King of the Garden
With a cigar in his hand, Red Auerbach guided the Boston Celtics to 16 NBA Championships.
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94
Hard by North Station, Boston Garden sits beneath an aging el-train. The top of the white brick building obscured, it looks like some vaudeville theater that time washed out. The square, hatbox structure sits amid forlorn storefronts, closed shops and the kind of grime found on parts of Eighth Avenue in New York. Strangers to basketball would have no intimation that enemy squads once came here to die. Despite its rickety appearance, the Garden--built in 1928--has been the St. Paul's of pro basketball since 1946, nearly 50 years. Inside, a coach and general manager with a lance of a cigar spearheaded the Boston Celtics to more world championships than any other two teams combined.
Red Auerbach saunters around the perimeter of the parquet floor at a recent Celtic practice. Slightly hunched at the shoulder, he looks as he ever did. Jammed between his index and middle fingers is a Hoyo de Monterrey, poking ahead of him, as if suggesting that the only way is forward. Walking with his friend John Poppell, Red appears ruddy, the forehead broad and freckled, the eyes wide and quick with apprehension. Larry Bird is being interviewed some 50 feet from where Red walks. "I would play with a broken arm for Red," says Bird, now scouting and making appearances for the Celtics. "Because he would do the same thing if he could. When he talked, you listened." When Red arrives, Bird bounces up, leaving the seat to Red. Call it Celtic protocol.
"Are those Converse?" the red-haired legend from Brooklyn asks the red-haired legend from French Lick, Indiana. "Yeah," replies Bird, with typical economy. "Here's the man you want," says Bird. "It's a cigar magazine, Red." Bird flies off to the baseline 10 feet away and starts dropping three-point bombs.
Although he still makes some phone calls from Boston and Washington, D.C., Red Auerbach no longer runs the day-to-day operations of the Boston Celtics. For that purpose he hired Dave Gavitt, senior executive vice president, some four years ago. But this weekend Red is dressed and ready.
That night Brandeis University will give a retirement roast-and-toast dinner for Kevin McHale. (Former Celtic Danny Ainge stole the roast, giving a Lettermanesque "Top Ten List" on why McHale retired. No. 3: "Never learned to speak jive."No. 10: "Realizes how goofy he looked in tank top and shorts.") Tomorrow, McHale's No. 32 will rise heavenward at Boston Garden, where it will rub shoulders with Bob Cousy and Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Bird and a dozen other immortals. There, championship banners and players' numbers hover like haunting sheets, mocking the efforts of opponents below.
Despite a team that languishes below .500 in fourth place--despite the fact that this is Super Bowl Sunday--Celtic glory fills the air. And not having Red there would be like having an old-timers' day and not inviting Mays or Mantle.
Red Auerbach is NBA basketball. He is the beginning and the end of the hardwood, the embodiment of a half century of the league's collective wisdom. When he began coaching professional ball in 1946, the league was on the brink of financial ruin.
Before the 16 world championships, before the victory cigar that announced that the enemy was somewhere between simmering and cooked, before Celtic mystique and the parquet on the causeway, there was Brooklyn.
Arnold Jacob Auerbach was born on September 20, 1917, the son of Marie Thompson and Hyman Auerbach, a Russian immigrant. Red grew up in the hardscrabble Brooklyn neighborhood called Williamsburg, where his father ran a dry cleaners. Red helped out with some of the pressing duties and also earned nickels washing taxi cabs. "I appreciated the fact that my father was a hard-working man," Red says, explaining his father's influence. "Also that he was well liked."
"In my area of Brooklyn there was no football, no baseball," he recalls. "They were too expensive. They didn't have the practice fields. We played basketball and handball and some softball in the street." The great pro teams of the 1920s and '30s were the New York Rens (short for "Renaissance," because the team played at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem), the Harlem Globetrotters and the original Celtics. The teams of 10 changed rosters, with players providing their services to the highest bidder. Fifteen dollars a game was a competitive price.
A teenager during the Depression, Red went to Eastern District High School and began courting basketball. As a senior, he made all-Brooklyn, second team. After Seth Low Junior College (part of Columbia University) closed in Brooklyn during his freshman year, he transferred to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. It was there, under coach Bill Reinhart, that he learned the running game that would later become a Celtic trademark. With Reinhart's recommendation, Auerbach landed a position as basketball director at prestigious St. Alban's Prep in suburban Washington, D.C.
