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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Auerbach's Celtics played as a team
By Lisette Hilton
Special to ESPN.com
Red Auerbach's coaching philosophy was simple: Only one statistic mattered. At the end of the game, he wanted the number next to his team to be greater than that next to his opponent. The individual players weren't the ones who made the difference. It was the team as a whole. Just being a member of a winning team was part of the Auerbach mystique.
He retired as the winningest coach in NBA history with 938 victories (against 479 defeats) in his 20-year career, the last 16 with the Celtics. Boston fans reveled when Auerbach lit a cigar to signify that another victory was secure.
Probably his most notable attribute was that Auerbach was colorblind. He didn't see black or white players on the court; he just saw players who could help him win. In 1950, he became the first to draft an African-American: Chuck Cooper, a second-team All-American from Duquesne, in the second round.
He was first to start five blacks and first to hire a black coach (Bill Russell) in the NBA. He also hired two other African-American coaches after Russell stepped down - Satch Sanders and K.C. Jones, both former Celtics.
Regarded as a coaching genius, he was known for picking the right players, coaching them and keeping them in line with his system. Employing a fastbreak that often led to easy baskets, he ran only seven basic set plays throughout his Celtics coaching career.
Arnold Auerbach was born on Sept. 20, 1917 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of hard-working immigrants from Minsk, Russia. His father, Hyman, had left Russia when he was 13 and migrated to Brooklyn. When Auerbach was born, his father and American-born mother Marie owned a deli in Brooklyn.
Auerbach started playing basketball at P.S. 122 in Brooklyn and became a star guard for Eastern District High School, making all-scholastic second team as a senior. While Hyman wasn't crazy about his son going into basketball, he didn't hold him back once he saw that Red had made up his mind.
Auerbach longed to be a teacher and coach. After a year at Seth Low Junior College, the Brooklyn arm of Columbia University, he transferred to George Washington University, where he was a standout basketball player. Auerbach left George Washington in 1941 with an M.A., to go with the bachelor's degree he had earned earlier at the school.
Auerbach got his coaching wings at St. Albans Prep School and Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., before serving in the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1946.
He came out of the service and began his professional coaching career with the Washington Capitols, piloting the team to a league-best 49-11 regular-season record in 1946-47, the first campaign of the Basketball Association of America (the forerunner of the NBA).
Washington went 28-20 and 38-22 the next two seasons before Auerbach left in a contract dispute. As coach of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in 1949-50, it was the only time an Auerbach team had a losing record (29-35). He quit the Blackhawks when he found out that the owner, Ben Kerner, made a trade without letting Auerbach in on it.
Boston owner Walter Brown needed a coach in 1950 after the Celtics finished last in the East with a 22-46 record. Not knowing much about basketball, he had an informal advisory board make a recommendation. The board's conclusion: Auerbach was the best coach available.
Auerbach's areas of expertise were spotting talent and getting the most of his players. He said that his kind of player had the ability to absorb coaching. He wanted a kid "who was great yet never stopped being nice." Examples in his career with the Celtics, as either a coach or in the front office, are Russell, Bob Cousy, Larry Bird, Frank Ramsey, Tommy Heinsohn, Sam Jones, John Havlicek and Dave Cowens.
Most coaches view the starting five as their best players. Auerbach looked to his finishers - those who played when the game was on the line.
The "sixth" man (the first player off the bench) was another Auerbach tactic. While other teams' players were getting tired, Auerbach's fresh reserve was expected to provide a boost. The sixth man became a prestigious assignment in Boston, with Ramsey being the first to star in the assignment.
Auerbach said that the Celtics represent a philosophy that in its simplest form maintains that victory belongs to the team. "Individual honors are nice, but no Celtic has ever gone out of his way to achieve them," he said. "We have never had the league's top scorer. In fact, we won seven league championships without placing even one among the league's top 10 scorers. Our pride was never rooted in statistics."
In his first six seasons the Celtics, led by Cousy's playmaking, were entertaining and good but not great. In the playoffs, they fizzled, going 10-17.
The 6-foot-9½ center was the cornerstone of Auerbach's success with his rebounding (and throwing the outlet pass) and defense. In Russell's rookie year, Auerbach and the Celtics won their first NBA title. With Russell and two other rookies, Heinsohn and Ramsey, playing prominent roles, they defeated the Hawks, 125-123, in double overtime in Game 7 of the Finals.
After being defeated in the 1958 Finals by the Hawks (when Russell was injured), Auerbach would never lose the last game of the season again.
In 1959, the Celtics swept the Minneapolis Lakers in four games in the Finals, the first of the eight consecutive championships. They defeated the Hawks the next two seasons and the Los Angeles Lakers the following two. Then it was the San Francisco Warriors and the Lakers again.
In January of 1966, Auerbach announced he was retiring as coach after the season.
The last title came in April when the Celtics defeated the Lakers 95-93 in Game 7 in a contest that wasn't as close as the score indicates. It came 10 days after Auerbach announced that Russell would be his successor as coach.
From 1966-84, in his role as general manager, Auerbach's Celtics won another six championships. In 1984, he retired as GM but remained the team's president, with the Celtics winning their 16th title in 1986. Today, Auerbach is vice chairman of the board.
Auerbach has been honored often. In 1968, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Thirteen years later, he was named NBA Executive of the Year. He is a member of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Auerbach's view of competition was summed up when he said, "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser."
With that attitude, it's no surprise Red Auerbach is a winner, the best coach ever in the NBA.
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