Auerbach, Arnold "Red"

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Arnold "Red" Auerbach


American basketball coach

As a coach and executive, Arnold "Red" Auerbach has directed the Boston Celtics to sixteen National Basketball Association (NBA) championships, the third most in North American professional team sports. Auerbach, inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, coached the Celtics to nine titles, including eight straight from 1959-66, and oversaw seven others as general manager and president. The NBA Coach of the Year trophy bears his name. Auerbach, whose Celtics coaching won-loss record was 1,037-548, is renowned for his headstrong personality, shrewd personnel moves and such strategic innovations as the "sixth man." He has survived transient and sometimes meddlesome ownership, and even coups within the Celtics organization.

Auerbach also selected the league's first African-American player (Chuck Cooper), appointed the first black coach in pro sports (Bill Russell ) and fielded the first all-black starting five. Auerbach often baited referees, and even got into a fistfight with an opposing team's owner. He celebrated his wins by lighting up a victory cigar. Auerbach also wrote several books, and was a frequent motivational speaker. He was stripped of his title as team president in 1997 when the Celtics named Rick Pitino head coach and chief of basketball operations, but the organization restored it in 2001 when Pitino left. In 2002, an 84-year-old Auerbach saw the Celtics reach the NBA's Eastern Conference playoff finals after having missed postseason play the previous six seasons. Bill Simmons, who interviewed Auerbach for in February, 2002, described Auerbach as "looking like a cross between the Celtics leprechaun, Yoda and God."

Born in Brooklyn

Auerbach grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, where football and baseball, he said, were too expensive. At Eastern District High

School, he made the All-Brooklyn second team his senior year. After one season at Seth Low Junior College in Brooklyn, Auerbach transferred to George Washington University. Auerbach lettered at GWU for three seasons, then coached in the Washington, D.C., area and served in the U.S. Navy.

Auerbach coached the Washington Capitals of the Basketball Association of America (precursor to the NBA), which began play in 1946. One year later, Auerbach coached in his first NBA championship, the Capitals losing 4 games to 2 to the Minneapolis (now Los Angeles) Lakers. He left Washington after a contract dispute and quit the Tri-Cities Blackhawks after only one season because the owner traded a player without consulting him.

Boston Era Begins

Celtics founder and owner Walter Brown named Auerbach coach for the 1950-51 season. Led by guard Bob Cousy , the Celtics improved from 22-46 to 39-30 in Auerbach's first year. Throughout the 1950s, Boston fielded winning teams but not a champion. The Celtics lacked a big man in the middle. Then, Auerbach made his first major personnel move. Coveting 6-foot-9 center Bill Russell, who led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA titles, Auerbach in 1956 traded all-star forward Ed Macauley and guard Cliff Hagan to St. Louis for the rights to draft Russell.

Trading two established players, one a star, for a collegiate prospect was a gamble. But the Celtics dynasty began with that deal. Russell's presence gave Boston a balanced lineup. The Celtics won their first championship the following season, defeating St. Louis, ironically, in a climactic seventh game in Boston, 125-123 in double overtime. After falling to the Hawks in the 1958 Finals with Russell injured, the Celtics won the next eight championships, still the record in pro sports. Auerbach gave up coaching in 1966 to become general manager and named Russell player-coachthe first African-American sports coach.

Other crafty deals by Auerbach included picking journeyman forward Don Nelson off the waiver wire for $100 in 1966 (Nelson helped the Celtics win five titles); trading the NBA rights to guard Charlie Scott of the rival American Basketball Association for power forward Paul Silas, only to reacquire Scott three years later (Silas and Scott were teammates on the 1976 title team); drafting Indiana State star Larry Bird in 1978, a year before Bird was available for the pros (Bird, who became one of basketball's all-time greats, carried Boston to three titles); and trading the unwanted Bob McAdoo to the Detroit Pistons in 1979 for two draft picks and the rights to M. L. Carr. (Boston sent those draft picks to the Golden State Warriors for center Robert Parish and a draft choice, which turned out to be Kevin McHale. Parish and McHale helped anchor the Celtics championship teams in the Bird era.)

Celtics Mystique

Auerbach, who espoused the team-first concept, realized synergies long before the word was in vogue. "He was known for picking the right players, coaching them and keeping them in line with his system," Lisette Hilton wrote on the ESPN Classic Web site.

For instance, Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors and 76ers (and later the Los Angeles Lakers), Russell's longtime rival at the center position, often outscored Russell head-to-head and had better individual statistics. But under Russell, the Celtics won eleven titles in thirteen years; Chamberlain was a champion but twice, and only once while Russell played.