He married Dorothy Lewis in the spring of 1941. He also got his master's degree and joined the faculty at Roosevelt High School in Washington D.C., teaching history, health and physical education. An article that he wrote on indoor obstacle courses for the Journal of Health and Physical Education was the beginning of a publishing career that would include five basketball books, translated into a half dozen languages. To make extra money, he refereed basketball games. In 1943 he enlisted in the Navy and, before being discharged from the Norfolk base in 1946, had committed to memory the names of several basketball players, including another Red--the Hall of Fame coach of the New York Knicks, William "Red" Holzman.
While Auerbach was in the service, Walter Brown had helped start the Basketball Association of America. Mike Uline, owner of the Washington Caps, wanted to hire Auerbach as coach. However, as Auerbach was married and soon to start a family, the move was fraught with risk. "I had a permanent job already, but I felt I could always get a job if it didn't work out." He took the job, filling a roster with the names of players he remembered from the Navy.
Red was only 29. "Some of the guys on the team were older than me," he says with a laugh. "I just sold the guy a bill of goods to get the job. A lot of guys had better credentials." He paid no one on the team more than $8,500 and insisted on defense and conditioning from his players. In the 1946-'47 season, his team finished with 49 wins and 11 losses. After three years with Washington, he began coaching Tri-Cities (Moline, Illinois; Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa). But after bickering with owner Ben Kerner about a questionable trade, Auerbach quit the Tri-Cities club. Meanwhile, Walter Brown, now the owner of the Celtics, was in debt and looking for a head coach for one last go-round with Boston.
He selected Red. Under Auerbach, the Celtics of the early 1950s were good, but not good enough. Fortunately, they had Bob Cousy during Red's first year at the helm. The team turned from a 22-46 team in 1949 to 39-30 in 1950. Cousy was good right out of the box, scoring 15.6 points and averaging nearly five assists a game in his rookie year. But they almost didn't get him.
Auerbach had called Cousy a "local yokel," saying he was highly touted because he played at nearby Holy Cross. Auerbach passed on him in the draft,instead selecting six-foot-eleven-inch center Charlie Share. Local fans were irate. Due to outrageous fortune--several teams had folded--owner Brown offered Cousy $9,000 a year. He signed. Had Cousy taken umbrage at Auerbach's "local yokel" remark and not signed, things might have turned out very differently. Celtic luck had its origin right there.
Besides Cousy, the Celtics had a 20-point scorer in Ed Macauley. "We had a good team, but we would get tired in the end and couldn't get the ball," Red recalls. A big man was sorely lacking. They went 39-27 in '52, 46-25 in '53, 42-40 in '54.Says Cousy, "We were good, but hadn't won yet. I remember one day in 1956, Red said, 'I think I'm getting a guy that will change things.' "
To get Bill Russell required a bit of doing, however. Rochester was drafting first, St. Louis second, and the whole world knew about Russell's exploits at the 1956 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and the University of San Francisco, where his team won 55 straight. Rochester was strong up- front and looked to draft Sihugo Green. Owner Walter Brown gave team manager Les Harrison additional incentive to avoid Russell. If he passed by Russell, he would arrange for Rochester to get the touring Ice Capades two weeks later. Recalls Auerbach: "Walter got him the Ice Capades, and Harrison said, 'I give you my word that we'll stay away from Russell.' "
But all this maneuvering would have been fruitless if St. Louis had gone and picked Russell second. Auerbach called former boss Ben Kerner to see if the latter would make another unwise deal. Auerbach offered all-star Macauley. Kerner badly needed stars to keep his franchise afloat. But he wanted more and asked for guard Cliff Hagan, too. Auerbach agreed.
With Russell in the pivot, the Celtics had a spider-armed, tireless intimidator. He had run track in college and could outrun everyone on the team. "Russell could change a game without scoring," says Don Nelson, coach of the Golden State Warriors and teammate of Russell in the 1960s. Cousy recalls how Russell would deliberately goaltend a few shots at the outset of the game--just to intimidate the other team. He also recalls that Russell's fury on the court owed in part to the racial slurs he endured. "What made him special was his fantastic reactions," Red remembers. "He was a brilliant guy; you couldn't fool him twice. He had long arms. He was interested in defense. Most big men were interested in scoring. Russell was the opposite; he'd let the other guys shoot the ball."
In his first year, Russell led the team in rebounding, even though he missed the season's first two months. The Celtics won their first world championship that year: 1957.
