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
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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."
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