Coach Red Auerbach passes
Red Auerbach, the greatest coach in NBA history and a racial pioneer who drafted the first black player, named the first black coach in any professional sport league and started the first all-black lineup in NBA history, died last week from an apparent heart attack. He was 89 years old.
A combative, competitive and often outrageous force, Auerbach coached the Celtics to nine NBA championships, eight of them consecutively from 1959 to 1966, and built another six championship teams as the Celtics general manager. As team president, he oversaw a final one, in 1986. That team featured Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
And after each one, he lit his trademark cigar.
Among his great achievements was in 1956 when he drafted Bill Russell out of the University of San Francisco. Russell redefined the center position, and with dribbling wizard Bob Cousy and sharpshooter Bill Sharman, Russell provided the backbone to an NBA dynasty.
Auerbach had already made history during his first NBA coaching season in 1950. He drafted Chuck Cooper of Duquesne University as the first black player selected in the NBA draft.
During the 1963-64 season, the Celtics became the first NBA team to start a game with an all black line up, featuring Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Tom Sanders and Willie Naulls. When Auerbach named Russell as his coaching successor, it was the first time a black had become a coach of an American professional sports team.
“The game was my livelihood, my whole guts,” he said in “Red Auerbach: An Autobiography,” written with Boston Herald columnist Joe Fitzgerald. “I had to win. I wanted to be good in whatever I did. I wanted to be the very best teacher I possibly could be. I wanted to be the very best player I could possibly be. And I wanted to be the very best coach I could possibly be. Could I be a good coach and lose? To me, that’s like asking if a guy can be a good doctor even though his patients keep dying.”
More than anything else, he believed that teams, not individuals, won championships.
Auerbach defined his secret of coaching in a 2004 book co-written with sports writer John Feinstein, “Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the game.” “Players are people, not horses,” Auerbach said. “You don’t handle them. You work with them, you coach them, you teach them, and maybe, most important, you listen to them.”
In all, Auerbach was responsible for the careers of 14 Hall of Famers. More than 30 players ended up in coaching jobs, and three of them would later win Coach of the Year honors.
Wayne Embry, a former Celtics center and later coach and NBA executive, once told the Chicago Tribune that Auerbach “wanted everybody to know that when they put on a Celtics uniform, they were part of a tradition, something that was worth working for. He’d bark and growl at his players, but there was always a reason for it, and they got the message. On the Celtics, you accepted your role and took pride in being the best.”
Arnold Auerbach was born Sept. 20, 1917 in Brooklyn, the second of four children of Hyman Auerbach, who ran a dry cleaning business in Brooklyn. A 5 foot 10 inch guard, he played basketball at Eastern District High School in Brooklyn and at George Washington University. While a graduate student at George Washington, he landed his first head-coaching job at St. Albans, a Washington D.C. prep school.
Auerbach is survived by daughters, Nancy Auerbach Collins and Randy Auerbach, a granddaughter and three great-grandchildren. His wife Dorothy died in 2000.
In January 1985, Auerbach was honored at the old Boston Garden. Celtics players from four decades of Auerbach teams surrounded him in a circle on the parquet floor, and a banner was hoisted with a symbolic No. 2.
In the words of Feinstein, Auerbach was “the man who, for all intents and purposes, invented professional basketball.”