Auerbach's Celtics played as a team
"When I came to the Celtics there was this Celtic mystique. And I was one of the few skeptics. Finally, it came through to me after we had won the championship. I went up to Red and said, 'Now I understand what the Celtic mystique is.' "And he was about the proudest man in the world," says Paul Silas about Red Auerbach on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Red Auerbach's coaching philosophy was simple: Only one statistic mattered. At the end of the game, he wanted the number next to his team to be greater than that next to his opponent. The individual players weren't the ones who made the difference. It was the team as a whole. Just being a member of a winning team was part of the Auerbach mystique.
He retired as the winningest coach in NBA history with 938 victories (against 479 defeats) in his 20-year career, the last 16 with the Celtics. Boston fans reveled when Auerbach lit a cigar to signify that another victory was secure.
Probably his most notable attribute was that Auerbach was colorblind. He didn't see black or white players on the court; he just saw players who could help him win. In 1950, he became the first to draft an African-American: Chuck Cooper, a second-team All-American from Duquesne, in the second round.
He was first to start five blacks and first to hire a black coach (Bill Russell) in the NBA. He also hired two other African-American coaches after Russell stepped down - Satch Sanders and K.C. Jones, both former Celtics.
Regarded as a coaching genius, he was known for picking the right players, coaching them and keeping them in line with his system. Employing a fastbreak that often led to easy baskets, he ran only seven basic set plays throughout his Celtics coaching career.
Arnold Auerbach was born on Sept. 20, 1917 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of hard-working immigrants from Minsk, Russia. His father, Hyman, had left Russia when he was 13 and migrated to Brooklyn. When Auerbach was born, his father and American-born mother Marie owned a deli in Brooklyn.
Auerbach started playing basketball at P.S. 122 in Brooklyn and became a star guard for Eastern District High School, making all-scholastic second team as a senior. While Hyman wasn't crazy about his son going into basketball, he didn't hold him back once he saw that Red had made up his mind.
Auerbach got his coaching wings at St. Albans Prep School and Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., before serving in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946.
He came out of the service and began his professional coaching career with the Washington Capitols, piloting the team to a league-best 49-11 regular-season record in 1946-47, the first campaign of the Basketball Association of America (the forerunner of the NBA).
Washington went 28-20 and 38-22 the next two seasons before Auerbach left in a contract dispute. As coach of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in 1949-50, it was the only time an Auerbach team had a losing record (29-35). He quit the Blackhawks when he found out that the owner, Ben Kerner, made a trade without letting Auerbach in on it.
Boston owner Walter Brown needed a coach in 1950 after the Celtics finished last in the East with a 22-46 record. Not knowing much about basketball, he had an informal advisory board make a recommendation. The board's conclusion: Auerbach was the best coach available.
Auerbach's areas of expertise were spotting talent and getting the most of his players. He said that his kind of player had the ability to absorb coaching. He wanted a kid "who was great yet never stopped being nice." Examples in his career with the Celtics, as either a coach or in the front office, are Russell, Bob Cousy, Larry Bird, Frank Ramsey, Tommy Heinsohn, Sam Jones, John Havlicek and Dave Cowens.
Auerbach didn't focus on the individuals on his teams. He looked at the "whole package." While many of his players were outstanding, the Celtics were the first organization to popularize the concept of the role player. "That's a player who willingly undertakes the thankless job that has to be done in order to make the whole package fly," Auerbach said.
The "sixth" man (the first player off the bench) was another Auerbach tactic. While other teams' players were getting tired, Auerbach's fresh reserve was expected to provide a boost. The sixth man became a prestigious assignment in Boston, with Ramsey being the first to star in the assignment.
Auerbach said that the Celtics represent a philosophy that in its simplest form maintains that victory belongs to the team. "Individual honors are nice, but no Celtic has ever gone out of his way to achieve them," he said. "We have never had the league's top scorer. In fact, we won seven league championships without placing even one among the league's top 10 scorers. Our pride was never rooted in statistics."
In his first six seasons the Celtics, led by Cousy's playmaking, were entertaining and good but not great. In the playoffs, they fizzled, going 10-17.
Then in 1956, Auerbach made one of the best deals in NBA history when he obtained Russell, who had led the University of San Francisco to NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. He gave the St. Louis Hawks, who drafted second, center Ed Macauley and the rights to former Kentucky star Cliff Hagan, who was coming out of the army, for the rights to Russell.
The 6-foot-9½ center was the cornerstone of Auerbach's success with his rebounding (and throwing the outlet pass) and defense. In Russell's rookie year, Auerbach and the Celtics won their first NBA title. With Russell and two other rookies, Heinsohn and Ramsey, playing prominent roles, they defeated the Hawks, 125-123, in double overtime in Game 7 of the Finals.
After being defeated in the 1958 Finals by the Hawks (when Russell was injured), Auerbach would never lose the last game of the season again.
In 1959, the Celtics swept the Minneapolis Lakers in four games in the Finals, the first of the eight consecutive championships. They defeated the Hawks the next two seasons and the Los Angeles Lakers the following two. Then it was the San Francisco Warriors and the Lakers again.
In January of 1966, Auerbach announced he was retiring as coach after the season.
From 1966-84, in his role as general manager, Auerbach's Celtics won another six championships. In 1984, he retired as GM but remained the team's president, with the Celtics winning their 16th title in 1986. When Rick Pitino took the president's title after joining the organization in 1997, Auerbach became vice chairman of the board. After Pitino resigned in 2001, Auerbach regained the title of president and remained vice chairman. When the team was sold in 2002, he stayed on as president.
Auerbach has been honored often. In 1968, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Thirteen years later, he was named NBA Executive of the Year. The jersey No. 2 was retired by the Celtics in his honor during the 1984-85 season. He was voted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Auerbach's view of competition was summed up when he said, "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser."
On Oct. 28, 2006, he died of a heart attack near his home in Washington, D.C. He was 89.
"Red Auerbach was the consummate teacher, leader and a true pioneer of the sport of basketball," commissioner David Stern said. "The NBA wouldn't be what it is today without him."
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