Auerbach, Red : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Auerbach, Red

Arnold Jacob Auerbach

Generally considered the greatest coach in the history of the NBA, Auerbach created -- and recreated -- the Boston Celtics dynasty that won nine NBA championships (eight of them consecutive) over 10 years, 11 championships in 13 years, and 16 in total. Red coached nine of those championship teams, then he won seven more as General Manager -- two in the 1960s, two in the 1970s, and three more, after rebuilding the team yet again, in the 1980s.

After this unparalleled legacy of success, Red was finally replaced as President, in 1997, by new coach Rick Pitino. After three seasons in which Boston failed to make the playoffs, the Celtics turned to Red once again. On October 4, 2001, Auerbach was once more named Celtics team President. In the 2001-2002 season, the Celtics reached the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the New Jersey Nets -- a return to excellence surprising only those who underestimated Auerbach's genius for the game.

Throughout his career, Auerbach has been legendary for his unparalleled judgment of talent, his brilliant organizational sense, and his uncanny ability to handle players and get them to play their very best. He was also famous for endlessly grousing about bad calls (he was fined $17,000 during his career), his relentless drive to win -- "Show me a good loser," he'd say, "and I'll show you a loser"-- and his habit of lighting up a cigar when he felt his team was assured of victory. He was the first to draft an African-American player into the NBA (Chuck Cooper in the second round of the 1950 draft), and the first to start five African-American players. Red further broke racial barriers when he hired Bill Russell as Boston's coach (the first African-American coach in the NBA).

Auerbach's trade for Russell, which laid the foundation of the Celtic dynasty, is considered one of the greatest trades ever. Amazingly, Red did it again in a later era, when he traded Joe Barry Carroll for Robert Parish and a draft choice that became Kevin McHale. Those two, combined with the legendary Larry Bird -- another Auerbach draft coup -- formed one of the most formidable front lines ever to step onto a court. As a coach, Red's entire career was peppered with highlights; his overall coaching record was 1,037-548, the best ever recorded by an NBA coach. And in addition to his nine NBA titles as a coach (a feat matched only by Phil Jackson, who won his titles with Chicago and Los Angeles) Red also presided over seven more as Boston's GM.

Birth and Death Dates:
b. Sept. 20, 1917

Career Highlights:
A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, Auerbach began playing basketball as a youngster on the playgrounds of Brooklyn. He recalled that "In my area of Brooklyn (Williamsburg) there was no football, no baseball. They were too expensive. They didn't have the practice fields. We played basketball and handball and some softball in the street." A star at Eastern District High School, where he was All-Brooklyn second team his senior year, Red then played one season at Seth Low Junior College (part of Columbia University) before transferring to George Washington University. After leaving GWU in 1941 with a Master's Degree, he coached high school ball for three years in the Washington, D.C. area. Following a three-year tour of duty in the Navy, Auerbach began his professional coaching career in 1946 at the dawn of a new era.

In 1946, a group of owners came together to form a new professional basketball league called the Basketball Association of America. The league, later to be renamed the National Basketball Association (NBA), had teams in New York (Knicks), Boston (Celtics), Philadelphia (Warriors), and other cities. That first year, Auerbach became the coach of the Washington Capitols and led his team to a league-best 49-11 record, but they lost in the semfinals of the playoffs to the Chicago Stags 4 games to 2.

In 1949, Red led Washington to another Eastern Division title with a 38-22 record, and appeared in his first NBA Finals, where Auerbach and his Caps ran into George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers (the first season the Lakers were in the NBA), and lost the series, 4-2. That was Red's final year in Washington; he left to coach the Tri-Cities Blackhawks after the 1948-49 season, due to a contract dispute with the Caps. After only one season with Tri-Cities, Red left, because the team's owner made a trade without letting him know about it. He had a 29-35 record that year, the only losing season in his career. Auerbach then moved to the Boston Celtics and created a dynasty.

The year before Auerbach took over the Celtics, the team had a dismal 22-46 record and owner Walter Brown was looking for someone to turn the franchise around. Auerbach fit the role; and with the help of rookie guard Bob Cousy, the Celtics achieved a record of 39-30 in Red's first season. There followed a series of winning seasons in the early 1950s, but the elusive NBA title seemed out of their grasp; the Celtics were a good, but not great team. Red said, "We had a good team, but we would get tired in the end and couldn't get the ball." In 1956, that changed with one brilliant move by Auerbach, who traded All-Star forward Ed Macauley and guard Cliff Hagan for the second pick in the NBA draft. With that pick, the Celtics selected Bill Russell, and instantly became the most dominant team in basketball. After winning the NBA Championship in Russell's rookie season, they lost in the NBA Finals in 1958 with Russell injured. It was the last time in his coaching career that Auerbach would lose the final game of the season. Boston won the next eight NBA titles, a record streak that remains unmatched to this day.

During this stretch, Auerbach popularized the concept of the role player and used the "sixth" man to his advantage. By using one of his better players as a reserve, he provided his squad with a boost from the bench (this at a time when most coaches used their five best players as starters). He also knew how to utilize his team's talent to the maximum. The Celtics ran only seven basic set plays, yet, as Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn said, "He had a touch with people and could get them committed to what he was doing. He made the Celtics into basketball's Cosa Nostra. We believed it was our thing.''

Auerbach's genius molded the gifted Celtics into a winning team. Red expressed it this way: "Individual honors are nice, but no Celtic has ever gone out of his way to achieve them. We have never had the league's top scorer. In fact, we won seven league championships without placing even one among the league's top 10 scorers. Our pride was never rooted in statistics." The only statistic that mattered to Red was winning; when he retired, he had over 1,000 wins, the first coach to surpass that barrier (he had a career coaching record of 1,037-548).

During his tenure as coach, Auerbach coached 11 future Hall of Famers, including Russell, Cousy, John Havlicek, and Sam Jones. When he retired from coaching in 1966 with the Celtics winning their eighth straight championship, he remained Boston's general manager and named Russell the team's player-coach; Russell thus became the first African-American head coach in NBA history.

When Russell retired a few years later, many believed that the Celtic magic was gone, and that Auerbach would not be able to win without his intimidating center. Red proved his doubters wrong by quickly rebuilding the Celtics, winning two more titles in the 1970s (the Knicks were the only other franchise to win two titles that decade). In 1970, the first year without Russell, the Celtics went 34-48, but three seasons later they had a record of 68-14; the following year, they were NBA champions once again. Auerbach rebuilt the Celtics again in the early 1980s, drafting Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. Those two -- and Red's trade for Parish -- helped lead the Celtics to three more titles that decade, bringing Boston's total number of championships to an incredible 16.

Over his illustrious career, Red was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1965, NBA Executive of the Year in 1980, the NBA's 25th Anniversary All-Time Team coach, and was named by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America (PBWAA) as the greatest coach in NBA history. The uniform number 2 was retired by the Celtics in 1985 in recognition of Auerbach's contribution to the franchise (number 1 went to original owner Walter Brown). The NBA's Coach of the Year now receives the Red Auerbach Trophy (which was won by Philadelphia 76er coach Larry Brown in 2001). Simply put, Auerbach is arguably the greatest coach, perhaps the sharpest mind, and certainly one of the most influential people, in the history of basketball.

Brooklyn, New York

Career Dates:
As a college player, 1936-40. As a professional coach, 1946-1966.

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Great Jews in Sports by Robert Slater (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 2000)
encyclopedia of JEWS in sports, by Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1965)
The Official NBA Encyclopedia: Third Edition, edited by Jan Hubbard (New York: Doubleday, 2000)