The Eulogies Are Nice, But Red Was Far From Loved And He Liked It That Way
“That is something you’ll want to keep,” I told myself at the time.
Saturday night upon the news of his death, I went to the drawer where I kept the cigar and got it out. It looked ageless, pretty much like Auerbach himself.
This past spring marked the 40th anniversary of his retirement from coaching. During those four decades he remained a giant on the NBA landscape, testy enough to engage in a bit of serious verbal jousting with Phil Jackson when the Laker coach won his ninth NBA title in 2002, which tied Auerbach for the most titles won by an NBA coach.
As Jackson and other opponents around the league will attest, Auerbach remained a pretty fiery guy his entire life.
I recall the closing seconds of Boston's Game 6 defeat in the 1988 Eastern Conference finals. The scene had the makings of a real Celtic nightmare. The Pontiac Silverdome was packed to the rafters with 38,900 Pistons fans eager for a loud, rowdy, finger-shakin' victory celebration, the kind that would blow off Detroit's blues at not having reached the NBA finals in more than three decades. The situation presented what might have been perceived as a slight void in the Celtic leadership, with K.C. Jones having announced his retirement from coaching at the season's end and the season's end obviously imminent here in this least traditional of basketball places.
But as the clock ran down and Boston's fortunes seemed lowest,Auerbach moved from his seat in the stands and made his way down to the bench to lead his Celtics through the crowd back to the locker room. There was nothing downcast, or even hurried, in his stride. He moved with a purpose, past the celebrants and the cameras. It was obvious that he was not about to let this defeat diminish his, or his team's, Celtic Pride.
It was a deft move, perhaps second-nature, the kind Auerbach had become known for over the years. The subtle statement. The situation hadn't called for a puff from his trademark victory cigar, but he knew just the right touch all the same. He provided a silent, strong presence at a difficult moment. It seemed that whatever the Celtics needed over the decades— moxie, savvy, street smarts, even a tad of humility now and then—Auerbach found a way to provide it.
As he aged, some things did change for the redhead. For one thing, he suffered dumb questions from writers a little better than he used to.
During that 1988 interview I asked him if he missed coaching.
"Oh sure," he said, "you miss it a lot. You can't do something for 20 years at a professional level and not miss it."
Auerbach retired following the 1965-66 season, after his team had won its eighth straight (and ninth overall) NBA Championship. The Celtics went on to win two more championships over the next three seasons after Auerbach named Bill Russell as player/coach. Auerbach said he had no regrets about stepping down when he did.
"I had to make a choice," he explained. "Either I got into management then, when it had to be done, or wait four or five years and then look around and see. Everything is a matter of timing."
The timing in this case concerned the club's general managership. Long-time team owner Walter Brown had died in 1964, leaving Auerbach to fill the dual role of coach and general manager for two seasons. That task left him exhausted. He once explained to good friend Lefty Driesell that the mere act of putting on his sneakers to go to practice had become drudgery. At the end of the 1965 season, he knew he either had to find a coach or a general manager.
Having gotten his fill of the bench, Auerbach decided to coach one more season while he looked around for a successor. Once that was done, he would become a full-time general manager.
Without tremendous fanfare, Auerbach ended one of the most successful coaching career in the history of professional sports. In his 20 seasons of coaching, he won a league-record 938 regular-season games. It was a record that would eventually be broken, he predicted at the time. And it eventually was by Lenny Wilkens.
"It will be broken in time if guys can last that long mentally," Auerbach said. "Because I did it in 20 years; I don't know whether a lot of guys will do it in 20 years."
An immensely proud man, Auerbach said he took the most pride in the consistency of winning that the record represents. He was also immensely prideful that the Celtics accomplished their championships with meager team resources. Walter Brown, after all, had funded the team out of his own pocket for years, which meant that the entire Celtics organization consisted of four people. Auerbach had no assistant coaches. He did his own scouting and managed the team's business affairs, right down to booking plane flights and hotel rooms.
"We had no money to speak of," he said. "We were still in the process of selling the game to the Boston area."
Slowly New England fans took to the Celtics winning ways, but that still didn't translate into overwhelming cash flow. Whereas a wealthy team like the New York Knicks could afford to buy players, Auerbach spent his time shopping for bargains, either unheralded rookies or supposedly washed-up has-beens.
