"Strategy is something anyone can learn, but not all coaches take the time to understand a man's personality." –Red Auerbach
Long before the days of coaches like Pat Riley and Phil Jackson prowled the benches and gave the refs an earful and won NBA titles, there was the man, the myth, the legend, that’s synonymous with the Boston Celtics and the so-called “Celtic Mystique”. That man is Red Auerbach and even though they’ve fallen on hard times recently, the Celtics of the 60’s were the greatest team in the NBA, if not all of sports history.
Arnold “Red”Auerbach was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a Russian immigrant and he and his wife made ends meet by running a delicatessen.
It seems Red had basketball in his blood from the very beginning. He played throughout his early teens and eventually went on to become a star player at the George Washington University. He got his teaching degree and went off to coach at St. Albans Prep School and later Roosevelt High School located in the Washington, D.C area. His career was interrupted by World War II and he served in the Navy from 1943 through 1946.
With not too much on his resume, he somehow landed the head coaching job with the Washington Capitols (not to be confused with the hockey team of the same name) and piloted them to a league best 49-11 record in the Basketball Association of America, later to become known as the NBA.
During the next two seasons, Auerbach, while successful, got into a dispute with management and left for what he thought would be greener pastures. Along came a team called the Tri-Cities Blackhawks who were in need of his services and Auerbach was quick to sign.
Somehow, the name “Tri-Cities Blackhawks” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue and maybe it was some kind of bad omen or something but Auerbach couldn’t get the team to perform and he finished the season at 29-35. It would mark the only time in his long and (not yet) illustrious career that he would wind up with a losing record. He quit after the first year when he discovered that management wanted to make some trade without seeking his advice.
To put it plainly, the Boston Celtics sucked in 1950. They finished last in the league with a dismal 22-46 record. Auerbach was available and it was a match made in heaven.
If there’s one thing you need to know about Auerbach and his theory of coaching it’s this. He valued team performance over individual performance. There was no such thing as individual success if your team failed. For the next two decades or so, the Celtics, as a team, would not fail too often.
How good were they? Well, if you ask me, the word “dynasty”, which is way over used today, wouldn’t even come close to describing them. With Auerbach calling the shots as either coach or general manager, they won 16 championships including an amazing 8 in a row from 1959 through 1966. He shocked the basketball world when he left the bench at the relatively early age of 48 in order to concentrate his efforts in the front office.
When he stepped down, he left with the distinction of having the most victories under his belt with a record of 1037 wins against 538 losses. The record for victories would last until Lenny Wilkens would finally break it.
Everybody knows that professional coaches are judged by their wins and losses. Maybe, sometimes, they should be judged on more than that. Auerbach is testimony to that statement.
When I think of the city of Boston, the term racial tolerance, especially during the 50’s and 60’s doesn’t exactly leap to the front of my mind. He was the first coach to draft a black player in the league’s history. He was the coach to start five black players in an NBA game. He was also the first general manager to hire a black coach (Bill Russell) in the league’s history
As for his impact on the game itself, Auerbach can probably take credit for inventing the concept of the “sixth man”. He perfected the fast break style of offense when most of the other teams around the league were still walking the ball up the court.
Maybe this stat might be the best indication of how important the team concept was to Red Auerbach during his coaching days. During his tenure, he never had an individual player lead the league in scoring. In fact, during 7 of his championship years, not a single player on his team made it into the leagues top 10 scorers. I guess under his stewardship, hustle and teamwork was enough.
Here’s one more tidbit from the “Did You Know “ corner of the sports section…
During his career, he coached eleven players who went on make the NBA Hall of Fame. That’s gotta be some kinda record.
Red Auerbach died of a heart attack on October 28, 2006 at the age of 89. The NBA and the entire sports world mourned his passing.