The Past Eras: Red Auerbach

Rd Auerbach will live forever. Oblivion is the true death and he will never be forgotten

Red Auerbach will live forever. Oblivion is the true death and he will never be forgotten.

Arnold Jacob Auerbach was his official name. His flaming red hair and his fierce temper soon gave him the nickname of “Red”. For people who know who Red Auerbach was, “red” is far more than just a color. For people familiar with everything he did, life has a very special purpose: do what you love, set a goal, and work as hard as possible to achieve it.  Red  Auerbach was a winner, as simple as that. Not only in basketball, but in a general sense. He was a pioneer of modern sports, especially basketball. He was responsible for 16 of the 17 championships the Boston Celtics franchise has won, making him the most successful coach and team executive of the 20th century in all of American sports. When asked to describe Red with a phrase, John Karalis said he was a “standard-bearer for common sense whose approach easily translates beyond basketball”.

Born on 1917 in Brooklyn, he was influenced by basketball since he has memory.  “In my area of Brooklyn there was no football, no baseball” Red said in an interview for ESPN.com. He became a coach at the early age of 29 and coached basketball teams non-stop for 20 years. In 1966 he retired from coaching and became the general manager for the Boston Celtics, the team he had coached for the last 16 years. He stayed in the team’s front office since this date to his death in 2006. He spent 60 of his 89 years around the NBA, 60 years of influence on the most important basketball league of the planet. However, his character drew some dislike and grievance from people around the league. Red was foremost a direct and visceral man, always very arrogant and stubborn. This was his way of being and it brought him haters as well as followers. It was something he accepted and gladly lived with.

The Boston Celtics is the most storied franchise in American sports. Red Auerbach is the franchise’s essence. From day one the Celtics have followed his lead. John Karalis named his Celtics blog after the man who built it all. He called his blog Red’s Army. “We saw Red as the leader of Celtics nations. He was our General Patton.” Karalis said. This Celtics team is what made me a basketball fanatic, the way they approach every game and the passion they show night-in and night-out enamored me.  For the last three years I have followed the team intensely. Watching every single game they play in an 82-game season has allowed me to learn some things about Red. Reading locker-room stories, team anecdotes and much more, the spirit of Red the winner is felt everywhere. Basketball has been a major part of my growth as a person, and whether I have been totally conscious of it or not, Red Auerbach has been in the middle of all of it.

Larry Bird, probably the second most important Celtic player in the history of the franchise, wrote a short but very meaningful obituary for Red when the “General Patton” passed away in November 2006. In only three lines, Bird recapped beautifully who Red Auerbach was as a person, more importantly than whom he was as a coach. “Red told me that in the ’50s and ’60s, he often went without a paycheck for weeks so his players could get paid. His endless sacrifices for his players and for the sport kept the NBA going–and formed the backbone of the NBA that exists today”. Red Auerbach was a successful winner in the history of basketball because of all the strategies he used to play the game. However, his most important contributions to the world did not happen only in the basketball court but are also evident in the ways Red touched everyone and everywhere he went. Red the basketball mortal was way behind the perpetual humane Red.

Red was a unique genius. Bill Russell, the NBA player with more titles and who was coached by Red, used to call him just two things: a friend and a genius. Red arrived in Boston with just seven offensive plays, and 16 years later he was still running the same plays with expertise.  “It wasn’t, he figured, nuclear physics. It was basketball, and no one ever has known it better”. For one, he always separated himself from others. On and off the basketball court he showed that he was a copy of no one. He would never settle for accepted norms and traditions. Red would always find his own ways if he thought those were better than others previously proposed.  “The genius of Red is that he cleared his mind of the clutter that surrounded so many of his peers”. He didn’t create new concepts out of thin air; he saw things that were always there for everyone to see. He not only wanted to be different, he knew how to do be different and successful at the same time.

His genius also came from the unique ability he had at managing people, especially his players. He was a master at handling his players because he actually didn’t handle them. Red himself told Bruce Webber in an interview what he actually did: “You see, I didn’t handle them. Players are people, not horses. You don’t handle them. You work with them, you coach them, you teach them, and, maybe most important, you listen to them”. His players proved that this was true. Paul Silas, one of the players Red coached, said Red was the best person he had ever been around in managing men. Another of his players, Bailey Howell, acknowledged too how great Red was with people, but he used the word Red didn’t like: handling. Howell said Red was a master at handling people and a master psychologist. Maybe neither managing nor handling are the right words to use in this situation. Red’s genius came from the interactions he had with his players, the people who brought success to the team.