In 1958, Russell injured his ankle in the finals against St. Louis and the Hawks won in six games. That year was pivotal in NBA basketball. It was the last time that anyone besides the Celtics would win for eight straight years.
TNT analyst and former coach Hubie Brown remembers the Celtic style. "He (Red) had a relentless fast break, pressure defense and Bill Russell in the back that allowed him to play this style. They were also very organized in their play sets. Then, I feel he had the ability to motivate them individually, because it is extremely difficult to maintain excellence, and when you look at eight in a row, it's breathtaking. It comes down to that ability to maintain excellence. He knew how to push the right button on each guy to get him to be subservient to the team."
Through it all, Red typically ate Chinese food in his room between games, conserving his energy for the grueling travel demands that included more trains and cars than planes.
The 1960-61 squad may have been the Celtics' finest under Auerbach. The team won 57 and lost 22 and, amazingly, had six scorers averaging between 15 and 21 points a game. No Celtic landed in the Top Ten in scoring. As Hubie Brown surmises, under Auerbach the Celtics understood the maxim: "There is no 'I' in team."
"In any good coach is the ability to communicate," Auerbach explains. "In other words, a lot of coaches know their X's and O's, but the players must absorb it. Team was important; we didn't care who the starting five was. The sixth-man concept was my idea."
Auerbach could be a taskmaster in practice. Celtic success stories are reminiscent of old Yankee stories. Asked once why the Yankees beat the Red Sox all the time, Tommy "Old Reliable" Henrich said that when you walked through the Red Sox parking lot, you saw one Cadillac after another. "We had to work for ours," said Henrich, alluding to Yankee management's habit of being tough salary negotiators. He explained that by winning the World Series, the Yankees were often able to double their modest salaries. The same desire was present with the Celtics. Sure they had talent, but they also worked harder than other teams. Says league executive and former Celtic forward Tom "Satch" Sanders: "Defense and conditioning were the best parts of those teams."
"In those days you had eight teams, 10 guys, 80 players altogether," says Hubie Brown. "Nobody had a two-year contract. Everybody had a year-to-year game. You will never see that kind of hunger and thirst again. Now you have 28 teams, long-term contracts, mega-dollars, with no control over the players. And you're still not seeing better basketball."
As the Celtics' routinely whipped the opposition, Red would frequently sit back and enjoy the end of the game--always with a cigar. "I smoked all different cigars at that time," he says. "Sometimes fans would give me some. I did TV promotions for King Edwards." Hence, the "victory cigar." "It all boils down to this. I used to hate these college coaches or any coach that was 25 points ahead with three minutes left to go, and they're up there yellin' and coachin' because they're on TV, and they want their picture on, and they get recognition. To me the game was over. The day's work is done. Worry about the next game. This game is over. So I would light a cigar and sit on the bench and just watch it. The game was over, for all intents and purposes. I didn't want to rub anything in or show anybody what a great coach I was when I was 25 points ahead. Why? I gotta win by 30? What the hell difference does it make?
"The commissioner [Maurice Podoloff] said you can't smoke the cigars on the bench. But there were guys smoking cigarettes on the bench. I said, 'What is this, an airplane--you can smoke cigarettes but not cigars?' No way. I wouldn't do it.
"I started with a pipe," he explains. "The pipe was less expensive to start with." The change to a cigar was fortuitous; a "victory pipe" might not have worked.
"In Cincinnati one night, management gave out 5,000 cigars to the fans. They were going to light up when the Royals won the game. You talk about motivation. I had the team so sky-high we never let them get in front. We beat the hell out of them."
A player's perspective on Red's smoking can be found in Dan Shaugnessy's Evergreen. In the book, Bob Cousy says: "It [the cigar] made us all uncomfortable. It was more offensive to us and everyone else on the road. When he did this, it got everyone's attention. And hell, we had enough hostility focused on us as it was. This was another trigger point. The fans were already pissed off because then it looked like they'd lose the game. And they did. This was an irritant. He sat benignly and comfortably on the bench, smoking away, with a guard behind him. Meanwhile, we were out on the floor taking all this abuse. The feeling among the players was: 'Why get their attention anymore? Why piss 'em off?' The fans would get more belligerent and hostile toward us, and we had to bust our tails to keep the lead because once he went for the cigar, the other team's intensity went up 100 percent. I hated that thing. Paul Seymour [a Syracuse Nationals player from 1949 through 1960] told me that his ambition in life was not to win an NBA championship as much as it was to have Auerbach light up prematurely and lose, so that he could go down and stuff that cigar in his face. That's all Seymour wanted to do in sports. It created this kind of reaction from opponents. As players, who needs it?"
