Red Auerbach in Memoriam: 5 "Strokes" of His Genius
“He said to me, ‘My dear Red, I won’t make any deals with you ever, because you know much more about basketball than I do and I’ll get the short end.’”
“He” could have been just about anyone in the NBA, from his hiring by Celts’ original owner Walter Brown in 1950 until Red passed away five years ago today on October 28, 2006.
In this instance, cited from John Feinstein’s The Punch, “he” is late Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke.
At times, it did seem as if Auerbach was the reincarnation of the mythological titan Prometheus, who had the gift of foresight—he could see into the future.
In reality, Arnold “Red” Auerbach was a competitive over-achiever. The son of immigrants who expected no more out of life than the opportunity to be a hard-working school teacher and coach.
When life offered more, he left a legacy of success, loyalty, and maybe just a wee bit of braggadocio.
In recognition of Red’s life-long affinity for racquet sports, and in respectful admiration of a great man, Abacus Reveals five “strokes” of Red Auerbach’s genius.
The Offensive Lob
The Russell hustle.
Bill Russell was not an acclaimed baller coming out of high school, a la Wilt Chamberlain several years later.
By the time of his college commencement, he was a two-time NCAA champion, on his way to an Olympic gold medal, and about to revolutionize the pro game.
Red Auerbach’s crew of contenders in Boston had evolved to that often insurmountable stage of “Personnel Paradox”: one impact player away, but you draft too low to get that “one-in-a-generation” player—well, not without a little maneuvering, anyway.
Red owned the seventh pick in the 1956 NBA draft by virtue of a 39-33, second-place finish.
Playing upon St. Louis Hawks’ owner Ben Kerner’s reluctance to foist a black star, even one with Russell’s enormous potential, on a “southern” fan base, Auerbach obtained the draft’s second selection in exchange for future Hall of Famers Cliff Hagan and Easy Ed Macauley.
But there was still the obstacle of the draft’s first selection, which was the property of Royals’ owner Les Harrison, then operating out of Rochester, New York—far removed from Dixie and Jim Crow.
How, then, did Auerbach keep the Royals from drafting Bill Russell? He got Celtics’ owner Walter Brown, who was also president of the Ice Capades, to offer some sort of preferential booking for the ice show.
So, Red got Bill Russell for the Ice Capades.
Even Auerbach considered the Russell deal his number one piece of, shall we say, chicanery.
The Cousy trade.
For about a century, the standard contract of an American professional athlete included the words “The club shall have the right to renew this contract for a period of one year.”
This infamous "reserve clause" had historically been interpreted in such a way that a player’s athletic skill (as opposed to his coaching or scouting acumen, for example) automatically and in perpetuity remained the club’s property—even in retirement.
In the fall of 1969, Cincinnati Royals' rookie coach Bob Cousy decided that his backcourt of a 30-year-old Oscar Robertson, former All-Star MVP Adrian Smith, scrappy rookie Norm Van Lier and one of the van Arsdale twins needed the addition of his 41-year-old athletic skill.
GM Red Auerbach, trying to rebuild a championship team decimated by retirement, wanted something in return.
He received the rights to the injured Bill Dinwiddie, who would bring youth, athleticism, moderate basketball skill and a very stylish wardrobe to coach Tom Heinsohn’s new-look Celtics.
The Cooz played seven games for his Royals; when healthy a year later, Dinwiddie supplied about 12 minutes a game to a frontcourt built around rookie center Dave Cowens.
Ironically, about a decade or so later, Cowens decided to end his retirement to play for another former Celtic coach elsewhere (Don Nelson in Milwaukee). Auerbach’s compensation this time was an uninjured Quinn Buckner, which created a logjam in the Boston backcourt and ultimately some small bit of dissension.
The Deceptive Volley—“Wrongfooting,” as the Aussies Say
The Yankees and their $17 gazillion roster…
The Philadelphia Eagles’ “Dream Team”…
The talented fellows from South Beach…
Our sports keep reminding us that assembling the most gaudy and/or costly assets does not, in and of itself, lead to success.
There’s this thing called “smarts”—how you play the game.
Here’s a tale of two seasons that followed some “worst of times.”
The fall of 1979 introduced not only Bird and Magic to the NBA game, but also the three-point field goal.
A remodeled version of Mr. Auerbach’s squad featured a new coach, a rejuvenated point guard and a willingness to utilize the latest wrinkle in the game’s fabric.
