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Red Auerbach Dies at 89
Celtics Patriarch 'Invented Professional Basketball'

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.

In the late 1970s, as general manager and team president, Auerbach engineered the drafting of Larry Bird, which led to three additional NBA titles for the Celtics in the 1980s. As either coach or executive, Auerbach had a hand in 16 NBA championships in 29 years.

Defining his secret to coaching in a 2004 book co-written with Feinstein, "Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game," Auerbach said: "Players are people, not horses. You don't handle them. You work with them, you coach them, you teach them, and, maybe most important, you listen to them."

He constantly impressed on his players -- and on his entire sport -- the importance of solid fundamental skills and unselfish team play. Through the force of his personality, and his refusal to countenance losing, Auerbach instilled a strong, indomitable ethos that characterized the Celtics for decades.

"I teach my players not to accept the philosophy that being a sore loser is a bad thing," he said. "Only losers accept losing."

'Look and Act Like Champions'

Arnold Jacob Auerbach was born Sept. 20, 1917, in Brooklyn, N.Y. His nickname was derived from his red hair before he went bald.

As a boy, he worked in his father's dry-cleaning shop, pressing up to 100 pairs of pants a day. But he was drawn to sports early in life.

Auerbach was a tough playground competitor who went on to be captain of his high school basketball team and president of his senior class. He liked to boast that he was a second-team all-Brooklyn player, noting that in his day Brooklyn had more good basketball players than could be found in some entire states.

After one year at Seth Low Junior College in Brooklyn, he transferred to George Washington University in 1937 -- and made Washington his home ever since.

At a stocky 5 feet 10, Auerbach was not a particularly gifted athlete. In his 1985 autobiography "On and Off the Court," he explained how he was able to make the starting lineup at George Washington: "The answer was defense. I was all over them like a blanket, hounding them every step, shutting them off every chance I got. Naturally, they didn't like that, so one thing led to another and before you knew it, fists were flying."

In his senior season at George Washington, he was the team's starting point guard and its leading scorer, averaging 10.6 points a game. He graduated in 1940 with a degree in physical education and a minor in biology and, the following year, received a master's degree in education from George Washington.

But his most valuable education came at the feet of his basketball coach, Bill Reinhart. Auerbach said he learned more about basketball from Reinhart than from anyone else. He studied Reinhart's fast-break offense, his emphasis on defensive play and his way of managing practices.

In 1940 and '41, when Auerbach was in graduate school at GW, he had his first coaching job, leading the basketball team at St. Albans School. From 1941 to 1943, he taught history and hygiene at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington and coached the basketball and baseball teams.

He entered the Navy in 1943 and was assigned to the Norfolk Naval Base, where he directed the sports program. Among the athletes stationed there was New York Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto, who told Auerbach that manager Joe McCarthy believed a team's demeanor away from the field of play affected its performance on it.

"I remember thinking right there," Auerbach wrote in his autobiography, "that if I ever go to the professional coaching level, I wanted my ballclubs to look and act like champions, too."

After completing his military service at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Auerbach got his chance to coach a professional team in 1946, with the fledgling Washington Capitols in the first season of the Basketball Association of America. Stocked with military stars Auerbach had recruited, the Caps went 49-11 in their inaugural season.

After leaving the Capitols in 1949 in a contract dispute, Auerbach spent three months as an assistant coach at Duke University before signing on as coach of one of the original NBA franchises, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks (Moline and Rock Island, Ill., and Davenport, Iowa). In 1950, eager to return to the East Coast, he became coach of the struggling Boston Celtics.

Before he had coached a single game, Auerbach made NBA history by selecting Chuck Cooper of Duquesne University in the second round of the league's annual player draft. Cooper was the first African American player chosen to play in the NBA.

In the 1950s, the future of the Celtics, or of the NBA for that matter, was hardly secure. Seven of the league's 17 franchises folded during the 1950-51 season, and by 1955 the NBA was reduced to eight teams. Auerbach sometimes paid the Celtics' travel costs out of his own pocket.

For years, the Celtics wore black sneakers when every other team in the NBA wore white. The reason? They didn't show dirt and wouldn't need to be replaced as often.

In his first six seasons, Auerbach did not have a losing season, but the Celtics failed to win a championship. To bolster his team's fortunes, he was determined to draft Russell, who was recommended by Reinhart, Auerbach's former GW coach.

To acquire Russell, who had led the University of San Francisco to two consecutive NCAA championships, Auerbach engaged in calculated maneuverings. First, he traded two of his better players, Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan, to the St. Louis Hawks for the second pick in the 1956 player draft.

Then, to prevent the Rochester Royals -- who held the first choice in the draft -- from selecting Russell, Auerbach turned to the Celtics' owner, Walter Brown, who also owned the Ice Capades. Brown arranged for a weeklong engagement of the ice show in Rochester, and in return the Royals agreed to allow the Celtics to sign Russell, who would anchor their championship teams for more than decade.

In Russell's rookie season, the Celtics won their first NBA title, defeating St. Louis in the decisive seventh game of their championship series, 125-123 in double overtime. During the series, Auerbach was fined $300 for throwing a punch at the Hawks' owner, Ben Kerner, during an argument about the height of the baskets. (During his career, he was fined $17,000 for his petulance.)

The Celtics lost to the Hawks in 1958, then reeled off eight straight championships from 1959 through 1966. Four times during the 1960s, the Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, launching a heated rivalry that would last for decades. Auerbach's teams reached the seventh, and final, game of the NBA playoffs eight times -- and never lost.