"He had his own style," Hubie Brown says. "I think you would have to talk to coaches. They were the people being shown up at that time. That's why I say he had a distinct style. Lombardi had a distinct style; you can't imitate either one."
Tom "Satch" Sanders didn't mind the smoke on the bench. "But the locker room was another story; it was close quarters in there!" Would Red put out his cigar? "Are you kidding?" Sanders snaps.
With smoke and 13 years of Russell, the Celtics copped 11 world championships. But after Russell's retirement in 1969, hard times followed. Word around the league was that Red had won with Russell, but then came the challenge: "Let's see him win without him." Hubie Brown is unimpressed with that view. "He had Russell, and he won. You think about this," he pauses, measuring each word. "Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Don Baylor never won. That's the answer to that. Go up to when Red retired (1966, when he appointed Russell as player-coach)-- Baylor, Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, West and Chamberlain were the best all-time at that point. Los Angelesgot three of them and couldn't win."
And win again Red would. With former sixth man John Havlicek, Jo Jo White and Dave Cowens leading the way, Red the general manager managed two world championships in the 1970s--the only team besides the New York Knicks to accomplish that feat. Still, when great teams are discussed one hears that the 1967 Sixers and the 1972 Lakers--both Chamberlain squads--were the greatest ever. "They say that because they get tired of giving the Celtics all the awards," Red says.
Though his coaching was over, the wheeling and dealing was only beginning. After Havlicek departed in 1978, the Celtics went through lean times again. In two years the Celtics won 61 games and lost 103.
So Auerbach went to work on a junior eligible from Indiana State, Larry Bird. Five teams had passed on drafting Bird in the first round in his junior year. "They didn't know he'd be that good, and I didn't either," says Auerbach. "I only saw him play once." But Auerbach didn't pass on him. Picking sixth, he thought that Bird would be impressed with the Celtic history and mystique and eventually sign.
The Celtics won 29 games in the 1978-1979 season and won 61 the following season with Bird. He made an immediate impact, averaging 21 points and 10 rebounds a game.
The money paid to Bird--the largest sum ever for a rookie at $650,000 a year for five years--turned out to be one of the biggest bargains in the history of human employment. In Bird's second year, the Celtics would take their fourteenth NBA title, first knocking off Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers and then Moses Malone's Houston Rockets. Two more titles in 1984 and 1986 made the total 16. The Lakers (Minneapolis and Los Angeles) won 10, the Sixers four and Chicago three.
A glimpse of what made Auerbach singularly great was apparent in 1986. Auerbach was plotting the future, even while the Celtics played with what Bird called "the best team I ever played with." Auerbach had been observing the fortunes of the Seattle Supersonics. In the previous two years they had won only 31 games, and Red knew he could trade a respectable player for a draft pick or two. For Gerald Henderson, he swapped Seattle's second pick.
He snapped up a most unusual athlete. In University of Maryland's Len Bias, Auerbach would get the size of a Karl Malone and the deft ball handling and perimeter shooting skills of a guard in one package. When Bias came to Boston for a visit, he said to Celtic executive vice president Jan Volk, "please draft me." As commissioner David Stern announced the selection of Bias on national television, the young man beamed and wore a Celtics hat to the podium.
Hours later he would be dead of a cocaine overdose. "I was shocked," Red recalls, saying no more. Beginning with Bias' death and then the early retirements of McHale and Bird and the sudden death of Reggie Lewis last summer, Boston has endured a most un-Celtic-like string of bad luck. No one dares to speak about the lucky leprechauns who sleep in the floorboards of this hallowed building. Bias would have been 30 now. His presence would probably have extended the careers of Bird and McHale and almost certainly would have given the team another title or two in the late 1980s. It will be a while before the team recovers from that 10-15 year loss.
Forget Irish fable. For the past eight years, the Celtics have been part of a Greek tragedy, as if paying off a debt for all their hubris and good fortune. When will the Green Wave return? "We need a superstar," says Red.