"Our pride was never rooted in statistics," Auerbach once said. He would on occasion, however, play the numbers game as a form of one-upmanship. In the mid-1960s he announced the signing of Russell to a contract that paid $1 more than Chamberlain (and enabled Russell to talk his way out of a $2 fine for arriving late to a practice).

Auerbach also mixed in the likes of gritty forwards Tom Heinsohn and Jim Loscutoff; guard K.C. Jones, a college teammate of Russell's who became one of the NBA's premier defensive guards; and backcourt man Sam Jones (no relation to K.C.) out of unheralded North Carolina A&T, referred to Auerbach by word of mouth. Cerebral forward-guard John Havlicek and forward Tom Sanders integrated nicely with Auerbach's system; Havlicek, best known for stealing the ball to save a playoff series against Philadelphia in 1965, achieved legendary status over his sixteen years.

Auerbach's "sixth man" was first substitute. He did not always start the best five players; the most suitable five, however, finished, the first reserve often among them. Frank Ramsey was the first sixth manlater, Havlicek, McHale and Bill Walton filled those roles capably under Auerbach and subsequent coaches.

"When I came to the Celtics there was this Celtic mystique. And I was one of the few skeptics," said Silas, who came to Boston in 1973 and played on two champions (and a third in Seattle). "I went up to Red and said, 'Now I understand what the Celtic mystique is.'"

"Hey, I made my share of mistakes," Auerbach told Simmons. "One time I drafted a kid named Bill Green, helluva player but he wouldn't fly! There was no way he could play in the league."

Russell First Black Coach

Though Russell's appointment as coach in 1966 broke pro sports' coaching racial barrier, Auerbach didn't see it that way. "When I retired, I said there is no better man to coach Russell than Russell," Auerbach told USA Today in February, 2002. "He was given the job strictly because of merit. Him being black or white was never thought of, hinted at or discussed." Still, Auerbach opened the door for a black to coach, and at the beginning of the 2002-03 season, there were 13 black coaches in the 29-team league.

Naming Russell was more Auerbach's way of staying internal. Auerbach or one his former players coached all Boston's championships, except Bill Fitch in 1981. Russell, after the Philadelphia 76ers broke Boston's string of eight straight titles in 1967, led the Celtics back to supremacy the following two years before retiring. Heinsohn and K.C. Jones also coached them to a pair of titles apiece. "I needed Red to push me back sometimes," Russell said. "But he did it in a way I could understand, and I wasn't offended by it."

Abrasive Personality

Auerbach guided the team during a simpler era. "When Red ran the Celtics in the '50s and '60s, he was head coach, director of basketball operations, general manager, team president, head scout he did everything, " wrote Simmons, a Boston native. He was a constant amid transient ownership. Walter Brown died in 1964 and control of the team frequently changed hands. Rumors occasionally had the team moving to such places as Providence, Hartford, or Long Island. Auerbach even says he had to reach into his own checkbook to get the team out of town for road games.

"(Woody) Erdman was a thief," Auerbach told the Boston Globe 's Dan Shaughnessy of a team owner in the early 1970s. "He had a company in New York and when we played there, he used to take the gate receipts and never pay any bills. I once put out six or seven thousand dollars of my own money so that we could make a road trip. We were on a COD basis with the phone company and the airlines. The guy was an out-and-out thief."


1917Born September 20 in Brooklyn, New York
1932-35Attends Eastern District High School, Brooklyn, New York; named all-Brooklyn second team as a senior
1936-37Attends Seth Low Junior College, New York
1937-40Earns three letters in basketball at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
1941Marries Dorothy Lewis
1941-43Coaches Roosevelt High School, Washington, D.C.
1942Plays for Harrisburg Senators, American Basketball League/Eastern Basketball League
1943-46Serves in United States Navy
1946-49Coaches Washington Capitals of the Basketball Association of America (precursor to National Basketball Association)
1949-50Coaches Tri Cities Blackhawks of NBA and assistant coach, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
1950Named head coach of NBA's Boston Celtics
1956Traded Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to St. Louis Hawks for the right to draft Bill Russell out of college
1957Wins first NBA championship as Celtics defeat Hawks in seven-game final
1959-66Coaches Celtics to eight consecutive NBA championships; retires in 1966 to focus on general manager duties
1978Drafts Larry Bird while Bird was still a college junior
1979Considers and rejects offer from New York Knicks
1997Stripped of team president's title as Celtics name Rick Pitino chief of basketball operations and head coach
2001Auerbach restored as team president

Awards and Accomplishments

1962Arch McDonald Achievement Award
1965NBA Coach of the Year
1968Inducted into National Basketball Hall of Fame and Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame
1969Elected to International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame
1971Selected NBA's 25th anniversary All-Time Team Coach
1980Named greatest coach in NBA history by Professional Basketball Writers Association of America; named NBA Executive of the Year
1995Inducted into Sport in Society Hall of Fame, Northeastern University, Boston

Running a team, however, became more complex in the 1980s and 1990s, and Auerbach gradually withdrew from basketball operations. "Years ago, let's say I want to trade Mike for Ikeyou call someone and say you want to make a trade, you say 'Give me a big guy, I got a big guy, you got a guard I can use, let's make a deal,' and then see ya, it's over."