"We kept winning with mirrors, adding a player here, a player there," he said. "We did a lot of developing and teaching."
Auerbach also did a lot of motivating. The team's competitiveness was often driven by his temper. There is no better example of this than Game Three of the 1957 NBA Finals against the St. Louis Hawks, as the Celtics were on their way to their first championship. The St. Louis crowd in Kiel Auditorium had its rough edges, which included a reputation for racial and ant-Semitic epithets. Auerbach stirred this cauldron during pre-game warmups when he complained that one of the goals was too low. "I knew it was too low when Sharman and Cousy told me they could touch the rim," he explained. Auerbach took his complaint to the officials, who agreed to check the height. They found no problem. Hawks owner Ben Kerner, though, had become overheated by the delay and stalked out onto the floor to scream that Auerbach was embarrassing him in front of the home fans.
Auerbach promptly ended the tirade with a shot to Kerner's mouth. "I was talking to the refs," Auerbach later explained, "and he interrupted me."
So Auerbach later threw the punch.
The officials chose not to throw him out, he said, because the incident occurred before the game. The blow brought blood but no permanent damage to Kerner, who remained Red's friend long after the incident.
"When I retired he gave me wonderful gifts," Auerbach recalled.
I later talked to Kerner and he acknowledged his good friendship with Auerbach, although I don’t think Kerner had fond memories of getting punched just before tip-off of the league’s signature event.
After beating the Minneapolis Lakers 4-0 in 1959 for their second title, Auerbach’s Celtics emerged full-blown in the early 1960s. Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn were in their prime. Sam Jones moved in as a starter and a scorer to replace guard Bill Sharman, who retired in 1962. And while the careers of Bob Cousy and Frank Ramsey were winding down, Auerbach always seemed to have the right answer to keep the transition of talent flowing smoothly.
K.C. Jones was gaining experience as a backup to Cousy, and in 1962, the Celtics drafted John Havlicek, a good athlete but no superstar, out of Ohio State. Who could have seen that he would evolve into such a player? In retrospect, the development of the Boston dynasty was something to behold.
The Celtics beat the Hawks for the championship in 1960 and '61, and then defeated the new Los Angeles Lakers in 1962 to bring their title count to four straight. Still, many observers figured their day was over.
"The Boston Celtics are an old team," Sports Illustrated declared in March of 1963. "Tired blood courses through their varicose veins."
The Celtics, of course, would win their sixth title that spring and five more over the next six seasons. But SI's underestimation of Boston's strength still had some basis in fact. It seemed that each February of his career Cousy had blasted the NBA for seasons that were too long. Finally weary, Cousy announced that he would retire after the 1962-63 season. Observers saw his leaving as a major loss to the Celtics. And they didn't see the wheels of Auerbach's cunning turning.
The reason for this was Havlicek. Auerbach had never seen Havlicek play when he drafted him in 1962. Then in camp that summer he got his first look. "I remember I was stunned," Auerbach later told reporters. "All I could think of was, 'Ohh. Have I got something here? Are they going to think I'm smart.'"
But Havlicek was just one of several changing faces in the team's evolution. Later Auerbach would get Don Nelson and Bailey Howell and several more key pieces to the puzzle. Plus, Cousy's leaving meant the Jones duo of K.C. and Sam would become a larger factor. Most important, though, the Celtics had Bill Russell, whom former Lakers coach Fred Schaus called "the most dominant individual who ever played a team sport."
Built around this incredible player, the team's changes were made without problem. The coach and center had come to lord over the NBA, and it didn't make them popular. "At first I didn't like Red Auerbach," a rival NBA coach once said. "But in time I grew to hate him."
Those emotions have lasted for decades.
"Red was hated around the league," former NBA player and Hawks coach Paul Seymour told me in 1990. "He wasn't a very well-liked guy. He always had the talent. He was always shooting his mouth off. If you walked up to him in the old days, he was more than likely to tell you to get lost."
Having a great player like Russell made Auerbach a coach, former Syracuse coach Al Cervi told me. "He's the biggest phony who ever walked the streets of America."
Auerbach was an early master at working the refs. His foot-stomping tirades, usually punctuated by a lit cigar at the end of the game, had begun to wear on his opponents by the mid-1960s. Plus, the NBA was getting more television exposure, and his antics weren't always pleasant to view.
