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RIP, Red Auerbach

NBA legend and Boston Celtics fixture Red Auerbach passed away over the weekend at the age of 89.

Arnold Jacob Auerbach was born on Sept. 20, 1917, the son of Marie Thompson and Hyman Auerbach, a Russian immigrant. Red grew up in the familiar and hardscrabble Brooklyn neighborhood called Williamsburg, where his father ran a dry cleaners. Red helped out with some of the pressing duties and also earned nickels washing taxi cabs. He was a teenager during the Depression, when unemployment in New York rose as high as 50 percent.

“I appreciated the fact that my father was a hard-working man,” Red once recalled, explaining his father’s influence. “Also that he was well liked.”

Auerbach gravitated to basketball because that’s what he had.

“In my area of Brooklyn there was no football, no baseball,” he said. “They were too expensive. They didn’t have the practice fields. We played basketball and handball and some softball in the street.”

[…]

In 1943 he enlisted in the Navy. By the time Auerbach was discharged in 1946, Walter Brown had helped start the Basketball Association of America. Mike Uline, owner of the Washington Caps, wanted to hire Auerbach as coach.

But Auerbach was married and soon to start a family, so the move was risky for him.

“I had a permanent job already, but I felt I could always get a job if it didn’t work out,” he recalled.

He took the job, filling a roster with the names of players he remembered from his days in the Navy. Red was only 29.

“Some of the guys on the team were older than me,” he said. “I just sold the guy a bill of goods to get the job. A lot of guys had better credentials.”

He paid no one on the team more than $8,500 and insisted on defense and conditioning from his players. In the 1946-47 season, his team finished 49-11. After three years of coaching the Washington Capitols and the Tri-Cities Blackhawks of Iowa in the BAA, and winning 143 of 225 games, he was hired by Brown to coach the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Brown was in debt and looking for a head coach for one last go-around with Boston.

Fortunately, Auerbach had Bob Cousy during his first year at the helm, helping him turn the Celtics from a 22-46 team in 1949 into a 39-30 team in 1950. Cousy was good right out of the box, scoring 15.6 points and averaging nearly five assists a game in his rookie year. But Auerbach almost didn’t get him.

Auerbach wasn’t short on opinions about who should play on his team.

“Am I supposed to win here, or take care of local yokels?” he asked, suggesting that Cousy was touted merely because he played at nearby Holy Cross.

Auerbach passed on Cousy in the draft, instead selecting 6-11 center Charlie Share. Local fans were irate. Due to outrageous fortune — several teams had folded — Brown offered Cousy $9,000 a year. He signed. Had Cousy taken umbrage at Auerbach’s “local yokel” remark and not signed, things might have turned out very differently. Celtic luck may have been born right there.

As former Celtics and Rockets coach Bill Fitch said, Auerbach was one of a kind. They don’t make them like him any more.

I grew up a Knicks fan, and though I’ve since adopted the Rockets as my team, to this day I despise the Celtics. It was ingrained with me as a kid. The reason why they’re worth hating after all these years is because of the success and the stature of Red Auerbach. It doesn’t matter that their last title was 1986. You just have to respect everything he did. I’ll always have some awe of that franchise because of him.

This Bill Simmons piece from 2002 gives you a great flavor of the man. He will indeed be missed. Rest in peace, Red Auerbach.

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2 Comments

  1. A book by Auerbach taught me the Xs and Os of the game as a kid and greatly influenced me, actually. He’s the kind of figure who makes you want to take up cigars, not to smoke, just to hang onto and gesture with the way he did.

    What an icon for Boston, a genius coach, and from all appearances a good man. R.I.P., indeed.

  2. Tim says:

    My favorite Auerbach story revolves around acquiring Bill Russell for the Celtics. As I recall, Auerbach had some trusted contacts identify Russell as the one player he *had* to have to build his team for the future,

    Going to the Celtics owner, Auerbach managed to trade up to the #2 pick in the draft by giving up some of their better players at the time. But they wanted the #1 pick, and the Rochester Red Wings team holding that pick would not surrender it for any price.

    The owner of the Celtics was also chairman of the Ice Capades. While they couldn’t get the #1 pick, the Celts’ owner floated a different offer: If Rochester would not take Russell with the #1 pick, he would see to it that the Ice Capades would come to Rochester for a week. The Red Wings picked another player, and the Celtics got Russell.