10.29.2006

The Passing of a True Super Hero: A Tribute

The best way to forget ones self is to look at the world with attention and love. -- Red Auerbach

When I was a kid in Boston in the '60s, I hung out with a bunch of kids from several different high schools who were addicts. Yep . . . if the Celtics weren't playing, we went into withdrawal. A Celtic win would produce euphoria; a loss, anguish.

For awhile in the early- and mid-60s you could get one of the 13,909 seats at Boston Garden to watch a Celtic home game. The place smelled of must, smoke, beer, urine, and North Station next door. The parquet floor had more dead spots than the Southeast Expressway had pot holes. The place was a cathedral, more cherished and better attended than the "official" Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End.

Walter Brown owned the Celtics. The Pistons were in Fort Wayne, not Detroit; the 76ers were in Syracuse and were called the Nationals. The Hawks were in St. Louis. There were the Rochester, then the Cincinnati, Royals.

My fanatic friends and I made every home game we could. If we weren't there, or the guys were on the road, we were listening to the cigarette-smoke-ravaged frog-voice of Johnny Most, even when the game was being played against the Warriors at the Cow Palace. My favorite games were those against the Nationals in Syracuse, when "Jungle" Jim Loscutoff would tangle with Dolph Schayes, a match-up that usually ended in a bloody draw when one or both fouled out half-way through the fourth quarter.

Each of us had an Celt alter-ego. I was Larry Siegfried, a guard who went to Ohio State with John Havlicek. These were the breathless and imperial days of Bill Russell, the Jones brothers, Willie Naulls, Tom Sanders, Tom Heinsohn, Jim Loscutoff, Frank Ramsey, and Clyde Lovellette. Bob Cousy was semi-active. Bill Sharman, Gene Conley (who also pitched for the Red Sox in the "other" season), and Frank "The Kentuckey Colonel" Ramsey had retired.

These were also the days of Bob Pettit, Oscar "The Big O" Robertson, Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain, Bailey Howell, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Hal Greer, Dolph Schayes . . .

And Arnold "Red" Auerbach.

Red and the game of basketball were interchangeable. He wasn't just a coach,. he was a visionary, a dynamo, a force. Most of the superlatives, like "icon" and "legend", are inadequate to describe him and his impact on the game of roundball. He was, until yesterday, the genius de facto soul of the game. He did at least as much for basketball as Casey Stengel did for baseball

With Bob Cousy, Auerbach invented the fast break and the running game, in contrast to the plodding, flat-footed passing, set-shot game of, say George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers (the original NBA dynasty. He excited the game. With Russell and Sanders, he invented the defensive game as it is today. Before that, the medium-range set-shot and jump shot went virtually unchallenged.

His two most important contributions were (1) developing the dynamic teamwork of several star players, rather than depending on one franchise player supported by the rest of the team and (2) integrating the game, which had few non-white players. He was the first coach in the game to send four black player to the floor at the same time: guards Sam and K.C. Jones, forwards Tom Heinsohn (white) and Tom Sanders, and, of course, Bill Russell. And Red did this in probably the most racist city in the North (maybe in the whole country) at the time. Russell hated the city, wouldn't sign autographs for white folks, and probably would have left for another team if not for Red's total devotion to Bill and the other black players. Now, 80% of NBA players are black.

Auerbach was the players' coach; he saw his job as as being part of the team, not its boss. One of his best "plays", when the Celtics were trailing, was to throw a tantrum at the referee (usually his arch-enemy Sid Borgia) and get thrown out. This would energize the team, and more often than not, the Celtics would come back and win the game. Red was motivation personified.

Auerbach was born and raised in Brooklyn, went to college at George Washington University in D.C. His first job after graduation was as an Assistant Coach at Duke. From 1947 to 1949, he was Head Coach of the Washington Capitols in the Basketball Association of America (BBA), the precursor of the NBA, which was born in 1950. The Caps had all winning seasons there. In 1950, he went to the Tri Cities Hawks (now, finally in Atlanta). They finished one game under .500 that year.

In '51, he went to work for Walter Brown - and, boy, did he go to work. He coached the Celtics for 17 years, until 1966. He never had a losing season and made the playoffs 17 times. He systematically built one dynasty (Russell/Havlicek) as a coach, then another (Larry Bird, et. al.) as General Manager. Byrd was an Auerbach player; the superstar who thought of the team first, running, passing off, and playing hard defense, working as hard as, or harder than, anyone on the floor.

Even when he retired from coaching and worked in the front office, Auerbach was still on the floor. He would spot a potential star in some high school or college and hands-on develop him into an eventual Celtic. He was incredible at finding NBA "has-beens", like Bailey Howell and Clyde Lovellette, trading for them, then rejuvenating them as key players for the Celts.

Word has it that the cocaine death of Len Bias in 1986, two hours after he was drafted, one of his proteges, a college phenom, broke Red's heart. But he hung in there with a loyalty rarely equaled. He was a Celtic 'til the end. A true super hero.

Red died yesterday. Eerily enough, totally out of the blue, I had a lengthy conversation on Friday night, with a guy I had never met before, about Red's greatness, which he passed on to so many folks who knew him.

I won't, I can't, say goodbye, Red. I just want to say thank you, for everything. I'll light a cigar for you today . . . you're the absolute winner.