No other team shot “threes” more efficiently than Boston’s 38 percent, a full 10 percent above the league average, and only one team (ironically former owner Irv Levin’s San Diego Clippers) shot and/or made more.
307 of the 422 attempts were launched by guard Chris Ford (.427) or Bird (.406), who placed second and third in the league in accuracy.
The Celtics placed seventh in overall FG percentage (up from 15th in ’78-’79) and sixth in FT attempts (up from 12th).
Cedric Maxwell led the league in FG percentage, Tiny Archibald was No. 2 in assists, and the team’s victory total climbed from 29 to 61.
The new season brought some added post presence, namely Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, and a somewhat revised philosophy of offense.
While Ford and the young Birdman remained the team’s most prolific three-point launchers, the ’80-’81 Celtics reduced their attempts by a whopping 43 percent. And while the squad’s three-point success rate dipped to 27 percent—still above the league average—their overall FG percentage nudged over 50, good for third in the league.
Maxwell slipped to third in marksmanship, Archibald to fifth in assists, but…
When for the second consecutive season Bird and the rest of Red’s boys found themselves in a 3-1 hole to the star-studded Philadelphia 76ers, they roared back to win the next three games by a combined five points.
The six-game championship series victory over Houston, whose Moses Malone-less Eastern Conference outfit the C’s had swept the year before, seemed anti-climactic.
As kids, we’ve been taught that “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”
Mr. Auerbach and his minions showed us that how you play the game determines whether you win or lose.
Or, as a raunchy old tune puts it: "It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion!"
Coaching, in the end, is about communicating. If you can’t get your players to respect you and buy into what you’re telling them, you don’t win—with or without talent. If you can get through to them, you win—providing you have talent. —Let Me Tell You a Story
The Second Serve
The Drafting Of Dave Cowens.
The 1970 NBA Draft yielded 10 champions and half a dozen Hall of Famers, not to mention three first-round picks from Ivy League schools. (Geoff Petrie of Princeton was co-Rookie of the Year with Red’s guy.) Twenty-one players from that draft class logged at least 400 career games.
|Nate Archibald||'81 Celtics, HOF||Rd.2, Royals|
|Jim Ard||'76 Celtics||Rd.1, Sonics|
|Dennis Awtry||'79 Sonics||Rd.3, 76ers|
|Dan Issel||'75 Kentucky (ABA), HOF||Rd.8, Pistons|
|George "Swat" Johnson||'75 Warriors||Rd.5, Bulls|
|John Johnson||'79 Sonics||Rd.1, Cavs|
|Jim McMillian||'72 Lakers (Ivy Leaguer)||Rd.1, Lakers|
|Billy Paultz||'74 NY Nets (ABA)||Rd.7, Rockets|
|Charlie Scott||'76 Celtics||Rd.7, Celtics|
The non-titled HOFers?
|Bob Lanier||Rd.1, Pistons|
|Pete Maravich||Rd.1, Hawks|
|Calvin Murphy||Rd.2, Rockets|
Oh, and, of course, Red's guy.
|Dave Cowens||'74, '76 Celtics, HOF||Rd.1, Celtics|
Red’s connections in the game had put Cowens, playing at Florida State, on his radar, and the GM was impressed. Seminoles’ coach Hugh Durham was an old-school guy known for developing sound, well-rounded players.
Unfortunately for the school and team but to the advantage of the Celtics, FSU was ineligible for postseason play in 1970, so Dave’s unique mix of quickness, strength and passion remained relatively unnoticed.
An urban legend, never documented, related that Red was in attendance at a pre-draft workout, waited until Cowens had committed a couple of mishaps, then loudly pronounced, “The kid can’t play!” while walking out.
In his 1986 autobiography, On and Off the Court, Red claims to have scouted Cowens during an FSU game and left soon after halftime, hoping not to reveal his interest.
After the selections of Lanier, Rudy Tomjanovich and Maravich with the first three picks, Red had his man.
Russell himself put the final stamp of approval on his successor shortly after the draft, again from On & Off the Court:
Red, you’ve got a great one there. I talked with him and I looked into his eyes. Believe me I know. This kid’s going to be something.
And something indeed he was—an ideal mix of quickness and strength, with absolute springs for legs.
He was skilled and schooled enough to switch out on just about any perimeter player in the game at the time, as he famously showed against Oscar Robertson in the 1974 Finals.
And he simply jumped higher, more quickly and more aggressively than any post player in the game at the time.
