Red Auerbach Dies at 89

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006

Red Auerbach, the outspoken and sometimes outrageous basketball coach who led the Boston Celtics to an unparalleled record of excellence in the 1950s and '60s, and who is acknowledged as one of the greatest coaches in professional sports history, died Oct. 28. He was 89.

Auerbach, who had surgery for colon cancer and had been hospitalized for respiratory problems in recent years, died of an apparent heart attack, according to his son-in-law, Reid Collins. Collins said Auerbach "fell ill suddenly" and was taken to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. Collins said hospital personnel did what they could but "by that time he had passed away."

His last public appearance was Wednesday, when he received the U.S. Navy's Lone Sailor Award in a ceremony in front of family and friends in Washington.

Auerbach's death was announced by the Celtics, with whom he was associated as a coach or team executive since 1950. For that entire time, even as he led his Boston squad to nine NBA championships in 10 seasons, he made his home in Washington.

His arrogance and pugnacity, symbolized by the cigar he would light when a Celtics victory was assured, made Auerbach one of the most reviled figures in the game. He sometimes brawled with opposing fans and, in at least one case, with another team's owner; he set records for suspensions and fines. Yet he was also revered as a brilliant sideline tactician who used his understanding of the physical and psychological makeup of his players -- and his opponents -- to his advantage.

His importance to the game of basketball cannot be overstated, and his contributions went far beyond the games on the court. Auerbach drafted the NBA's first African American player, named the first black coach in any professional sports league and had the first all-black starting lineup in NBA history. His coaching innovations were copied by others, and he helped define a style of play that has been emulated for decades.

In the words of sportswriter John Feinstein, Auerbach was "the man who, for all intents and purposes, invented professional basketball."

Auerbach began his professional coaching career in 1946 with the old Washington Capitols of the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner of the National Basketball Association, which was officially formed in 1949. He retired from coaching when he was 48, but his record of 938 regular season victories -- and an additional 99 wins in the playoffs -- was not surpassed for nearly 30 years.

He originated the concept of the sixth man, using a key reserve player to enter the game to give his team a lift when his opponents were tiring. He emphasized the fast-break offense, with lightning-strike attacks before the opposing team could retreat on defense. And, beginning with his own playing days at George Washington University, Auerbach employed a fierce, face-to-face style of defense that revolutionized the way basketball was played.

Auerbach's star player, and his successor as coach of the Celtics, Bill Russell, once said, "Red Auerbach is the best coach in the history of professional sports, period."

By common consent, Auerbach is ranked on a level with Vince Lombardi and Bear Bryant in football, Casey Stengel and John McGraw in baseball. His only rivals as a basketball coach are John Wooden, the architect of the collegiate dynasty at UCLA, and Phil Jackson, current coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, who has equaled Auerbach's total of nine NBA championships. The NBA Coach of the Year award is named in Auerbach's honor, even though he won it only once in his career, after he had already won eight league championships.

Through shrewd trades and player drafts, Auerbach molded his players into the ultimate team unit. The linchpin of those teams was Russell, a 6-foot-10 center and defensive stalwart who played on 11 championship teams in 13 years -- a record unmatched by any other player in team sports. Other stars during Auerbach's coaching tenure included playmaking guard Bob Cousy, defensive specialist K.C. Jones and shooting stars Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek -- all of whom are now enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

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