Boston Celtics' Red Auerbach, man with a championship touch

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Throughout the dramatic 1984 National Basketball Association championship series that returns to Boston for Game 5 tonight, one of the most visible ''fans'' has been Arnold (Red) Auerbach.

Sitting in his box seat either in Boston Garden or the Los Angeles Forum, he's invariably surrounded by other celebrities and VIPs - but for all the attention he pays them they might as well not be there.

The former Celtics coach, now general manager and president of the team, leans forward, peering at the leaping, darting figures on the court below. It isn't that Red doesn't like his immediate company. He's just too busy keeping an eye on his passionate sports love - the five men in green and white.

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In Boston, of course, he can also glance upward - to all those championship banners hanging from the rafters of the dowdy old arena - for an instant reminder of the glory he has wrought in his 34-year association with the team. As coach during most of the 1950s and '60s, he led the team to nine NBA titles, and since then he has over-seen the club from the front office as it won five more.

In this, Auerbach's last year as general manager before assuming a slightly reduced role, the team is hoping to hoist its 15th flag to the rafters by beating the Lakers. The prospects looked dim after a 33-point blowout in L.A. Sunday put the Lakers on top two games to one. But with the sort of pride and character that have been hallmarks of the team throughout the Auerbach era, the Celtics responded with a 129-125 overtime victory Wednesday night to bring the best-of-seven series back to their home court all even at 2-2.

What's behind Auerbach's success? Looking back, most observers agree that the booster rocket of his career was Bill Russell, arguably the best player in NBA history. To bring the University of San Francisco's center aboard in 1956, Auerbach exercised his virtuosity in acquiring talent in a history-making swap with St. Louis.

''The one single factor that tipped the scale in Red's favor was the arrival of Russell,'' says Alex Hannum, an opposing coach and now a California contractor. ''Red knew how to exploit Russell's talents. He was a complete coach who had a knack for figuring out the winning percentages and playing to the edge of the rules.''

As Hannum sees it, all Auerbach's antics - the courtside tirades, the ejections, the victory cigars - were simply parts of a colorful repertoire designed to manipulate crowds and referees to the Celtics' advantage.

And from Les Harrison, who had the first crack at drafting Russell for the old Rochester Royals, but picked all-but-forgotten Sihugo Green instead: ''Red probably thinks I'd be the last guy to praise him, but he deserves all the accolades he's received. He was from the old school of coaching - a guy who learned his trade well, was smart, and ate and slept basketball 24 hours a day. He understood players and how to fit them into a format.''

In addition to the talents of such stand-outs as Russell, the Celtics' winning ways can be traced to an intangible Auerbach summarizes as ''loyalty.'' He believes this quality helps set the team apart and lends a special aura to the organization, a mystique some call ''Celtic Pride.''

In explaining his philosophy, Auerbach says that ''I take exception with teams that demand loyalty from their players but give little in return. To me, it's a two-way street. We look after our players, and as long as they play straight with us and give us the best they have, we try to help them get jobs. We're interested in their lives outside basketball.''

Many former Celtics have gone on to fill major basketball jobs. The present series illustrates the point: Bill Sharman, a Celtic guard of the 1950s and '60s , is president of the Lakers, while K. C. Jones, a teammate of Sharman's, coaches Boston.

Auerbach's influence on the game reaches far beyond the Boston Garden and Celtics' headquarters. He has written the best-selling basketball book in print (''Basketball for the Player, the Fan, and the Coach''), conducted overseas clinics for 30 years, and starred in the popular instructional TV series ''Red on Roundball.''

A New Yorker who graduated from George Washington University, Auerbach has long been a shuttlecock executive, who maintains a Boston apartment to avoid the inconveniences of hotel living while actually residing in a Washington D.C. condominium with his wife, Dorothy.

From the current championship series, it's a long look back to 1946, when Auerbach began his NBA coaching career with the Washington Capitols. The league was then in its first season, and an ambitious 29-year-old fit right in. Auerbach guided the Capitols to three winning seasons, then moved on to Tri-Cities for the 1948-49 season, where he compiled his only losing record.

Still, the young coach had shown enough promise for the last-place Celtics to hire him in 1950. The job was two-fold: to build a winner and generate fan interest in a baseball, hockey stronghold. The latter task involved playing local teams on tours of New England.

''Because the teams we played had the home-court advantage, they actually thought they could beat us,'' Red remembers incredulously. ''We were the professionals and had to let them know who was the boss, so we'd beat them by 50 or 60 points.''

Though Auerbach made the Celtics respectable with four straight winning seasons, they never got anywhere in the playoffs. The team still needed a top-flight center. To get the man he wanted, Red made the most significant trade in NBA history, swapping Ed Macauley and the draft rights to Cliff Hagan to St. Louis for the chance to pick Russell.

Though not a tremendous scorer, Russell was to be the linchpin of a strong team-oriented offense. The Celtics immediately built a devastating fast-break attack around him and ball-handling wizard Bob Cousy.

The Celtics' running game became the standard for a profession that upped the tempo with the adoption of a 24-second shooting clock in 1955.

Red has never been impressed with a player's individual accomplishments, only with his contribution to winning. In his autobiography ''Second Wind,'' Russell said of Auerbach: ''He didn't care about a player's statistics or reputation in the newspapers; all he thought about was the final score and who had helped put it on the board.''

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