THE RED AUERBACH COLLECTION
Born Arnold Auerbach in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Sept. 20, 1917, he worked as a boy in his father’s dry-cleaning shop, pressing up to 100 pairs of pants a day. His nickname was derived from his red hair before he went bald. “Red” was drawn to sports early in life. A tough playground competitor, he went on to be captain of his high school basketball team and president of his senior class. He attended Seth Low Junior College in New York and George Washington University. His playing career there was undistinguished. In three seasons at George Washington, where today the court in GW’s Smith Center is named in his honor, he scored 334 points in 56 games. As a coach, however, he was an instant success, posting the best record of his career in his first season. He led the Washington Capitols to a 49-11 mark in 1946-47, the NBA’s inaugural year, and took them to the playoff semifinals. The Capitols had winning records the next two seasons under Auerbach, who moved on to the Tri-Cities Blackhawks for one season in 1949-50. That same year he met Boston Celtics owner Walter Brown, who hired him to coach the Celtics beginning in the 1950-1951 season. His salary? $10,000 for the year.
In the NBA’s first four seasons, the Celtics never had a winning record. But Auerbach changed that dramatically when he succeeded Alvin “Doggy” Julian as Boston’s coach for the 1950-51 campaign. They went 39-30 that year, and the Celtics never had a losing record in Auerbach’s 16 seasons on the bench. Boston’s lowest winning percentage was .611 in his last 10 seasons.
While Auerbach immediately made an impression by drafting the NBA’s first African-American player, Chuck Cooper, his first six seasons were memorable chiefly for the superb ball handling wizardry of Bob Cousy, one of the greatest passers and playmakers in the game. The Celtics were executing the fast break well during those early years, but they lacked a defensive presence in the middle. That all changed in 1956, when Auerbach traded for the draft rights to William Felton Russell, a 6-foot-9.5 inch center from the University of San Francisco. In his rookie year with the NBA, Bill Russell led the League in rebounding and became the cornerstone of the new Celtics that would set new standards for dominance. The Celtics won their first NBA World Championship that year in a thrilling double-overtime seventh game against the St. Louis Hawks.
With Russell injured, the Celtics lost the 1958 playoffs but Auerbach would never lose the last game of the season again. When Russell returned the next season, Boston swept the Minneapolis Lakers in the finals, a first in NBA history. Russell was named MVP often in these years, but as important to the Celtics as he was, Boston played and won as a team, collecting a record-setting eight consecutive NBA championships.
Auerbach was a genius at acquiring key players who made good teams great. His style mixed simple set plays with the fast break, and his tactic of “the sixth man” — a star player coming off the bench at key moments — dramatically changed the way the game was played.
Surprisingly, since he was the first coach in history to win 1,000 games, Red Auerbach did not win his first NBA Coach of the Year Award until 1965. Before the start of the 1966 season, Auerbach announced that it would be his last. The Celtics beat Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers en route to a seven-game victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals. During the 1966 series, Auerbach announced that Bill Russell would succeed him as coach — the first African-American head coach in any professional sport. Legend has it that Auerbach paid Russell $100,001 a year, one dollar more than Wilt Chamberlain was earning in Philadelphia. Bill Russell played for and coached the Celtics for two years before moving on to coach the Seattle Supersonics and later the Sacramento Kings. Years later, Russell would sum up Auerbach’s career this way: “The Yankees won 25 championships. What did it take them, a hundred years? Red won nine in 10. He was the best coach in the history of professional sports. Period.”
When Auerbach assumed the role of General Manager in 1966, he continued to scout and draft players. He had an uncanny knack for identifying gifted players who responded to coaching. He signed All-American guard Jo Jo White and center Dave Cowens. With “The Big Three” of Havlicek, White, and Cowens, the Celtics won it all in 1974 and again in 1976. By the late 1970s, however, the Celtics were no longer a winning team. In another stroke of basketball brilliance, Auerbach drafted Larry Bird in 1978. Two years later, he brought Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to Boston in a deal that earned him the 1980 NBA Executive of the Year award. Bird, McHale, and Parish led the Celtics to championships in 1981, 1984, and 1986.
Although Auerbach retired as General Manager at the end of the 1983-1984 season, he retained the title of President of the Celtics organization. His trips to Boston grew less frequent — Auerbach lived in Washington all through his coaching career — although he was seen, chomping a cigar, at the Fleet Center during Boston’s 2002 playoff run. When he died in Washington of a heart attack on October 28, 2006 at the age of 89, tributes poured forth. Former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn told the Boston Globe that Boston had “lost one of its greatest citizens. He cut me from the Celtics, but I’ve never admired a person more.” A rarely sentimental Larry Bird said, “Red Auerbach was one of the most influential people in my life. Not only was he an inspiration to me throughout my career, he became a close friend as well. There could only be one Red Auerbach and I’ll always be grateful for having the opportunity to experience his genius and his dedication to winning through teamwork.”