Sunday, October 29, 2006

Rest In Peace, Red Auerbach

Saturday Red Auerbach joined the hosts of heaven. Red, as some of you may not know, was for many years the famous coach of the Boston Celtics basketball team. During his tenure as coach, the team ran up 16 annual US Championships. Red was a man with some lovely extravagances as a coach. He was a shortish, burley man, balding, who always walked around with a big cigar. He would only light the cigar at that point in the game when he felt it was over and the Celtics had, for all intents and purposes, won the game. He was never prematurely mistaken, although there were some times that he confessed he lit up the cigar to motivate the team to win -- simply by their desire to not make it look as though he had made a mistake.

He was a man who cared about fairness, a passionate man with an unwavering eye for talent. He was also unafraid to take risks, to step out for what was right. Auerbach was the first coach to pick a black player in the NBA Draft (Chuck Cooper in 1950), the first to field an all-black starting five (1964) and the first to hire a black coach in the NBA (Bill Russell in 1966).

When I was a little girl, one of the positive things in my relationship with an otherwise difficult father, was the watching of Celtics games on television. It was a family event, but the most enthusiastic viewers were Dad and I. We would hold conversations with the coaches, urging them to see what we saw. We would shout at the refs for bad calls, and when Red Auerbach would end up getting ejected from the game for protesting an unfair call, well, we would cheer him on.

He spoke in one of his several memoirs about occasionally setting up a technical foul or a game ejection as part of his strategy to keep his guys motivated. He was passionate and a crafty devil to boot.

But what drove Red was obvious. He loved the game, and he loved his players. He was gruff and tough about it and pulled no punches. He was outspoken but never mean-spirited. He was pro-basketball, and worked for the betterment of the game. His team played a hard game, but never an unfair one.

When his star, Bill Russell's salary was eclipsed by the opposition's Wilt Chamberlain at $100,000 a year, Red cut a new contract for Russell giving him $100,001.

Gotta love that style.

I watched that team in the days of Bill Cousy, Sam and KC Jones, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Tommy Heinsohn. Later there were additions like Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, Bill Walton and the unmatched genius of Larry Bird.

In the early days of Red's reign, when the team was on the road, they had bookings at a hotel in the South. Upon arrival, the hotel agreed to house all the white players, but said that one - Bill Russell, who is African American -- would have to stay elsewhere. The usual protocol for sports teams back then was to just get a second hotel. Not for Red Auerbach. The whole team stayed elsewhere, and were glad to do so. They were The Boston Celtics, a band of brothers, and no one messed with Red's Celtics.

The Celtics played a running game, a fast game with a zone defense that would knock the competition silly. They played hard -- not rough, but hard. They ran and orchestrated almost balletic moves on the fly, with players like Russell scooping rebounds out of thin air. And Bill Cousy, a short fellow by today's standards, whipping in and out of the opposing team's defense before they knew what hit them. The early Boston Celtics, the Auerbach Celtics, had no prima donnas. They were The Boston Celtics. That was enough -- to be a team, a team playing for a man who loved them, who brought out the best in them, who went to the wall for them. That was what won ballgames. That is what it meant to be a man.

Oh well done, Red, well done.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Site Feed