"Red was a very astute judge of talent," Schaus, whose Laker teams battled Auerbach's Celtics four times in the Finals, explained for me once. "When you have a lot of stars, you have to keep them happy and playing as a team. Red did that. I didn't like some of the things he did and said when I competed against him. Some of the things he said would bother me. But the guy who wore No. 6 out there bothered us more. You had to change your game completely because of Russell."
But for Lakers star Jerry West, Auerbach on the sidelines was more entertainment than irritation. "Red was outspoken," West told me. "His sideline antics were funny. I happened to like him very much. When you talk to his ex-players, they all have great respect for him. I don't know how many players feel that way about their former coaches."
Some coaches didn't have Auerbach's success because they didn't have his timing. They tried to intimidate the officials throughout the game, Auerbach explained. "You work the refs only when you feel you're right. You had to pick your spots. Sure I was active. You had to be active. But it wasn't all the time."
As for the enmity from other coaches that still burned decades later, Auerbach said, "Any time you're winning, you get criticism. Nothing instigates jealousy like winning. When you're winning, they find a thousand reasons to take potshots. You don't pay attention. You just keep doing what you're doing."
This debate over Auerbach flared regularly over the winter and spring of 1963. His relationship with official Sid Borgia carried a particular spite. The Boston press took to calling Borgia "Big Poison."
"I'm convinced," Auerbach said after one game, "that it would be the highlight of his career if he refereed the game in which we lost the championship. He doesn't like me, he doesn't like Cousy and he doesn't like the Celtics."
Whether he really wanted it or not, Borgia would never get that opportunity. Boston just didn’t lose in the championship round. The aged Celtics beat the Lakers in 1963 for their sixth title. "Please," Auerbach crowed to the press, "tell me some of these stories about Los Angeles being the basketball capital of the world."
"It's nice to be playing with the old pros," Russell said. "The old, old pros."
There was no champagne or beer in the Boston locker room. Why celebrate? replied Heinsohn when asked about it. "We've won five in a row."
The 1963-64 season brought Auerbach another series of crafty personnel moves to crow about—the addition of veteran center Clyde Lovellette and 6'6" Willie Naulls in the frontcourt. Naulls would provide double-figure scoring as a key substitute for three important years, and Lovellette gave them some good games, too. Auerbach also added Larry Siegfried, Havlicek's teammate out of Ohio State who would mature into a double-figures scorer in a few seasons.
The big change for 1963-64 came with the league's balance of power. Maurice Podoloff had retired as commissioner and was replaced by Walter Kennedy. In an even bigger move, the Warriors had left Philadelphia to move to San Francisco, where they took charge in the Western Conference with what appeared to be one of the most powerful teams in NBA history.
But that was on paper, Auerbach pointed out. "I've seen a lot of great teams, at least on paper, that won nothing."
Warriors coach Alex Hannum called it his "muscle and hustle team."
Wilt Chamberlain was the chief muscle. But there was plenty more. There was 6'11", 230-pound Nate Thurmond, a rookie out of Bowling Green who had yet to develop offensively. Then there were 6'8" Wayne Hightower, a fine shooter, and 6'6", 215-pound Tom Meschery, who helped in the muscle department. The crafty backcourt included Al Attles, Guy Rodgers and Gary Phillips.
It was a lineup brimming with future Hall of Famers.
"That was a powerful, physical team," Auerbach said. "Chamberlain and Thurmond were two of the best centers in the game."
But the Warriors were no match for Boston in the big show. Frank Ramsey, all of 6'3", psyched out Thurmond on defense, and the Celtics waltzed. Chamberlain was a power, but Russell forced him into taking a fallaway jumper. In one sequence in Game 1, a 108-96 Boston win, Russell blocked Wilt's shot, only to see Thurmond get the loose ball and take it back up. Russell blocked that one, too.
"He never stops throwing you something new," an impressed Rodgers said of Russell afterward.
The Celtics took the series, 4-1, for their sixth consecutive championship. "A lot of teams have come and gone since we first beat St. Louis in '57," Ramsey told reporters.
Auerbach had won seven championships and had never been named coach of the year. Still, he pushed on with his singular style.