If he didn’t actually invent it, Cowens was the first guy to really utilize a “jump hook” in his post-up game—instead of jumping off one foot and sweeping his arm through the shot (a la Kareem’s sky hook), Dave simply jumped straight up off both feet and flipped the ball to the goal. Pretty easy pickings for anybody with reasonably good touch.
At his best, particularly the 68-win, MVP season of 1972-73, no one in the league could handle him. The unique skills of future teammate Bob McAdoo of Buffalo were about the only enigma in Big Red’s world in those halcyon days.
Alas, such excellence elicited a high price, from his famous leave of absence in 1977, to a body that simply broke down on him before he was 30.
The Steady Groundstroke
That Washington kid (from D.C., too).
Who ever said, “No good deed goes unpunished”?
Consider this story: The school’s starting center and his girlfriend/wife-to-be, Pat, see her friend Nancy home from a campus social function. (And who says chivalry is dead?)
Invited inside, he notices several family pictures and wonders…but, in the blink of an eye, Nancy’s dad, Red Auerbach himself, is walking into the room.
Half a decade or so later, in December of 1977, Kermit Washington’s promising pro career, though not his relationship with Auerbach, was on hold—the consequence of an instinctive, but horrific, not-so-good deed in a much more public forum, a right hand that almost killed Rudy Tomjanovich. (John Feinstein’s The Punch, which includes the above college anecdote, is a recommended read, ladies and gentlemen!)
Even before NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien and commissioner-to-be David Stern handed down the unprecedented two-month suspension, Red had phoned O’Brien on behalf of the chivalrous young man who’d worked at his summer camp.
But, Red being Red, he wasn’t being merely altruistic.
Lakers’ owner Jack Kent Cooke was looking to divest himself of a PR liability, and the Celtics had one too many egos in their own backcourt.
Knowing Cooke wouldn’t make a deal with him, Auerbach sent owner Irv Levin to:
Tell Cooke that he was sick and tired of Auerbach making all the trades and taking all the credit for everything the Celtics did…"Jack, I want to make a deal just you and me…You give me Washington, I’ll give you [Charlie] Scott. You get rid of your headache, I get rid of mine. Then I can go back and tell Red, “I made a deal without consulting you and the hell with you."
Two days after Christmas, and by Feinstein’s account without the knowledge of Laker basketball execs Jerry West and Bill Sharman, that very deal (Boston got old friend Don Chaney as a bonus) occurred.
Due in large part to the work of the late, great Pete Newell, Washington learned the pro game in Los Angeles, but he and Pat never were comfortable with its celebrity lifestyle. In an account from David Halberstam’s classic, The Breaks of the Game:
[Kermit and Pat] had, in accord with that local custom whereby film stars and athletic stars are gathered and mixed, been invited to the home of one of the great movie actors of our time. Everyone there, it seemed, was sniffing coke and offering some to Kermit. He was terrified, had waited some ten minutes and then had grabbed his wife. “Come on, Pat,” he had said, “we’re in the wrong party in the wrong house.”
Celtic tradition and the watchful eye of a concerned mentor proved the right formula to get Washington’s body and game back in shape, even though his career path remained unsettled. Moves to San Diego (as part of the Levin-John Y. Brown franchise transfer) and ultimately to Portland (as compensation for the Clippers’ signing of Bill Walton) soon followed his one Celtic season.
About Washington’s “trade” to San Diego, Red wrote in his 1986 autobiography, Red Auerbach: On & Off the Court, “That was the first time in all my years in Boston that a player transaction had been made without my knowledge.” (In The Punch, Feinstein intimates that David Stern initially suggested the franchise swap to Levin, apparently an apt pupil at the Auerbach School of Diplomacy.)
While Kermit Washington’s 52-game Celtic career may appear to be a mere footnote to an unsuccessful season, it speaks volumes about Red Auerbach the man.
Bonus Stroke: The Overhead Smash with Evil Intent
Setting aside one’s own feelings or desires in order to accommodate somebody else.
That’s what Bob Knight did when his old friend and mentor Red Auerbach asked him to sit for an interview with John Feinstein for Let Me Tell You a Story. The two had openly feuded for more than 15 years, since the publication of the iconic Season on the Brink, Feinstein’s brutally honest account of Indiana’s 1985-86 season.
At the conclusion of the 2003 interview when Feinstein thanked him, the old coach, none too surprisingly, got in the last word:
No, I should thank you. I don’t get many chances to do something for Red. I’m glad to have had the chance. It means a lot to me.