The Real Deal in So Many Ways

Bill Russell, left, and Red Auerbach celebrated Russell's 10,000th career point in a game against the Bullets, Dec. 12, 1964.
Bill Russell, left, and Red Auerbach celebrated Russell's 10,000th career point in a game against the Bullets, Dec. 12, 1964. (Associated Press Photo)

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By Michael Wilbon
Monday, October 30, 2006

In 1956, the Boston Celtics traded Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley to the St. Louis Hawks for the rights to the No. 2 pick in the college draft, where they selected a kid who had led his team to 55 straight victories and two NCAA championships, who averaged 28 points and 29 rebounds his senior year, a kid who turned out to be Bill Russell.

In 1978, while Larry Bird was a junior at Indiana State, the Celtics drafted him even though he was returning to school for his senior season.

In 1980, the Celtics traded the No. 1 pick in the draft to the Golden State Warriors for a package that would turn out to be Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, who would join Bird to form probably the greatest front line in NBA history.

Completing any one of those deals puts you at the top of your sport.

Making all three of those deals, as Red Auerbach did as boss of the Celtics, makes you a legend, someone to be loved, hated, envied, studied and ultimately treasured. There will never, ever be anyone like Auerbach again.

Never again will a man coach and build 16 championships in a major sport in one lifetime. No one man will impact the game of basketball, on the court, the way Auerbach did as coach and boss of the Celtics.

He was John Wooden and Branch Rickey, with a touch of Vince Lombardi for good measure.

If all Auerbach had done was make the aforementioned deals and win those nine championships as head coach, it would have been enough to make him the greatest coach in the history of professional basketball. His teams won those nine championships without a league scoring champ, with players such as K.C. Jones and Satch Sanders who were paid primarily to play defense, with great players such as John Havlicek coming off the bench. That's enough of a contribution right there, actually more than should be expected of any one coach.

But Auerbach had to go and have a spine, too. He drafted the first African American player (Chuck Cooper). Auerbach was the first to start five black players. Auerbach, when he retired, essentially picked Russell to coach the Celtics, making him the first black head coach in modern American professional sports. Auerbach was doing this, mind you, in a city very often openly hostile to blacks, a city heading into racial upheaval. "Red, to me, was colorblind," former Celtic Kermit Washington said last night in a telephone conversation. "He just didn't care. If you were purple and from Mars and gave an effort, Red was fine. There were a lot of things going on in Boston then. But Red was such a strong personality. He didn't answer to anybody. I think he always knew that if he won, he wouldn't have to answer to anybody. He was a tough, tough man."

Washington, like Auerbach, was a Washingtonian. "I went to American University with his daughter Randy," Washington said. "He was always so kind to me. Some other guys I grew up with in D.C., Adrian Dantley and James Brown, we'd go up and work as camp counselors for Red [in suburban Boston]."

Everybody who hung around basketball circles, particularly in Washington and Boston, has an Auerbach story. The man lived 89 years. You could find him pretty easily, perhaps at a George Washington game at Smith Center, maybe having lunch in Chinatown on Tuesdays. Washington's story is fascinating because he was at the center of the most unfortunate incident in NBA history, the punch that shattered Rudy Tomjanovich's face.

"When they were going to throw me out of the league," Washington said, "Red really stuck up for me. I was really, really ostracized. And Red told Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe that people should give me a chance, that he'd known me since I was a teenager and that he knew me to be a good kid. Red's word was gospel in Boston, and that story was in the Globe. People gave me a chance in Boston, and it was because of Red. You give him an effort and he loved you. He didn't care about points. He didn't care about the exact number of rebounds. He cared about effort. And he didn't want false effort. He hated that . . . diving on a ball out of bounds you had no chance to save. Red and Pete Newell really stood up for me at a difficult time.

"I'd go by and see him. He had an office right near AU. I hadn't talked to him in a couple of months, but we all knew he wasn't very well. He was good to all of us, all the kids in D.C. You know, Red would sound surly, but there were so many acts of kindness."

It was sometime in the early 1980s when my boss, George Solomon, who was then the sports editor of The Post, told me to call Red Auerbach about some issue or another. And he might as well have ordered me to call God. Red's number was listed in the phone book in those days, and while it took me half a week, I ultimately called and asked whatever questions I needed to have answered. I apologized for interrupting his evening at home and I'll never forget him saying, "Kid, if it's a choice between interrupting me or writing something stupid, call."

So, I did, often enough to learn stuff over the years but never so much he'd consider me a nuisance. Sometimes, you could ask one question and if it was the right one, maybe about Bird or Jordan or Barkley or Stockton, Red might talk for six minutes. Recently, the name Phil Jackson might elicit an answer twice that long, some of it funny and much of it less than flattering. If you wanted niceties, Red was the wrong guy to call. And for those of us who love basketball, it was as if we were talking to Moses. My friend Sam Smith, in Sunday's Chicago Tribune, called Auerbach, "the greatest non-playing figure in professional basketball history."

The stories coming out of Los Angeles and Philly and all the cities where the Celtics were despised cannot be written without mentioning that Auerbach 's cigar smoke could be very annoying, that he did devious things like cut off the hot water to the visiting locker room in Boston Garden, or remove some of the light bulbs or turn up the heat to the point of unbearable. The very mention of Len Bias's name turned his voice into a whisper. It was one of the very, very few moves that didn't turn out the way Auerbach thought it would.

Even so, it is impossible to imagine the NBA without Red Auerbach, the man who built the NBA's greatest dynasty, who on the Mount Rushmore of Coaches sits right there beside Wooden and Lombardi. Fortunately, the greatest contributor in the history of professional basketball has left his signature in enough places that it's not possible he'll ever be forgotten.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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