Auerbach, Arnold ("Red")

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AUERBACH, Arnold ("Red")

(b. 20 September 1917 in Brooklyn, New York), longtime coach and general manager of the Boston Celtics whose team accumulated more championships than any previous team in the history of professional team sports.

Auerbach was the second of four children of Hyman Auerbach, who came to the United States as a teen from Minsk in Russia and operated a cleaning and drying plant, and Marie Thompson, a cashier. As a teen, steering clear of neighborhood gangs, Auerbach earned money by pressing pants and cleaning cab windows, and he helped out at home.

Auerbach showed athletic ability in elementary school, then he played varsity handball and basketball at Eastern District High School. He also was elected class president and was named to the All-Brooklyn second team. After graduating in 1935, he enrolled at Seth Lo Junior College, a Brooklyn branch of Columbia University, but was encouraged to transfer to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., by its basketball coach William J. Reinhardt. Auerbach played guard, and in his three years at George Washington his team went 38–19. Auerbach credited Reinhardt with inventing the fast break, in which the ball is rapidly passed back and forth without dribbling as the offensive players rush downcourt toward the basket. At George Washington, Auerbach met Dorothy Lewis, an education major, whom he married on 5 June 1941. They had two daughters.

In the spring of 1940 Auerbach was awarded a B.A. degree in physical education and then, in 1941, an M.A. degree. He joined the faculty of Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., where he taught history and hygiene and coached basketball and baseball. In the summer he officiated in playground basketball games. In May 1943 he joined the U.S. Navy. During his service he set up intramural sports programs for sailors and did rehabilitation work for the wounded in the Bethesda Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Upon his discharge in 1946 with the rank of ensign, Auerbach took interest in the newly formed Basketball Association of America and was hired, at a one-year salary of $5,000, to coach the Washington Capitals. A tactic he began using there and retained later was keeping one of the top five players on his team out of the starting lineup. He inserted that player at a strategic point when the opposing players were tiring. In the first season the Capitals finished 49–11 but were eliminated in the playoffs. In Auerbach's third season the Capitals started 15–0. Auerbach's three-year record with the Capitals was 115–63, but he quit when the owner Mike Uline refused to give him a three-year contract at the end of the period. After a brief stint as an assistant coach at Duke University, Auerbach took a two-year head coach position with the Moline Blackhawks of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the new name of the athletic association. Auerbach quit after one year when the owner Ben Kerner made a deal without consulting him.

Auerbach then began his long association with the Boston Celtics. When he was appointed head coach on 27 April 1950, the Celtics were a struggling franchise, but Auerbach drafted shrewdly. He selected the guard Bob Cousy from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1950 and the center Bill Russell, an intimidating defensive and rebounding genius, from the University of San Francisco in 1956. The acquisition of Russell was instrumental in turning the team around. Beginning with the 1956–1957 season, the Celtics won eight consecutive NBA championships and eleven in thirteen seasons.

So he could concentrate fully on basketball, Auerbach resided in the Lenox Hotel in Boston during the season, while his family lived in Washington, D.C. He kept total control; he had no assistant coaches. As a bench coach he missed only one game, to attend his father's funeral. He promoted a family-like atmosphere but treated the players as individuals. He used the forward Tommy Heinsohn as the whipping boy because he could take it, but he handled Russell with kid gloves. Scoring was spread evenly, so the Celtics never had a player among the league leaders in scoring. In practice Auerbach ran his team harder than the other coaches did theirs. Though often boorish in his own behavior, he demanded neatness in his players' attire off the court. On the court he insisted on low-cut dark sneakers in contrast to the high white ones favored by the rest of the league. A notorious referee baiter, Auerbach sometimes had himself ejected to motivate his team. When a win was assured in a game, he characteristically lit up his "victory" cigar. Altogether, including playoffs, Auerbach coached 1,585 NBA games, winning 1,037 of them. The Celtics became regarded as the elite NBA franchise.

In February 1966 Auerbach gave up his position as bench coach to become general manager. Russell succeeded him as coach and also played on two more championship teams. In his new position Auerbach took charge of acquiring new players and releasing others. Used to dealing directly with players, he was uncomfortable with the agents and demanding lawyers who were beginning to represent players. But in his appraisal of talent, Auerbach had no peer. When, because of mass retirements, the Celtics fell out of contention for the 1969–1970 season, he rebuilt the franchise by drafting the center and forward Dave Cowens. With Heinsohn as coach, the Celtics won titles in 1974 and 1976. After another dip, Auerbach again set up championships in 1981, 1984, and 1986 through the acquisition of one of the strongest fore-courts ever assembled, consisting of the forwards Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and the center Robert Parish. Altogether, as coach and general manager, Auerbach won an unprecedented sixteen championships.

Auerbach was instrumental in advancing the placement of black players. In April 1950 he drafted the NBA's first black player, Chuck Cooper from Duquesne University, and in 1965–1966 his Celtics featured the NBA's first all-black starting five. His skill in leadership apparently rubbed off, as his players went on to become coaches of the Celtics and other NBA teams. Besides Russell and Heinsohn, K. C. Jones, Cowens, Don Chaney, and Tom "Satch" Sanders coached the Celtics; Cousy coached the Cincinnati Royals; Larry Siegfried coached the Houston Rockets; Bill Sharman coached the Los Angeles Lakers; Don Nelson coached the Golden State Warriors; and Larry Bird coached the Indiana Pacers. Other players coached college teams.

Auerbach had a long career, achieved a remarkable winning record, displayed a colorful personality, and conducted clinics abroad for the State Department. He was the single person most responsible for spreading the fame of the NBA throughout the world during the first five decades of its existence.

Arnold "Red" Auerbach, Basketball for the Player, the Fan, and the Coach (1952), contains various ploys on how to increase the chances of winning, such as telling an opposing player he or she was lucky upon the completion of a good play. Dan Shaughnessy, The Red Auerbach Story: Seeing Red (1994), is valuable for its verbatim accounts of Cousy, Russell, Bird, Auerbach's daughter Randy, and others. See also Frank Deford, "A Man for All Seasons," Sports Illustrated (15 Feb. 1982).

Abraham A. Davidson

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Auerbach, Arnold ("Red")

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