Something important for keeping these interactions was the simplicity of them. His ability to simplify was also unique at the time. Though basketball may seem like a very simple sport in which one just passes a ball through a hoop, it’s much more complex than that. However, Red always figured out ways to keep it simple. According to John Havlicek, what made Red such a good coach was his ability to simplify the game. Players always understood what he said and what he wanted. Red himself certified that one of the biggest mistakes coaches made was over coaching. Not him. Making the game simple was not something easy to do. It was not something that Red’s colleagues managed to do. At the end, Red’s ability to communicate was a key for his success on the basketball court. Off the court too, his influences were marked by his exceptional ability to communicate.

Red won nine titles as a coach with the Celtics. Eight of those titles were attained in consecutive seasons from 1959 to 1966. That showed how dominant Red and his Celtics were. Watching the team trying to win it all every season became a tradition for the city of Boston. “There were two great spring rituals in Boston: Lent, and the Celtics in the playoffs”. Red was successful in the basketball court because of every single thing he did. Nothing was random. He created his own on-court strategies that helped him get over the top. His first and the one of outmost importance was his invention of the sixth man. Usually the best five players started games to take an early advantage. Red decided he was saving one of his best players to come off the bench instead of starting. He called that player the sixth man. Red kept the legs of his sixth man fresh so when the opposition was tired he would send him to the court with the command of being absolutely aggressive.  The sixth man gave him an immense advantage over his opponents as well as an important energy boost for the team.

Red also developed a revolutionary style of play. He forced his team to play up-tempo when teams were used to half-court styles of play. He ended up inventing what is now known as the fastbreak. Every time the team grabbed a rebound they were looking to get the ball up the court as fast as possible to score quickly. Teams were not prepared to defend this neither they had the stamina to do it for an entire game. Playing that way was not easy for the Celtics, who had to do a lot of conditioning and training to be able to run for an entire game without getting tired. “In training camp, the first couple of days all we did was run. He used like torture drills and put us running through these drills backwards, sideways, forward”, John Havlicek said. Red even made his team stand during timeouts while players from all other teams sat down. It was a strategy that could be seen as foolish because the players would get easily tired, but Red knew this gave a psychological edge to his team. Paul Silas confirmed that Red’s tactic was useful: “That tells you as a player that you don’t get tired. If the other team is sitting down and looking at you, then you’re going to have a psychological edge on them”. It was all the little things which made Red’s team the one winning games and celebrating more often than not.

His way of coaching was not only seen during games. Red developed a coaching philosophy that always worked with his players and with his rivals. “Red Auerbach’s coaching philosophy was simple: Only one statistic mattered,” Lisette Hilton said on the ESPN Classic website. “At the end of the game, he wanted the number next to his team to be greater than that next to his opponent”. He always insisted to his players to be the ones forcing their opponents to adjust. “Don’t be someone who adjusts to the other team, make them adjust to you” was what Red used to say to his players on a day to day basis. His philosophy was also based on instigation, which was one of Red’s natural born talents. He preached: “Be an instigator instead of a retaliator”. Red the head coach always knew what to do in order to provide an edge to his team.

Red’s philosophy was not in vain. He managed to create a tenacious commitment to winning that not only he followed but the entire team did. His ways sometimes hurt the team’s marketing but he countered by saying that a winning team sells itself. His commitment to winning showed because he was willing to sacrifice money in order to have a quality team. The Celtics drew lackluster crowds while the Bruins (Boston’s hockey team), who were in the last places, frequently sold out. The Celtics were relegated from AM radio to FM radio even during the championship years.  “What am I supposed to do,” Auerbach asked, “win games or please the local yokels?”. Red did not care if the city did not support him, he was winning and that was all that mattered.

Winning once at the professional level is tough enough, and Red was able to do it sixteen times. His desire to win and knowing what it took were his keys. Tommy Heinsohn, Celtic player during the 50’s and 60’s, explains how Red won with the Celtics:  “What he did better than anybody else I’ve ever seen is get people to make a commitment to excellence. He even coined a phrase for it: Celtic Pride” . Red created the concept of Celtic Pride, which was a commitment to winning and a team first mentality. Celtic Pride was born in the 1950’s and is still alive today. It tells players that if they are going to put a Celtics jersey on their chest, they are going to play their hearts out. Being a Celtic involves a very high level of excellence. Red set the standard for the Celtics and named it Celtic Pride. “It’s the mentality that everyone will work hard at what they do every day, they will do whatever is needed for the team’s best interest, and they will do whatever it takes to win as a team. Celtic Pride is a selfless, relentless pursuit of victory”. The culture that Red built is by no means easy to follow, but it has led the franchise to greatness. Defining Celtic Pride is not easy, but you know it when you see it. It is what has seventeen championship banners hanging in the rafters of the TD Garden.

Even so, having every single person on the team make a serious commitment to winning was not child’s play. Red, however, once again accomplished something very difficult with success. He built his team in such a way that it resembled a brotherhood, a family. In an atmosphere in which everyone cared for each other like they were brothers, everything was easy. Bill Bradley, hall of fame NBA player, said he did not consider Red a great coach only because of all his victories and championships but because of the team he built, the spirit he built, and the tradition he built. The family that the Boston Celtics were year after year was pivotal, crucial for success. Bill Walton acknowledged it with teary eyes: “Probably the key element was establishing a sense of family, a sense of loyalty, a sense of trust and responsibility amongst everybody. What made it all happen for the Boston Celtics was Red Auerbach”. Similarly, in describing Larry Bird, Red showed what his Celtics were all about. Bird epitomized who the Celtics were for the sixty years Red was with the team. “His dedication I knew of. His desire to win, his competitiveness, is always going to be there. But his ability to deal with his team, their great chemistry, was the only thing that surprised me at all”. Red’s players gladly gave the credit to Red for all they did. Bill Russell said he would not have been nearly as effective with any other man coaching the team. Rick Weitzman, a 10th round pick, said: “He gave me an opportunity when nobody else would have. And he was responsible for everything that has happened to me since”. Red’s influences put fourteen of his players in the Hall of Fame of Basketball and another thirty of them became head coaches.

On the other hand, standing above all, was Red the person, not the coach. Zang Auerbach, Red’s brother, was one of the few lucky people who knew Auerbach for his entire life. Zang described Red as nobody else had ever done it. “His talent has always been with people, knowing people, understanding people” .  Red’s influences off the court will never be measured, opposite to what he did on the court. Still, those immeasurable influences were the most important ones. Those are what will make Red live forever. Red was all about helping people. His legacy does not have the numbers but it has the most powerful significance.

First of all was his influence on a racist society. His paramount impact off the basketball courts came in terms of civil rights. Red was a very important racial pioneer. He used basketball as a way to promote equality and leave racism behind. He was the first NBA coach drafting black players and having black players on his team. John Havlicek showed how race was never an issue for the Celtics, he said: “We didn’t see color; we saw W’s” . Red helped destroy racial boundaries at a time when America was abounding with discrimination and segregation. Red simply did not mind what color a player was. He only cared about one thing, could that man play basketball? Besides, he gave an important voice to a very important person: Bill Russell. His acceptance and reliance on Russell, along with Russell’s own personal success, gave that credibility and extra determination to an outspoken voice in the civil rights movement. Russell stood along other important black athletes like Muhammad Ali to promote the civil rights movement. If Red had not had that attitude towards race, Russell would not have been such an essential voice for a vital movement at the time.

Furthermore, Red’s human side was not focused on winning but on making the life of people around him better. He used basketball as an argument to get close to people. He created his own basketball camp in which he taught kids basketball while also teaching them about life. Red called this camp his pet passion. He loved going in there to just help everyone he could in any possible way. “We’re for the average kid on the block, kids trying to make their high school team, or just to become better players and better fans” , Red said in his interview to Bruce Webber. He did not only contribute with his camp, he too made a best-selling book on basketball. “In fact, I wrote a book on fundamentals in 1952 that became the best-selling basketball book ever. It sold way over a million copies in six languages. I have copies of it in Russian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, and Burmese”, Red also told Webber in their interview. Nobody told him to write a book. It was always inside him trying to help whenever he could.

Red liked people, and he was not shy in dishing out advice. One beautiful story of Red helping people came with Ben Lupica, one old man just as Red. One day, Mike Lupica, Ben’s son, came to Red and told him that he needed help with his father. Ben Lupica was eighty years old and he refused to use a cane, one that at his age he obviously needed. Red, who had used one for years, demanded Ben Lupica’s phone number. Red called him and told him to stop being so stubborn and absurd. Ben Lupica now uses a cane every time he stands up. Plenty of stories like this can be told about Red. He used to have lunch every Tuesday at a restaurant in Washington called the “China Doll”, where with a group of friends, he shared stories of his life. John Feinstein is an author who had the chance to be with Red and his friends at the “China Doll” every Tuesday. With all the amazing stories told there, Feinstein wrote a book which is now a national bestseller. The book is called “Let Me Tell You a Story”, and it is full of fascinating anecdotes that can also teach so many things. Red holds nothing back as he offers details of how he became such a successful basketball coach.

However, not all was roses in Red’s life. He did have detractors, just as anybody else in the world. “With his bluster and bravado he was to opponents the most detestable coach”. With his character, it is easy to see how he drew some hate. Red was arrogant, stubborn, and he loved instigation. Reportedly, Red did some things to his opponents that negatively influenced their performance on the court. They said he deliberately turned the water of the showers off after every game and that he left the radiators on all night so the building would be extremely hot, among other things. During shootarounds, they said he left the lights only halfway on and that he would change the baskets. Of all these accusations, Red just said: “As long as that affected them and gave us a competitive edge, I’d go along with it”. Nonetheless, these allegations did not make any sense. If they were true, Red would have been hurting his own team as well, which he would certainly have never done.

Red also often clashed with opponents. He was not someone who liked everybody, and correspondingly not everybody liked him. “The cantankerous Auerbach clashed often with referees and amassed $17,000 worth of fines” .  In 1957 Red was playing against the Hawks in the playoffs. He argued that one of the baskets was too low and a fight broke out with Hawks’ owner Ben Kerner. Red had fists in face and he decked Kerner. There was no doubt Red was difficult to deal with. Frank Deford described him as a tiger of an adversary. One of the NBA’s greatest players, Wilt Chamberlain, hated him so much that until his dead he would not refer to Red by his name. Chamberlain referred to him as “the man I don’t like”. It can be seen how Red could be hated. He did things that could enrage anyone. Still, Red only cared about winning. Often times when clashing with opponents he was just taunting them. This gave him a psychological edge that he used to win. For him, winning justified mostly everything.

As always, it was all about winning for Red. Red’s signature was his cigar; it was his symbol of winning. Every time he felt that his team would win the game, he would light it up. The cigar was the major taunter, it was his way of saying “we are done here, on to the next one”. The cigar is why all Celtics fans loved him as well as why most his opponents did not like him at all. “It was more than just a victory cigar… it was a symbol of everything Red stood for: doing things his own way, especially if his own way gave him the edge over an opponent”. “It wasn’t just enough to win. He wanted to let opponents know when he won. He might as well have just raised his middle finger after every victory”. The smoke puffing out of Red’s mouth was so symbolic that when the Celtics won the championship in 2008, Doc Rivers and Wyc Grousbeck decided they would each light up a cigar in Red’s honor. “When NBA commissioner David Stern presented the Larry O’Brien trophy to the Celtics, he noted, “Some place, somewhere, Red [Auerbach] is lighting up a cigar”. Even two years after his death, Red was active in the Celtics’ championship. Because of everything he did during his life, Red will always be present in everything the Celtics do, his ideals will always be part of the team. “His legacy is that of a champion.  It drives everything this team does.  He’s set an expectation for winning, and that exists to this day”. Red’s greatness lies on what he left behind. What he built was something that not every man could have done; it is something that has to be appreciated. Today, winners in the NBA have the attitudes and the approach Red brought into professional sports. The culture of modern sports has Red Auerbach written all over it. He was a visionary, building since the 1950’s the sports culture that is seen today in the 21st century.

After all of these, just learn one thing. Managing to win consistently in a professional level is very difficult to achieve, not only in sports but in life in general. Nevertheless, when someone is committed to fulfilling their goals and develops strategies to achieve them, chances are that person will be very successful.  As Red wisely once said, “Just do what you do best”.

 

 

 

Special thanks go to John Karalis and Jay King, who gave their time to help me with great interviews about Red. Without their contributions, this article would not have been possible. 

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2 thoughts on “The Past Eras: Red Auerbach

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