During the 1964 season, he had fined several players for a transgression of team rules. They asked him to reconsider. "Get lost," he replied, "if you don't know by now that the Celtics are a dictatorship. I am a dictator and it's about time you found out."
Asked about his style, he told reporters: "Look, I don't worry about handling them. I worry about how they handle me. I'm not here as a doormat. Let them adjust to me. Anybody who comes to this team better take a little time to figure out what I'm like and learn to please me."
Despite his gruffness, he had a real flair for sales, and even represented several products on the side. "Selling keeps me alert during the season," he explained. "I meet clients when I'm on the road."
With this seventh title, it began to appear as if Boston might never lose. Auerbach projected that much. "The thrill never goes from winning," he said. "But maybe the reasons change. First, it was just trying to win a title. Now it is a question of going down as the greatest team of all time. That stimulates you."
The closing of the '64 season brought the retirement of Jim Loscutoff and Ramsey. Loscutoff had once sworn that as soon as he turned in his uniform he was going to belt Auerbach. Using the psychology he was known for, the coach had determined that he couldn't criticize Cousy, Ramsey or Russell. They just couldn't or wouldn't take it. So he had used Heinsohn or Loscutoff to tongue-lash when he needed to communicate displeasure with the team's play.
Loscutoff's plan was never realized. Like the rest of the Celtics, he said he loved Auerbach more than he hated him. The coach had an ability to be close and detached at the same time.
"His whole theory behind basketball is never get too close to the players' wives," Loscutoff once explained.
He couldn't make good coaching decisions if he knew a player's family well, Auerbach confided. "You can't be emotionally involved and impartial at the same time."
Walter Brown died in August 1964, leaving Auerbach alone to guide the Celtics on to greatness. Brown's passing and the fact that a new group of young officials had come into the league convinced the Boston coach to tone down his act somewhat.
He still prowled the sidelines while clutching a tightly rolled game program. And he still picked his spots. He just didn't pick them as often or as loudly. It some ways it didn't matter. Every time he stirred from the bench during a road game, the boos followed him.
In the spring of 1965, he appeared on a television talk show and seemed startled when the audience clapped politely. "How come they applauded?" Auerbach asked the host. "It makes me feel uneasy."
Still, he conceded his image had changed. Going into the 1965 playoffs, he had been fined less than $1,000 by the league, an unusually low figure for him. By no means was he squeaky clean, though.
"If you get obnoxious, you get incentive," he told his players.
He regularly offered young coaches tips on how to get ahead—place the scorer's and timer's table near your bench at home, and when you're on the road, wait until the other team has taken the floor for warm-ups to request their basket. Anything that disconcerted the opponent was viewed as an asset.
While he talked these precepts, he employed them less and less as he neared the end of his coaching career. Red had mellowed, the writers covering the Celtics concluded.
Still, there were some things in his act that he refused to tone down. League officials had sent him notes saying that it didn't look good for him to light cigars on the bench.
Auerbach told the league he would stop his cigars when other coaches stopped their cigarettes, a response that angered some of his colleagues in the profession. A few coaches complained that Auerbach had an endorsement with Blackstone, a cigar company, and that he was putting on "an act."
"If this was an act, I'd be an actor," he replied. "I wouldn't be a coach."
Boy, could he coach. The Celtics broke their own record for regular-season wins in 1964-65 with 62. And Auerbach finally got his coach-of-the-year award.
"He's getting the maximum out of me," Russell told reporters.
They added their eighth championship that year, but things in the Eastern Division became complicated at mid-season when San Francisco traded Chamberlain back to the new Philadelphia 76ers (the old Syracuse Nationals). Boston had finished well atop the standings but had to fight Philly in the playoffs through another seven-game series. Chamberlain's team wasn't vanquished until Havlicek stole an in-bounds pass under Philadelphia's basket with five seconds remaining, which, of course, led to Johnny Most's famous line, "Havlicek stole the ball!!!"
For the record, Havlicek deflected the ball to Sam Jones, who raced downcourt to celebrate.
With the momentum from that drama, the Celtics went on to meet the Lakers in the Finals once again. Los Angeles, though, had lost Elgin Baylor to a knee injury and fell yet again to Auerbach’s army.