Auerbach amassed $17,000 in fines during his coaching career. And, before a playoff game at St. Louis, he flattened Hawks owner Ben Kerner during an argument over the height of the basket. "So we're having a rhubarb with the refs," Auerbach told Simmons. "Finally, they bring out the (measuring) stick. So Kerner comes out of the stands, and he starts cussing me, and he takes a step toward me so I hit him."

Pat Riley , who coached the Lakers against the Celtics during the Bird-Magic Johnson showdowns of the 1980s and had played for the Lakers in the late 1960s, accused the Celtics of shutting off the hot water to the visiting locker rooms of ancient Boston Garden, the Celtics' home until 1995. Auerbach has vehemently denied the charge. (The Celtics now play at the FleetCenter.)

Auerbach's testy side also emerged in 1984, when, as team president, he upbraided Brent Musburger, then of CBS, before a national audience while accepting the league championship trophy. "Whatever happened to the Laker dynasty?" he said, waving his cigar after Boston beat Los Angeles in a bitter, seven-game series.

Boston had long embraced hockey and baseball while the Celtics, in their early glory years, often did not sell out Boston Garden. They even had some radio broadcasts in the mid-1960s relegated to FM, when they shared the same station with the Bruinseven when the Bruins were perennially in last place in the National Hockey League (NHL). Auerbach did little to promote the team in a marketing sense, feeling a winning team sells itself. And the aloof Russell, who refused to sign autographs, drew some negative public and press reaction because of his stridence on civil-rights issues.

"The Boston Celtics and Russell owned the NBA in their heyday, but they were always a backroom act in Bostonpoor cousins to the ever popular Red Sox in baseball and NHL Bruins," Peter J. Bjarkman wrote in The Biographical History of Basketball.

Internal Battles

Following the Celtics' thirteenth championship in 1976, the team struggled for three seasons, and worse, Auerbach had major problems with owner John Y. Brown (no relation to Walter Brown). Brown, who later became governor of Kentucky, was highly intrusive and even sarcastically addressed Auerbach as "Living Legend" during staff meetings.

The tension escalated in February, 1979, when Brown, reportedly without Auerbach's consent, obtained the talented but troublesome McAdoo from the New York Knicks. Auerbach then considered the unthinkable to Boston fansan offer as Knicks general manager. "We had a collective heart attack," Simmons wrote. "Red was leaving? He's leaving??? Everywhere he went, people urged him to stay: cab drivers, waiters, gas station attendants, people on the street. He stayed."

Brown's sale of the team to Harry Mangurian made the decision easier. Then, in October, 1979, Larry Bird began another glorious Celtics era, Boston winning championships in 1981, 1984 and 1986.

Seeing Red After All These Years

I watch him gingerly move behind his desk, finally dropping into a chair. Red has trouble walkinghip problems, foot problems, back problems, just problems. Elevators and escalators are two of his favorite things; he lives his life accordingly. He avoids Washington's MCI Center, mainly because the nitwits running that place don't make it easy for him to get around.

"I can't fight the stairs anymore," he says. "I don't like to walk stairs. Things change. I used to smoke 10 of these" he holds up a Cuban cigar"every day. Now I'm down to two. You don't get to be 84 years old and not have problems. But I don't want to talk about my problems."

Before his bypass surgery in '93, Red plowed through cigars like they were Life Savers. Read anything about him, and that's the first thing anyone mentionsthe suffocating cigar smoke. Hell, he invented the concept of the victory cigar. There's a famous story about Red lighting one up at Legal Seafoods (restaurant) in Boston during the mid-'80s, when a female customer reproached him, "You can't smoke in here! It says so on the menu!" Red told her to look at the menu again. The menu actually said, "No cigar smoking in here except for Red Auerbach." Another "W" for Red.

Source:, March 22, 2002.

