Auerbach was league apart with his influence on NBA

Other Voices

October 31, 2006|By Bob Ryan | Bob Ryan,The Boston Globe

What most people don't realize is that Red Auerbach married the prettiest girl in town. Even in her 70s, Dorothy (Lewis) Auerbach was an elegant presence in the finest Sophia Loren sense, and one can only imagine what a head-turning traffic-stopper she must have been when young Arnie Auerbach slipped that ring onto her finger oh, so many years ago.

But should we be surprised? We already knew Red, who died at 89 Saturday, had an eye for talent.

Well, yes, there was the problem with his original dismissal of Bob Cousy as merely an overrated favorite of the "local yokels," but the Cousy episode was one of the very few professional misjudgments in the career of the most important non-playing person in the history of professional basketball. That's a non-negotiable premise. Red was coaching the Washington Capitols when the Basketball Association of America began play there in 1946 (the BAA merged with the National Basketball League three years later to form the National Basketball Association), and he was still the Celtics' team president almost 60 years to the day from the BAA's first game. No one in NBA history ever has had more influence on the sport.

The Red Auerbach folklore is extensive: the seven basic plays, plus options. The victory cigar. The Chinese food. The legendarily bad driving.

The way he protected the owner du jour's money even better than he did his own. The love of Asian art and furniture. The letter opener collection. The image of him with the rolled-up program battling such referee foils as Sid Borgia and Mendy Rudolph. The love of tennis and racquetball. The chutzpah to draft the NBA's first black player, Chuck Cooper, in 1950; the further chutzpah to start five black players in the 1964-65 season; and even more chutzpah to name Bill Russell his successor when he retired from coaching in 1966.

And more: The fact that during the Bird Era he was not to be disturbed between 4 and 5 in his office, because that's when he watched Hawaii 5-0. The cabdriver who might have persuaded him not to leave Boston for the Knicks. The pioneering 1950s and '60s State Department trips that spread the basketball gospel to Europe, Asia and Africa. The ceaseless and touching devotion to George Washington University, his alma mater.

Even if you were to hear 10 tales for each Auerbach idiosyncrasy, foible or association, you still wouldn't know the half of what he was like. But I'll tell you one thing he was, and that was larger than life.

I'm 24. I have just finished my first year of covering the Celtics and it is Draft Day 1970. I walk into Red's office, where he would make his selections into a squawk box connected to the league headquarters in New York (it was not quite the extensive production it is today), and as soon as he sees me, he barks, "Ryan, I ought to cut your [very private part] off!" My crime? I had written that his 1962 choice of John Havlicek, long assumed to have been the product of superior Auerbach prescience, actually had been the result of a strong recommendation from then-team promotion director (and fellow Hall of Famer) Bill Mokray.

You could never underestimate Red's wry humor. He once said to me, "Who's the best sixth man in the history of the NBA?" I guessed, naturally, Havlicek. Red said, "No." I tried Billy Cunningham. Then I guessed Ernie Vandeweghe. Again, "No." "The answer," Red said, "is Chinky Shapiro." "Who?" I said. "Chinky Shapiro. He was the timer in Rochester."

If Dorothy Lewis had been his best draft choice, Bill Russell was surely his second. Five, seven, nine or 11 championships down the road, the move to make Bill Russell a Celtic in the 1956 draft might have looked like a rather obvious decision, but that was not at all the case. Russell was something new, and many NBA traditionalists didn't really know what to make of him. After all, Red and owner Walter Brown did have to scheme with both St. Louis and Rochester to get Russell's rights.

Red absolutely, positively knew that Russell was the answer to his prayers. Conversely, Red was the answer to Russell's. The latter has said many times that he never would have been the NBA player he turned out to be had he been playing for any other coach. Red knew who Russell was, both professionally and, more important, personally. He knew how to appeal to Russell's pride to get the necessary work done, and he knew when to back off. Treat Russell the same way he did everyone else? Red knew better.

He always knew.

There was a time more than a year ago, for example, when he was gravely ill, and it appeared he was on his way out. But he awakened, and a friend, Rob Ades, said to him, "Red, we thought we were going to lose you." Red looked at him. "I'll decide," he rasped.

God, I miss him already.

Bob Ryan writes for The Boston Globe.

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