Auerbach, Red (1917—)

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Auerbach, Red (1917—)

Boston Celtics coach Arnold "Red" Auerbach led his team to nine National Basketball Association championships, including an unprecedented eight consecutive wins (1959-1966) during the Celtics' run of eleven championships in thirteen years (1957-1969)—compare that to the Chicago Bulls' six out of eight streak in the 1990s—and introduced coaching innovations that became widespread in the NBA. One of the most enduring images in NBA history is that of Auerbach lighting a victory cigar on the team's bench once another Celtics' victory was safely in hand.

The son of Russian immigrants who settled in Brooklyn, New York, Auerbach devoted himself at an early age to basketball. He excelled as a high school player, eventually being named Second Team, All-Brooklyn during his senior year at Eastern District High School. After attending Seth Low Junior College in New York for two years, Auerbach earned a basketball scholarship to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. As a junior college transfer, Auerbach was joining a highly successful team at George Washington and had to fight, sometimes literally, for playing time. As he recounts in On and Off the Court, he asked himself "How the hell was I supposed to break in? 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."

Auerbach's service in the navy during World War II helped him gain his first professional coaching job. In 1946, the Basketball Association of America, a forerunner of today's NBA, was formed, consisting of eleven teams. According to Celtics historian Joe Fitzgerald in That Championship Feeling, because there was no provision for drafting players for the league's first season, each team had to come up with its own players. Auerbach, a "brash young kid" of twenty-nine, talked the owner of the Washington Capitols into hiring him as coach by convincing him that he could put together a team of former servicemen he knew.

In 1950, after brief stints coaching the BAA's Washington Capitols and the Tri-City Hawks, thirty-two-year-old Auerbach arrived in Boston, a team which had made the playoffs only once in its first four seasons and enjoyed little popularity in contrast to the city's beloved baseball Red Sox and hockey Bruins. At the same time, Boston acquired guard Bob Cousy, a local legend who had played college basketball at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Cousy, with Auerbach's encouragement, was known for his spectacular passing and "fast breaking" style. During Auerbach's first six seasons, due primarily to Cousy's efforts, the Celtics led the league in scoring every year but never won a championship.

It was the acquisition of center Bill Russell in 1956 which provided Auerbach's Celtics with what they had been missing: defense. Combining Russell's rebounding and shot-blocking with Cousy's offense, the Celtics won their first NBA championship in the 1956-1957 season, defeating the St. Louis Hawks in a decisive double overtime game to clinch the title. The Celtics failed to defend their championship the following season, losing in the finals to the same St. Louis team they had defeated the previous year, but began their eight-year, championship streak in 1959. Although Auerbach was just forty-seven years old in 1966, he decided to retire from coaching, as he felt worn out from the pressures of keeping his team at such a high level of performance over a long period of time.

As a coach, Auerbach made a number of innovations which were keys to the Celtics' immense success. Auerbach was one of the first to utilize so-called "role" players, meaning players who specialized in one or two aspects of the game, filling gaps which were essential to the team's success. Because of this philosophy, Auerbach put little stock in statistics, caring more about how well a player fit into his concept of what it took to ensure victory than about how many points he scored. Another of Auerbach's innovations was the use of the so-called "Sixth Man," which referred to a highly skilled reserve player who would come off the bench late in the first quarter of a game and provide a spark with instant scoring. The use of such players became so widespread that the NBA now offers an award to the player considered to be the best Sixth Man in the league. Finally, Auerbach had an uncanny ability to acquire players who were nearing the ends of their careers with other teams or had achieved bad reputations and use them to contribute to Boston championships. Cousy summed up Auerbach's coaching philosophy in Cousy on the Celtic Mystique: "With Red it was, What does it take to win? Find the talent, get them in shape, keep them motivated, and don't get fancy."

Auerbach's departure from coaching in 1966 did not, however, spell the end of his contribution to Boston's success. As the team's general manager, he made a number of farsighted deals which contributed to seven subsequent Boston championships between the late 1960s and mid-1980s. Perhaps his most celebrated move was his decision in 1978 to draft forward Larry Bird after his junior year in college, meaning that the Celtics had exclusive rights to the player after the completion of his senior season. Bird became one of the greatest players in NBA history, leading the Celtics to NBA championships in 1981, 1984, and 1986. Auerbach was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1968.

—Jason George

Further Reading:

Auerbach, Red, with Joe Fitzgerald. On and Off the Court. New York, MacMillan, 1985.

Cousy, Bob, and Bob Ryan. Cousy on the Celtic Mystique. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Fitzgerald, Joe T. That Championship Feeling: The Story of the Boston Celtics. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.

Ryan, Bob. The Boston Celtics: The History, Legends, and Images of America's Most Celebrated Team. Reading, Mass., Addison-Wesley, 1989.