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NBA Lockout? Red Auerbach Would Never Have Let It Get This Far, Mr. Stern

Abacus RevealsCorrespondent IIAugust 19, 2011

photo from espn.go.com
photo from espn.go.com

Red Auerbach could solve the NBA’s lockout problem.

Don’t know how, but he could fix this thing.

He knew the game, he knew the league, and most of all, he knew people.

Red always knew what to do…even when it didn’t work.

Like when he hired NBA Hall of Famer class of 2011, Tom “Satch” Sanders, to replace a badly “burned-out” Tommy Heinsohn as coach back in 1977.

After Sanders and Dave Cowens would coach back-to-back miserable seasons (barely 60 wins combined), Red would for the first time step outside the Celtic family in hiring coach Bill Fitch.

The feisty Fitch wore out his welcome within five seasons, but captured himself a championship ring in 1981 before moving on.

The construction of that team and the establishment of another dynasty were set in place by the shrewd maneuverings of Red Auerbach over a two-year span of time.

Valuable role players like Chris Ford and M.L. Carr were being assembled, but three moves show Red’s genius better than anyone could tell it.

8 Feb 1997:  Kevin McHale (left) and Larry Bird celebrate with the other Greatest Players in NBA History before the All-Star game. Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr  /Allsport
8 Feb 1997: Kevin McHale (left) and Larry Bird celebrate with the other Greatest Players in NBA History before the All-Star game. Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr /Allsport

First and foremost, Red used the sixth pick in the 1978 NBA Draft on a guy who was planning to stay in school—place called Indiana State, fella named Bird.  A gutsy move, especially since the Celtics would lose their right to him if Red could not sign him before the ’79 draft.

Larry and agent Bob Woolf countered Red’s $500,000 contract offer with a list of “extras.”

Here’s the Auerbach response, courtesy of John Feinstein’s wonderful Let Me Tell You a Story:

“Look, Larry, this is how I do business…I didn’t come in here and offer you half of what I can pay you and then bargain.  I offered you what I think you’re worth—which is a hell of a lot…At this salary, you can afford pretty much anything you want.  You play as well as I think you can play, and you’ll make more.  But this stuff isn’t happening.”

As you know, Bird signed—on Red’s terms.

About three months after inking a legend, Red was about the more mundane GM task of negotiating compensation with the Detroit Pistons for his free-agent signing of young veteran M.L. Carr.  Red offered an aging Bob McAdoo, a player he’d never wanted in the first place, and asked for two No. 1 picks in the following year’s draft.

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 11:  The Cameron Crazies of Duke clown around with Dick Vitale of ESPN before they face the North Carolina Tar Heels on February 11, 2009 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 11: The Cameron Crazies of Duke clown around with Dick Vitale of ESPN before they face the North Carolina Tar Heels on February 11, 2009 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

The cunning Detroit personnel man who was duped…oops, who was gracious enough to accept Mr. Auerbach’s kind offer—then was wished well in his future endeavors by his employer—was none other than broadcaster deluxe Dick Vitale.  (It seems Red knew which eye he needed to pull the wool over, baby.)

This little maneuver gave Red control over the No. 1 selection in the 1980 NBA Draft, and he’d be adding to a team that had just won 61 games for that outsider coach.

That put a pretty sly fox in the ol’ catbird seat with one last decision to make.

Even though he had only just completed his freshman year, and even though his team had been relegated to NIT status (albeit they won it), Red wanted—really wanted—a 7’4” kid named Ralph Sampson from the University of Virginia.

The workings of the Auerbach coaching pipeline set up a meeting with Sampson, his parents and his college coach Terry Holland.  To Red’s surprise, also in attendance was a UVA law professor.  Mr. Feinstein again provides he detail.

“I knew, five minutes in, I had no chance,” Red said.  “Every time I tried to say something, the lawyer broke in.”

JUN 1987:  BOSTON CENTER ROBERT PARISH SHOOTS WITH 0:03 SECONDS LEFT IN THE third QUARTER AS LOS ANGELES GUARD MICHAEL COOPER TRIES TO BLOCK THE SHOT FROM BEHIND DURING CELTICS VERSUS LAKERS GAME IN THE NBA FINALS AT THE BOSTON GARDEN IN BOSTON, MASSACHUS
JUN 1987: BOSTON CENTER ROBERT PARISH SHOOTS WITH 0:03 SECONDS LEFT IN THE third QUARTER AS LOS ANGELES GUARD MICHAEL COOPER TRIES TO BLOCK THE SHOT FROM BEHIND DURING CELTICS VERSUS LAKERS GAME IN THE NBA FINALS AT THE BOSTON GARDEN IN BOSTON, MASSACHUS

Ironically, that very same law professor later invited Red to address the law school's graduating class.  Red politely declined...if "not on your life" counts as manners.

The guy actually in the draft that Red coveted was Kevin McHale, the long-armed, 6’11” pivot man out of the University of Minnesota.  The other marquee big man was Purdue’s 7’1” Joe Barry Carroll.

The Golden State Warriors, under the leadership of Wilt Chamberlain’s old Philadelphia teammate Al Attles, were in possession of two things at the time that Auerbach felt he could use to his advantage—the third pick in the draft and an under-performing, four-year veteran center by the name of Robert Parish.

Attles liked Carroll’s game, so when Red offered both of the picks he’d acquired in the McAdoo deal (No. 1 and No. 13) for Parish and the No. 3 pick, Attles accepted.

Red got his man, and another Hall-of-Famer-to-be as an added bonus.

Bill Fitch and then Celtic family member KC Jones coached this bunch to three championships over the next six years, and the team remained a viable championship contender for over a decade.

Red always knew what to do.

He knew the game, he knew the league.

But most of all, Red knew people.

Red Auerbach could solve the NBA’s lockout problem.

Sad to think he’s no longer here to do it.

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