Red Auerbach, longtime coach and architect of the Boston Celtics, and a 9 time NBA champ in the former role, has passed away at the age of 89.
After previousy leading the Washington Capitols to division titles in 1947 and 1949, Auerbach was recruited by Boston owner Walter Brown, and was instrumental in the formation of the Celtics dynasty, winning 8 consecutive NBA titles between 1959 and 1966. His 938 career coaching victories stood as the league mark until being overtaken by Lenny Wilkens some 11 years ago.
Auerbach’s genius extended well beyond his coaching years, when he moved into the Celtics front office, starting in 1966. By then, he already had shown his ability to judge and acquire talent with the acquisitions of Hall of Famers such as Bill Russell, John Havlicek, and Sam Jones through trades or the NBA draft. Later, as the team’s general manager, he engineered deals for Hall of Famers such as Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Dave Cowens.
A testament to Auerbach’s impact on the game as both a coach and talent evaluator is seen by the number of his players who made it to the Hall of Fame and to the number of his players who followed his footsteps into professional coaching. There are 14 Hall of Famers who had extended Celtics careers thanks to either playing for, or being drafted by, Auerbach. More than 30 Auerbach players ended up in coaching positions, including eight of the 12 players on his 1962-63 championship team. Three of his players, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, and Don Nelson, later won Coach of the Year honors. Nelson won it three times.
He was also a social force in the NBA, drafting the league’s first African-American player in 1950 in Chuck Cooper, hiring pro sports’ first African-American head coach in 1966 in Russell, and starting five African-Americans on the Celtics, an NBA first.
Auerbach was fiercely competitive, sometimes to the point of boorishness. It was Auerbach who would break out a celebratory cigar during Celtics homes games — never on the road — when it was clear his team had won. He once had a writer’s seat moved from the floor to the upper box at the Boston Garden because of an unfavorable story. He ordered that a favorable mention of Cedric Maxwell be excised from one of his books after he felt Maxwell betrayed him.
In 1984, Auerbach was invited to coach an old-timer’s team in the 1984 All-Star Game and was ejected for arguing with the officials. In his early years as the commissioner of the NBA, David Stern would joke to friends that he felt his real first name was Stupid because of all the conversations he had with Auerbach.
Auerbach’s track record for identifying talent and then acquiring it was remarkable. He convinced two teams in 1956 not to draft Russell, getting one of them (St. Louis) to trade their pick to him for two players, and getting the other to bypass Russell entirely in return for some arena-filling Ice Capades dates. In 1978, five teams passed on the then junior-eligible Bird, either because Bird would cost too much or would not be available for another year. Auerbach didn’t hesitate, and then managed to sign Bird and keep him in Boston throughout his Hall of Fame career.
Trades brought him not only Russell, but also Parish and the chance to draft McHale, still considered today to be the most lopsided trade in NBA history. The Warriors, who made the deal, ended up with Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown.
He could also be crude, abusive and hostile. He once sought out Danny Ainge after Ainge played a particularly bad game in Washington. “What, were you out drinking with your other wife?” Auerbach said to Ainge, a Mormon. One longtime acquaintance called Auerbach a terminal juvenile delinquent — and Auerbach did little to dispel the image. Yet it also, undeniably, was a shtick that he cultivated.