After the playoffs, Auerbach announced that he would coach one more season, then retire to the front office. He explained privately that coaching had become a burden. Perhaps more than any NBA coach ever, he loved winning, but success had taken its toll. He was nearing 50 and feeling 70. With Walter Brown's death, the administrative load was heavier. Auerbach could no longer do both jobs.
Reporters asked Auerbach what the highlights of his coaching days had been. "After 1,500 games, who could remember?" he replied. "What you remember is how hard it was to get each individual win."
The wins got even harder in that final season of 1965-66. The Eastern Division was a dogfight. Chamberlain and the 76ers took some of the starch out of the Boston dynasty. Heinsohn had retired at the end of the previous season, and Havlicek became a starter. Don Nelson, acquired after Los Angeles released him, inherited the role of sixth man. For the first time in a decade, the Celtics didn't win the Eastern Division title. The 76ers won 55 games and Boston 54. But Boston regrouped in the playoffs. Philly had received a first-round bye, while Boston fended off Cincinnati in a preliminary round. The layoff hurt Chamberlain and the Sixers. They were caught flat in the Eastern finals as Boston won, 4-1. Boston had lost six of 10 games to Philadelphia during the season, but again it was Russell's team that went on to play for the title.
The 1966 championship series quickly turned into another Celtics/Lakers scrap. Baylor had returned from knee injury, and Los Angeles had regained its potency. The Celtics had a 38-20 lead in Game One in the Garden, but the Lakers fought back to tie it late. With the score even in the final minute, Russell blocked a Baylor shot and was called for goaltending. Sam Jones scored for Boston to send it to overtime, where Baylor and West propelled the Lakers to a win, 133-129, for a 1-0 lead. Baylor had scored 36, West 41. But instead of the glory and the psychological edge falling to the Lakers, the attention abruptly shifted to Boston. Auerbach picked the postgame interview session to announce that Russell would be his replacement as head coach. For months the speculation had been that Cousy, then the coach at Boston College, would get the job. Working as a player-coach, Boston's center would become the first black head coach in a major American sport. Auerbach had talked briefly with Cousy and Heinsohn about taking the job, but both men agreed no one could better motivate Russell than Russell himself.
The announcement made headlines the next morning, while the Lakers' major victory was almost obscured, a fact that leaves Auerbach gleeful to this day.
With the future of the team settled, the Celtics bore down on the Lakers, winning the second game in the Garden, 129-109, then adding two more victories in Los Angeles for a 3-1 lead.
Game 7 in the Garden was another classic. The Celtics took a big lead, as Baylor and West were a combined 3 for 18 from the floor in the first half. But as usual, the Lakers came back, cutting the Boston lead to six with 20 seconds left. Still, it seemed time for Red to light another victory cigar. The Lakers took fire with that, cutting the lead to two, 95-93, with four seconds left. Just as they had for years, the fans rushed the floor to celebrate a Boston championship. But the '66 celebration was premature and out-of-hand. Russell, who had played with a broken bone in his foot and had still gotten 32 rebounds, was knocked down. Orange juice containers on the Boston bench were spilled across the floor, and Celtic Satch Sanders lost his shirt to the crowd. Somehow, K.C. Jones got the inbounds pass to Havlicek, who dribbled out the clock for championship number nine, 95-93.
Schaus said later that he would have loved to have been able to shove the victory cigar down Auerbach's throat. "We came awfully close to putting that damn thing out," the Lakers coach told me years later.
At Auerbach's retirement dinner, Russell addressed the gathering: "When I took this job, somebody said, 'What did you take it for? You have nothing to gain. You got to follow Red Auerbach.'
"I don't think I'm going to be another Red Auerbach," Russell continued, then turned to his former coach. "Personally, I think you're the greatest basketball coach that ever lived. You know, over the years... I heard a lot of coaches and writers say the only thing that made you a great coach was Bill Russell. It helped. But that's not what did it.
"Now this is kind of embarrassing, but I'll go so far, Red, as to say this: I like you. And I'll admit there aren't very many men that I like. But you I do. For a number of reasons. First of all, I've always been able to respect you. I don't think you're a genius, just an extraordinarily intelligent man. We'll be friends until one of us dies. And I don't want too many friends, Red."
I agree with Russell. That’s why I saved the cigar.