After the Celtics beat the Lakers in overtime to win the NBA championship in 1966, Auerbach retired after 16 years as coach. As his surprise successor, he named Russell, who became the first black coach in NBA history. After a one-year lapse, the Celtics won the NBA title in 1968 and 1969 under Russell.

One reason Auerbach retired at the age of 48 was that he had grown weary of the burden that came with being the combative coach of a dynastic team. Everywhere the Celtics played, opposing players and fans provoked the team with insults and rough play.

"At the end of Red's career as a coach, it got real bad," Havlicek told The Washington Post. "Guys would come out and spit at him. I remember a guy spit on him and Red blasted him. He broke the guy's glasses and knocked his tooth out. . . . Red was taking abuse everywhere he went. He needed police escorts."

During his 17 years as coach, Auerbach had complete control of the Celtics both on and off the court. He never had an assistant. (Modern NBA teams often have as many as six assistant coaches.) He was general manager and scout; he drafted players and made trades; and he led the team's short but exhausting practice sessions, which seldom lasted more than 45 minutes or an hour.

Besides the fast-break running game, Auerbach installed a simplified offense with only seven basic plays, each with several options. In 1957, he began to use Ramsey as his "sixth man," a tactic that reached its apotheosis with Havlicek in the 1960s. His greatest strength lay in his ability to motivate his players, through fear if necessary, and by appealing to their personal pride.

"He yelled at the top of his lungs for the guys he thought needed it or could take it," Havlicek said, "and in a regular, calm voice for others. He gave everyone the confidence they needed to do it year after year."

His only rule was that a player could not eat pancakes on the day of a game.

Auerbach put little stock in statistics, believed cheerleaders had no place in professional sports and always found ways to blend the disparate talents of his players into a cohesive, well-rounded unit. During their championship run, the Celtics seldom had any players in the top 10 in scoring in the league.

"Our pride was never rooted in statistics," Auerbach wrote in his autobiography. "Our pride was in our identity as the Boston Celtics."

Rebuilding a Dynasty

After his retirement as coach, Auerbach still remained in control of the Celtics, directing the personnel moves, drafts and trades. He hired and fired coaches and, in the late 1970s, practically forced the dismissal of the team's principal owner, John Y. Brown, by threatening to join the rival New York Knicks. Brown sold his share of the team and later became governor of Kentucky.

In one of his smartest moves, Auerbach drafted Bird, an Indiana State University star, in 1978, a year before he left college. Auerbach knew that Bird was eligible for the draft because he had spent part of a year at another university. Bird joined the Celtics in 1979.

Auerbach also engineered trades that brought Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to Boston. Together with Bird, they formed the core of the Celtics teams that won NBA championships in 1981, 1984 and 1986.

Long after handing over the coaching duties, Auerbach attended every home game and protected the Celtics' legacy with a proprietary pride.

"Auerbach alone was the Celtics -- substance and continuity, heart and soul," Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1982.

Still, he never lost his fiery competitive spirit. In 1984, during a fight between the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, he ran from the stands and challenged 6-foot-10 Sixers star Moses Malone to a fight: "Go on, hit me, you S.O.B.!"

Auerbach was 66 at the time.

In the early 1990s, he began to cede some authority in running the team, and in 1997 he lost his title as team president when Rick Pitino was named coach and chief of basketball operations. When Pitino proved to be a failure as a professional coach and left the Celtics in 2001, Auerbach got his title back. He made the trip to Boston less often, but he closely followed his team and remained an astute judge of players and coaches.

Auerbach lived in Washington, his wife's home town, throughout his career because it allowed him to keep his professional and personal lives separate.

"If we lived in the town where I coached," he said, "two things would happen: I'd end up bringing the family's problems to practice and the team's problems into our home. Without that solitude and concentrated time, I'm not sure that we could have accomplished all we did."

A Lasting Impression

As time went on, Auerbach's remarkable coaching achievements -- nine championships in 10 seasons -- began to acquire the patina of legend, and he mellowed into something of a grand old sage of basketball. In 1980, he was named the greatest coach in NBA history by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America.

His career total of 938 regular season victories was finally surpassed in 1995 by Lenny Wilkens -- who needed six more years than Auerbach to reach the mark. In 2002, Phil Jackson, coach of the Chicago Bulls and later the Los Angeles Lakers, equaled Auerbach's record of nine NBA championships.

Auerbach kept a hand in running the Celtics until the end of his life. After surgery for colon cancer in the summer of 2005, he recovered in time to go to Boston for the Celtics' opening game of the NBA season in October.

In Washington, he held a weekly 11 a.m. luncheon at a restaurant in Chinatown, dispensing wisdom and insights to a carefully chosen group of coaches, sportswriters and other friends. Items gleaned from these gatherings formed the basis of his final book, "Let Me Tell You a Story," written with Feinstein in 2004.

Auerbach was a longtime member of the Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, where he played tennis and cards several times a week. His wife of 59 years, Dorothy Lewis Auerbach, died in 2000. His younger brother Zangfeld Auerbach, a cartoonist at the old Washington Star and a fixture at his brother's Tuesday luncheons, died in 2003.

Survivors include two daughters, Nancy Auerbach Collins and Randy Auerbach; one granddaughter, Julie Auerbach Fleiger; one great-grandson, Peter Auerbach Fleiger; and two great-granddaughters, Hope and Noelle Fleiger.

Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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