But after the third championship of the Bird era, tragedy befell the Boston organization. The Celtics drafted Len Bias from the University of Maryland in 1986Auerbach and Maryland coach Charles "Lefty" Driesell were close friends and Bias had worked as a counselor in Auerbach's summer camp in Marshfield, Mass.and two days after Boston drafted him second overall, Bias died in Washington, D.C. of a cocaine overdose. Another Celtic would die seven years later when star guard Reggie Lewis collapsed with a heart problem during a playoff game and died during the summer while working out.

Pushed Aside for Pitino

The Celtics in 1996-97 won only fifteen games, their worst season ever, and owner Paul Gaston summoned Pitino, who had coached Kentucky to the 1996 NCAA title and had revived the Knicks in the late 1980s. Pitino demanded control of team operations and Gaston demoted Auerbach to executive vice president. Pitino, meanwhile, was on billboards and bank commercials.

But the team, which hadn't made the playoffs since 1995, continued to falter and Pitino left in 2001. Gaston reinstated Auerbach as team president. "The mere fact that the Celtics had to trumpet his return speaks volumes about the damage incurred by Pitino's regime," Stringer wrote.

Auerbach's Legacy

That the Celtics sold for $360 million in September, 2002, reflects the market value of their legacy, of which Auerbach is the architect. "While the leprechaun may represent them in their logo, (Auerbach) is the true icon of the Boston Celtics," Peter Stringer wrote on the New England Sports Network Web site.

His impact also transcends sports. After the November, 2002, off-year congressional elections, Kevin Merida of the Washington Post interviewed Auerbach about the psychology of winning and losing. "You see, it's too easy to lose," he said of the Democratic Party's setbacks. "Sometimes you've already lost before you playyou've made your excuses ahead of time. "For instance, you have an injury, so you're expected to lose. This guy is hurt, blah, blah. See what I mean? So you go in there with a defeatist complex.

"You show me a guy who loses an election and he's happy, he's an idiot. If you lose, you have to go out and say, 'I'm the unhappiest person in the world.' When you lose, I want you to be unhappy, I want you to be miserable."


(With Paul Sann) Auerbach: Winning the Hard Way, Little Brown, 1966.

Basketball for the Player, the Fan and the Coach, Simon & Schuster, 1975.

(With Joe Fitzgerald) Red Auerbach: An Autobiography, Putnam, c. 1977.

(With Sandy Grossman) Red on Roundball, RCA SelectaVision, 1982. Athletes: The Paintings of Joe Wilder, M.D. With essays by Red Auerbach, H. N. Abrams, 1985.

(With Joe Fitzgerald) On and Off the Court, Macmillan, 1985.

Where Is He Now?

Auerbach still lives in Washingtonsolo, since his longtime wife, Dorothy, died in 2000. He occasionally visits Boston and the Celtics. His personal interests include Chinese food, lobster and mystery novels.

National television cameras showed Auerbach in the FleetCenter standshe always preferred sitting with fans than in luxury boxesin the 2002 playoffs as Boston made its best postseason showing in thirteen years, winning two rounds before dropping the Eastern Conference final to the New Jersey Nets.

The ornery side of Auerbach re-emerged in June, 2002, when the Lakers' third straight championship (and 14th overall, two behind the Celtics) gave Phil Jackson his ninth NBA title as a coach, matching Auerbach. Jackson also won six championships with the Bulls.

Auerbach said Jackson merely inherited Chicago and Los Angeles teams on the threshold of winning big. "Most of your great coaches do some teaching and developing of players," Auerbach said. "Phil may be able to do it, but he hasn't shown it. His teams have been ready-made. He hasn't been faced with having nothing personnel and being forced to develop them into winners." Jackson, in response, said Auerbach and his cigar-blowing ways always irritated him.

"Like Jackson, Red has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way with his arrogance, including his customary lighting of the victory cigar, but Auerbach is the genuine article," Jennifer Cooper wrote on the CNN-Sports Illustrated Web site, "What you see is what you get, even if you don't care for the smoke he's blowing."

(With Ken Dooley) MBA: Management by Auerbach, Macmillan, 1991.



Bjarkman, Peter C. Biographical History of Basketball.

Lincolnwood, IL: Masters Press, c2000.


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"Deadline Dealings." Boston Celtics Web Site., (November 4, 2002).

"Hall of Famers: Arnold 'Red'Auerbach." Basketball Hall of Fame. (November 6, 2002).

"More Black Coaches Guide NBA Than Ever Before." (February 14, 2002).

"Phil Jackson vs. Red Auerbach." CNN/Sports Illustrated., (June 18, 2002).

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"Russell Sees Life Lessons in Basketball." Christian Science Monitor. (June 15, 2001).

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"Titles Prove That He's The Won." Boston Globe. (December 30, 1999).

Sketch by Paul Burton

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