Red Auerbach, an off-court legend
The coach, general manager, and dynasty-builder, who died Saturday, was an iconic figure in basketball.
NBA Hall of Famer Arnold "Red" Auerbach was an acquired taste for most people who had to deal with him on a regular basis. Inexplicably tactless one minute and charming the next, he ran the Boston Celtics as a compassionate dictatorship, his rough edges becoming part and parcel of his storied success.
With Auerbach's death on Saturday, basketball fans and cognoscenti tallied the ways in which he defined – and then redefined – pro ball: the coach with the most wins by the time he retired from coaching at the tender age of 48; a record nine NBA championships (tied with Phil Jackson); first to draft an African-American player to the NBA and, later, first to go with an all-black starting lineup.
There are those who think Auerbach's success with the Celtics flowered only after center Bill Russell arrived to complement playmaker Bob Cousy, but that's too simple. Without taking anything from Russell and Cousy (two Rolls-Royces), Auerbach was the club's service manager. With Red to change the oil, fine tune the egos, and control the Celtics' ignition, Boston won 11 world championships in 13 years, eight of them in succession (1959-'66).
Auerbach, like New York Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, handled each of his players differently. There were special privileges for Russell and Cousy and other veterans – which he sensed were necessary if they were to stay at the top of their games. He was clever enough, though, to do this without upsetting the team balance.
To measure Auerbach's contribution would require an instrument that hasn't been invented yet. Lacking that, an old interview with Red (much of it conducted with him behind the wheel of his Thunderbird) will have to do.
What did Auerbach look for in a player?
"Mostly I looked for attitude," Red explained. "I was willing to pass up a better player, for example, and go for a lesser player if that man is going to help maintain the balance of my team."
And how would he know?
"When I scouted a player, I like to watch him up close. A lot of coaches prefer to sit high up in the stands [for] a better overall view of the floor. But I don't. I sit as near to the court as I can. I also listen to see if the player ... talks on defense – a must in pro ball. I try to judge his timing, speed, and reactions; whether his hustle is real or false, and whether or not he has educated hands. I also try to find out all I can about him personally. ... Usually you can tell right away whether a kid is selfish or a team player."
For Auerbach, playoff time was also pressure-cooker time – but he'd devised his own method of chilling out.
"The way I handle pressure on game days is to create things for myself to do, things that will take my mind off the game," he said. "For example, I check all the buttons on my clothes. If I find one that is even remotely loose, I pull it off and sew it back on." He also would forgo his customary habit of dining out (Chinese food three or four times a week) in favor of cooking his own meals – and washing the dishes. "I do it because it helps me use up the day and gets my mind off basketball.
"Even though I live in a hotel suite in Boston that provides room service, I'll often do the cleaning myself. And you won't find anyone better at straightening out bureau drawers."
Auerbach, who had enough brass to start a band, was notoriously tough on referees, especially those not 100 percent familiar with the NBA rule book. Those nightly nose-to-nose battles – plus the challenge of managing the Mt. Rushmore-size egos of various players and the relentless travel – contributed to his early departure from coaching.
The dynasty he built in the 1950s and '60s was reinvented several times over in the 1970s and '80s, after Auerbach had moved to the Celtics front office. His eye for talent – and his ability to land it with contracts – remained unparalleled. (Think Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale.)
Auerbach once gave his list of four men who'd had the most profound effect on the game invented in 1891 by James Naismith at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass. In order: Hank Luisetti, 1938 All-American from Stanford, perfected the one-hand jump shot that triggered today's high scoring. George Mikan of the old Minneapolis Lakers made the pivot a tremendous offensive threat, and the Celtics' Cousy simply made plays and moved a club. Bill Russell, of the University of San Francisco and the Celtics, revolutionized the game's defensive side with his rebounding and shot-blocking.
If Auerbach didn't have enough self-awareness to add his own name to the list, it now falls to America's legions of basketball aficionados to do it for him.