Very rarely in life do we come across someone who is a legend in their profession and summits that same paramount in life.

Arnold “Red” Auerbach was just that person.

The cigar-smoking legend passed away Saturday at the age of 89 from a heart attack.

The basketball numbers are impressive – 938 wins as a head coach and nine titles, including eight in a row from 1959-66.

Not to mention the man won seven more titles as an executive, in addition to drafting Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and Larry Bird.

The Celtics’ patriarch was the creator of the fast break, the style of play that led to the game’s explosion years later. The argument can be made that with the exception of James Naismith, nobody has given more to the game of basketball.

However, it may be Auerbach’s impact as a person that eclipses those prodigious numbers.

The Brooklyn native was nicknamed “Red” because of his fiery red hair and matching personality. Although he was known for his tough exterior, nobody cared more about his players. Former Celtics star Paul Silas called Auerbach a “teddy bear” after his death.

It is interesting that Auerbach entered the NBA in 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.

Auerbach was the Branch Rickey of basketball, drafting Chuck Cooper in his inaugural year with the Celtics in 1950. Cooper was the first black player ever selected in the NBA draft.

With all due respect to Cooper, it was Hall of Fame center Bill Russell who became Jackie Robinson to Red’s Rickey. Keep in mind, this is Boston in the late 1950s, not exactly the most racially harmonious place in America. Russell braved waters that only Robinson, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali could wade through.

Auerbach didn’t give a damn about the racial climate in Boston. In fact, Auerbach flew in the face of critics again in the 1963-64 season, becoming the first coach in NBA history to start five black players.

The lineup of Russell, Tom Sanders, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and Willie Naulls not only broke ground in 1963-64, they also won the title, the team’s sixth straight.

Auerbach couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. He just wanted to put the best possible players on the floor.

Auerbach wasn’t done. He made Russell the head coach after his retirement in 1966. Russell was the first black head coach in NBA history.

Now, I wasn’t even alive when Auerbach drafted Larry Bird. Most of my memories are from ESPN Classic footage of the Celtics teams of the mid 1980s. The famous Hoyo de Monterrey victory cigar in hand, that booming voice, the ebullient face after another Celtic title.

That said, I can appreciate the impact he had on basketball and the sports landscape as a whole. There were very few individuals with the stubbornness to be as colorblind as Auerbach was, in the era he was.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *