November 2, 2006

Auerbach Bestows Basketball on New Generation

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It’s just a shame. I don’t know a whole lot about Red Auerbach. Now he’s dead, and all I have to learn from are his and others’ words. If I don’t know about Red Auerbach, what the hell do I know?

I wasn’t around to see any of his dynasties and I never really heard much about him growing up in New York. In the days since his death last Saturday, I’ve been listening to the radio a lot. I’ve heard the adjectives that pundits have used to describe the essence of Auerbach. And having listened to these words and looked up some more, I feel ashamed and foolish to have ever thought I knew something about basketball and its history. I feel reckless to have thought that, as a person who loves to analyze sports – most of all basketball — I ever knew anything about the sport. How could I, if I don’t even know about basketball’s greatest and perhaps the most enduring figure in all of sports?

Imagine for a moment that you were born in 1958. You’re eight years old and the year is 1966. You’re watching the NBA Finals, wondering why they even bother playing. It’s not that you’re too young to realize what’s going on: it’s that Auerbach’s Celtics have just won their eighth consecutive championship.

When the Yankees win three championships in a row, it’s called a dynasty. When the Bulls have a repeat three-peat — with a two-year gap between the three-peats keep in mind — it’s called a dynasty. When the Steelers win four Super Bowls in six years, it’s called … a curtain. What’re we supposed to call eight in a row? Lucky?

Auerbach won nine titles in between 1950 and 1966 as the Celtics head coach, and I assure you it wasn’t luck. It wasn’t Jackson-esque, with the wonderful fortune of getting history’s greatest players waiting for him.

Over the last few days, I’ve learned about how Auerbach crafted the Cetlics’ legacy — all 16 championships — and arguably American sports’ greatest dynasty, essentially by himself. He had the foresight to sign Bob Cousy even after he didn’t draft him. He was cunning enough to outmaneuver the two teams ahead of him in the draft — in a famous set of deals — to draft Bill Russell. He also drafted John Havlicek and K.C. Jones, among others. He implemented basketball’s greatest pressure defense and essentially revolutionized the fast-break to score easy buckets. He created the “sixth man” to come of the bench and spark the team. He popularized “role players” before anyone seemed to care.

“That’s a player who willingly undertakes the thankless job that has to be done in order to make the whole package fly,” Auerbach said.

And it all came together for 938 wins (over 20 years with the Celtics and Nationals), the all-time record until Lenny Wilkens surpassed him in 1995. Though, in all fairness, it’s likely no coach will ever surpass Auerbach’s 66.2 winning percentage as a coach — yes, he nearly won two of every three games — nor will anyone ever have only a single losing season in a coaching career of equivalent length. Nor is it likely a coach will ever surpass these totals: 18 players Auerbach coached became coaches themselves, and 13 of his players became Hall of Famers. What’s more incredible is that for years, his 1947 Washington Capitols team held the single-season win percentage mark at .817.

And all that was just as a coach. As the Celtic’s general manager, he led the team to two more titles in the 1960s and another pair in the 1970s. The Knicks was the only other team to win more than one title in the 1970s. Although most of his former team was still around for the 1968 and 1969 championships, the 1974 and 1976 titles were crafted through shrewd dealings by Auerbach once again. He brought in players like Dave Cowens and Paul Silas and dominated the NBA.

It was his insight that crafted the 1980s (dynasty) squads as well. He drafted Bird, resurrected Bill Walton’s career, and through a series of phenomenal deals, brought together from scratch what some consider to be the finest team in NBA history. The Celtics won three titles in the 1980s, and may have won more if the drafting of Len Bias hadn’t turned into a tragedy. Oh, and he basically helped save the NBA in the process.

In a recent article, Dick Vitale wrote, “I talked to Red many times over the years, and I told him he should thank me for Boston’s success. You must be wondering, why I would say that? When I was [head coach of] the Pistons, we made a deal. We traded for Bob McAdoo, for two draft picks. One ended up being Kevin McHale and the other was utilized in a deal that gave the Celtics … Robert Parish. Boston also landed M.L. Carr … the Celtics did very well, thank you.”

But besides the wins, what convinced the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America to vote him the greatest coach in the history of basketball … back in 1980? What has convinced everyone that he may be the greatest figure in professional basketball history? When I read and listed to the stories of some of his exploits, I was just in awe. What an innovator and genius, I kept telling myself. There are so many things to say that it would be a further misstep to try to summarize the summaries of what made him such an incredible contributor to the game and to all of sport. So I implore you: go read about Auerbach. Read the thousands of stories that have been written in the last few days about the man. For now, here are a few to keep you occupied:

Auerbach was a phenomenal communicator and motivator. Once, a player was missing shots in a game, and Auerbach called a timeout. The player asked if he should stop shooting. Auerbach responded to the player: you just keep shooting the ball, let me worry about you missing. The player then started calling for the ball, thinking he had a hot hand, and began making his shots.

Auerbach may have had no equal in understanding the game. But aside from his ability to develop players and get them to play a system, and his revolutionary changes on offense and defense, he was very protective of and loved by his players — despite outsiders’ sense that he was arrogant. Players and coaches from all over the NBA would come to his birthdays decades after they had last played for him and still keep in touch.

“The world thought he was tough and mean and gruff and all that — and underneath he was really a pussycat, if you knew him well,” Cousy said at Auerbach’s visitation. “He’d be mad at me if he knew I said that.”

Auerbach was more than just a revolutionary of the game’s strategies. He drafted first African American player, Chuck Cooper, was the first coach to start five African Americans and made Russell the first coach black head coach in professional basketball after he retired as a coach.

Auerbach was famous for smoking cigars on the bench as time winded down in games with his teams winning. He is therefore credited for popularizing the “victory cigar.” Many opponents and opposing fans to this day talk about wanting to shove the cigar in his face. But, as Auerbach explained, he would smoke his cigar to keep him from being arrogant. He hated coaches who tried to steal the spotlight by yelling and gesturing at the end of victories. He wanted to just sit back and enjoy the game … because it was over.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was talk of raising the basket to stop big men from dominating. Current NBA commissioner David Stern, around that time, asked Red what he thought about the idea.

“Come here, stupid,” Auerbach said. Auerbach then said something to the effect of: “if we raise the baskets, the shooters are going to miss. Then who’s going to get all the rebounds, dummy?”

Arnold “Red” Auerbach was a legend, a genius, an innovator, a genuine personality and much more. Even with all the stories and statistics I have learned in these past few days, it’s clear to me that I know next-to-nothing of the man who changed the sports landscape forever.

The worst part is, if I had only taken some time to learn more about him when I was younger, he surely would have inspired me in some way, the way he has done for so many others.

How foolish am I? Only Red knows. And now he’s gone.

Josh Perlin is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. My Pitch will appear every other Thursday this semester.