Sunday, October 29, 2006

Red Auerbach

I was out on the town when I saw the news about Red Auerbach last night. I knew that Red had been doing poorly for months but still the news came as a shock.

It would take months to give Red his due in this space because he meant that much to sports fans in New England. However I will try to jot down some of my memories and thoughts of Red in hopes of sharing when interest is probably at its peak.

It is probably impossible to overstate what Red Auerbach was to basketball. He was the architect of all of the Celtics 16 World Championships. His "Red on Roundball" tutorials and his books probably taught more people basketball fundamentals than Tom Emansky did for baseball. He was more important as a GM in his sport than Branch Rickey was to his and he was a better coach in his sport than Bear Bryant was in his. One man accomplished all that.

It irks me to no end to see those graphics of coaches with the most championships and see Phil Jackson is listed first even though both Jackson and Auerbach are tied with 9 championships and Auerbach comes first alphabetically. Simply put - Phil Jackson couldn't carry Red's jockstrap.

Red was coach of the Celtics for just 16 years but during that time he won 9 championships (including 8 in a row). When it was time for him to step aside - he named Bill Russell as his replacement. It made no difference to Red that he was making history by naming the first black head coach. Red named Bill Russell player-coach because Red figured that after Red was gone - the only person who could get the best out of Bill Russell was Bill Russell himself.

Because of my age - I knew Red as a GM not as a coach and I would argue that he was not just the best coach of all-time but the best general manager as well. In the 1956 NBA draft, the Rochester Royals had the first pick and the Boston Celtics had the second pick (via a shrewd trade Red made with St. Louis). With the first pick Rochester selected 6'2" Sihugo Green of Duquesne. With the second pick, the Boston Celtics selected Bill Russell of San Francisco. Red drafted Larry Bird as a "junior eligible". He exposed that loophole and the NBA changed the rules because of Red. Dennis Johnson in exchange for Rick Robey? One of the great forgotten trades of all-time. Robert Parish and the third pick (Kevin McHale) in exchange for the first pick of the draft (Joe Barry Carroll) - perhaps the greatest trade of all-time. Taking a third round risk on a mediocre baseball player named Danny Ainge? The list could go on and on.

Speaking of Danny Ainge - it was of no small importance that the first thing he and the new owners did when taking over the Celtics was to reinstate Red as the "President" of the Celtics. Red was stripped of that honorary title by ego-maniac Rick Pitino whose name is now mud in New England.

One of my favorite stories about Red involves the landmark Boston restaurant Legal Seafoods who banned cigar smoking in their establishments with the written exception of Red Auerbach. One day Red was having lunch and after lunch he lit up a cigar. A lady complained (it's always a lady who complains isn't it?). Red asked her to read the asterix and then told her "I'm Red Auerbach" while blowing a big big cloud of smoke.

I've heard some people say that they would light up a cigar today in Red Auerbach's honor and that is a fine idea. However, if smoke is not your thing then how about getting some Chinese food? After his wife and kids and basketball - Chinese food was probably Red's greatest joy. I know where I'll be going for lunch today.

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