But Red is not as active in the day-to-day operations as he once was. "I don't have the desire and the say anymore," says Red in a Chinese restaurant, surrounded by shrimp and lobster sauce, fried rice and a platter of fish and beef goodies. "In other words, I can't see myself getting on the phone three and four hours a day and calling this owner and wheeling and dealing. I don't wanna do that. I hired Gavin. To make a deal, you gotta be on the phone all the time. I don't have that kind of patience anymore. I mean, look at Don Nelson. When he made that deal--Chris Webber for Anfernee Hardaway--he musta called 50 to 100 times in a month. You don't make those kind of deals overnight in one call. I don't have that kind of desire anymore."
Recovering from heart surgery, Red plays racquetball three times a week and does two days on the treadmill. And his Hoyo de Monterrey cigars? "I like them because they're big and mild," he says, slightly evasive. How many a day? Two? "Yeah, put down two." At Legal Seafood in Boston, an item on the menu reads: No cigar or pipe smoking, except for Red Auerbach."One time a waitress comes over and says, 'Sorry, sir, no smoking,' " Red smiles. "I told her that there was a mistake, that she should look at the menus. She realized and laughed."
And diet? "I have no diet."
Despite retreating from the basketball scene, Red still fires off bold opinions. He says that a "dream team" made up of players from the 1950s and 1960s could beat a new dream team. Considering that such a team would include Russell, Pettit, Baylor, Robertson and West (with Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Barry, Havlicek, Cousy and Erving off the bench), it's hard to argue. That squad would be competitive with anyone.
Auerbach also chooses an all-time squad. "If I was starting a team, I would take Russell. If I was picking 12 guys, I would also include Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Bird, Baylor, Pettit, Dr. J [Julius Erving], Magic [Earvin Johnson], Jordan, Oscar [Robertson], Cousy and Havlicek. You can make a case for about five or six guys being the greatest of all-time: Bird, Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan, Russell, Oscar." Making a case for anyone but Jordan is now increasingly difficult, given his individual and team accomplishments. Cousy may have said it best after the 1993 NBA Finals. "Most of the great players had a weakness; Jordan has none." Still, Auerbach's loyalty to his own players is understandable. They emerged victorious in 16 NBA wars. Loyalty, like the cigar, is omnipresent.
At McHale's retirement ceremony, fans shower a five-minute standing ovation on the athlete. For one day, perfection returns to Boston Garden. Like a bottomless well, Celtic glory is there to be tapped at any time.
Still, cigar--aside from victory--may be the word most frequently associated with Red Auerbach. "I think of a penguin with a cigar," says Danny Ainge, kidding about Auerbach's deliberate style of walking.
Jeff Twiss, head of public relations, thinks cigars, too. "When I started here 13 years ago, I was an administrative assistant. One of my duties was to drive Mr. Auerbach to certain functions, affairs and games. One night, on the way to a preseason game in Worcester, it was really rainy and foggy. John Poppell and Jack Satter (the owner of Colonial Meats) are in the back and Red is in front. Satter and Red lit up, and my eyes were watering. The smoke has no place to go, and I'm scared out of my wits. I can't see. I didn't open the window because it would let rain in, and I didn't dare let Red know I couldn't see. It was my job to escort all these important people, and I thought I wouldn't make it. That's my baptism story."
Gavitt waxes philosophical. "I'll always think of the cigar. And another thing. Bob Lanier said to me, 'you guys up here must be doing something right: all your players stay in the organization as coaches and front-office positions.'" Indeed Auerbach has the most extensive network of alumni and bloodhounds known to sports.
"On my seventy-fifth birthday party, about 45 of these guys showed up from all over the country." Red says. "When you treat people good, they will want to reciprocate. We're the only team with alumni like that. We're a real group. And they become scouts." If Red wants to know about a player's character, he can make a call and get an answer.
Auerbach's manifold talents were summed up in three beats by Hubie Brown. "As an outsider looking in, I thought he had a keen ability to judge talent, acquire the talent and force them to play as a team."
At halftime, Auerbach tugged on a rope with McHale's children, and the No. 32 rose up and up. He is not smoking his victory cigar. "After I retired, they stopped smoking in the Garden," he later explains. On this day, the Celtics will beat Phoenix. The day is perfect enough to be included in 1961 or 1969 or 1986. Then the Celtics will fail to win a single game for a month.
What they need is one more superstar. One more deal from Red Auerbach. Then--in next year's new Boston Garden next door--puffs of smoke would once again return. Seven rows up-front, center court.
Ken Shouler is a sportswriter and author based in White Plains, New York.
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