe, Asia, and Africa. The ceaseless and touching devotion to George Washington University, his alma mater. The Red Auerbach Basketball Camp at Camp Milbrook, the second week of which officially became the Celtics' Rookie camp, as well. The propagation of the Celtics as Family.
Stories tumble out of all the above, and even if you were to hear 10 tales for each Auerbach idiosyncrasy, foible, or association, you still wouldn't know the half of what he was like. But I'll tell you one thing he was, and that was larger than life.
I'm 24. I have just finished my first year of covering the Celtics and it is Draft Day, 1970. I walk into Red's office, where he would make his selections into a squawk box connected to the league headquarters in New York (it was not quite the extensive production it is today), and as soon as he sees me, he barks, "Ryan, I ought to cut your [very private part] off!"
My crime? I had written that his 1962 choice of John Havlicek, long assumed to have been the product of superior Auerbach prescience, actually had been the result of a strong recommendation from then-team promotion director (and fellow Hall of Famer) Bill Mokray.
Red liked to get to the point. Early in the 1974-75 season, he had to come out of coaching retirement to run the club when Tom Heinsohn had taken sick. Assistant coach John Killilea had just presented an elaborate scouting report on the Portland Trail Blazers, X-ing and O-ing on the blackboard all over the place, as dedicated coaches are wont to do. When Killilea was done, Auerbach addressed the team.
"All that was very nice," he acknowledged. "You want to win this game? Block out on the boards and play defense! Now get outta here!"
You could never underestimate Red's wry humor. He once said to me, "Who's the best sixth man in the history of the NBA?" I guessed, naturally, Havlicek. Red said, "No." I tried Billy Cunningham. Then I guessed Ernie Vandeweghe. Again, "No."
"The answer," Red said, "is Chinky Shapiro."
"Who?" I said. "Chinky Shapiro. He was the timer in Rochester." Red was full of surprises. I used to chat him up on occasion before home games at his midcourt seat at the Old Garden. During one of these sessions, a rather va-va-voomish young lady sauntered up the steps. It was hard not to take notice. Red's expression never changed, but he could see by the look on my face I was wondering if he had paid any attention. "What?" he said. "You think I didn't see that?"
I mean, he did scoop up Dorothy Lewis.
If Dorothy Lewis had been his best draft choice, Bill Russell was surely his second. Five, seven, nine, or 11 championships down the road, the move to make Bill Russell a Celtic in the 1956 draft may have looked like a rather obvious decision, but that was not at all the case. Russell was something new, and many NBA traditionalists didn't really know what to make of him. After all, Red and owner Walter Brown did have to scheme with both St. Louis and Rochester to get Russell's rights. How many times after losing games to the Celtics do you think they'd have liked a do-over?
But Red absolutely, positively knew that Russell was the answer to his prayers. Conversely, Red was the answer to Russell's. The latter has said many times that he never would have been the NBA player he turned out to be had he been playing for any other coach. Red knew who Russell was, both professionally and, more important, personally. He knew how to appeal to Russell's pride to get the necessary work done, and he knew when to back off. Treat Russell the same way he did everyone else? Red knew better.
He always knew. He did not deal with Cousy the way he did with Heinsohn, or with Heinsohn the way he did with Sam Jones, or with Sam the way he did with Satch Sanders, or with Satch the way he did with Frank Ramsey. His basketball mind was great, but his understanding of individual personalities was even better.
Consider some of the advice contained in his splendid and timeless 1952 book, "Basketball For The Player, The Coach and The Fan." Under the heading, ATTITUDE of PLAYER to HIS TEAMMATES, he tells us:
1) You must think of getting along with your teammates, because if you are not well liked, it is easy for them to "freeze you out."
2) Show a desire to block or screen for your teammates so that they will do the same for you.
3) Show your teammates that you will take the good shots. Don't appear too "hungry."
4) Don't hold the ball. Look for men cutting.
5) Dribble with a purpose. Don't just stand there hugging the ball or dribbling aimlessly while your teammates continually cut.
6) Help your teammates on defense. Switch whenever necessary.
7) Don't chide a teammate whose man happens to score. Often, it's the fault of your whole team.
8) Don't be too chummy with one or two players. Avoid obvious cliques.
9) Don't discuss the faults of any teammate with the other members of the team.
10) Don't give the impression that you are always hanging around the coach and discussing your teammates with him, unless, of course, you are the captain and the coach asks your opinion.
11) When scrimmaging, don't loaf or take it easy. This will keep the high respect of your teammates. Remember, "There are no friends on the other team, even in practice."
Red was enormously proud of that book, which had a long run and was translated into a score of languages. So here he is, speaking wisdom from the grave 54 years later. What coach on any team in the world would not be thrilled if his players were to absorb those lessons?
The person Red knew best, of course, was himself. He walked away from coaching at age 48, tired of being the coach (no assistants in those days), general manager, and traveling secretary all by himself. Before the 1965-66 season, he announced to the world that it would have one last shot at him. It took seven tough games against the Lakers, but he went out on top.
He then went on to a second career as the best team executive the NBA ever has known, before settling into the permanent role of playing Red Auerbach, in which he was his alternately irascible and charming self to the end.
There was a time more than a year ago, for example, when he was gravely ill, and it appeared he was on his way out. But he did awake, and a friend, Rob Ades, said to him, "Red, we thought we were going to lose you."
Red looked at him. "I'll decide," he rasped.
God, I miss him already.
Bob Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.