Arnold Jacob "Red" Auerbach (September 20, 1917 – October 28, 2006) was a basketball coach of the Washington Capitols, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks and the Boston Celtics. After he retired from coaching, he served as president and front office executive of the Celtics until his death. As a coach, he won 938 games (a record at his retirement) and 9 National Basketball Association (NBA) championships, a coaching record shared with Phil Jackson. As general manager and team president of the Celtics, he won an additional 7 NBA titles, for a grand total of 16 in a span of 29 years, making him one of the most successful team officials ever in the history of North American professional sports.
Beyond trophies, Auerbach is remembered as a pioneer of modern basketball, redefining basketball as a game dominated by team play and tough defense rather than individual feats and high scoring and introducing the fastbreak as a potent offensive weapon. He groomed many players who went on to be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame but more importantly, Auerbach was vital in breaking down color barriers in the NBA. He made history by drafting the first African-American NBA player in Chuck Cooper (1950), and introduced the first fully black starting five in 1964. Famous for his polarizing nature, he was also well-known for smoking victory cigars when he thought a game was decided, a habit that became cult in Boston.
For his feats, Auerbach received a multitude of honors. In 1967, the NBA Coach of the Year award, which he had won in 1965, was named the "Red Auerbach Trophy", and Auerbach was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1969. In 1980, he was named the greatest coach in the history of the NBA by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America, and was NBA Executive of the Year in 1981. In addition, Auerbach was voted one of the NBA 10 Greatest Coaches in history, was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and is honored with a retired number-2 jersey in the TD Banknorth Garden, the home of the Boston Celtics.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Auerbach Jr. played basketball at PS 122 and in the Eastern District High School, but with his relative diminutive height of 5-9 and his asthma, he never was really successful. His only achievement was being named "Second Team All-Brooklyn by the World-Telegram" in his senior year. Upon graduating in 1935, Auerbach planned to go into basketball coaching. After several rejections due to relatively low academic scores, Bill Reinhart of George Washington University accepted Auerbach into his basketball program in Washington, D. C.. Auerbach became a standout basketball player and graduated with a M.A. in 1941. In those years, Auerbach began to understand the importance of the fastbreak, appreciating how potent a quick attack with three charging attackers versus two back-pedalling defenders would be.
In the 1946-47 BAA season, Auerbach led a fastbreak-oriented team built around early BAA star Bones McKinney and various ex-Navy players to a 49–11 win-loss record, including a standard-setting 17 game winning streak that stood as the league record until 1969. In the playoffs however, they were defeated by the Chicago Stags in six games.
The next year the Capitols went 28–20 but were eliminated from the playoffs in a one-game Western Division tie-breaker. In the 1948-49 BAA season, the Caps won their first 15 games (still a league record start) and finished the season at 38–22. The team reached the BAA Finals, but were beaten by the Minneapolis Lakers, who were led by Hall-of-Fame center George Mikan. In the next season, the BAA and the rival league National Basketball League merged to become the NBA, and Auerbach felt he had to rebuild his squad. However, owner Uline declined his proposals, and Auerbach resigned.
Auerbach was then approached by Ben Kerner, owner of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. After getting a green light to rebuild the team from scratch, Auerbach traded more than two dozen players in just six weeks, and the revamped Blackhawks improved, but ended the 1949-50 NBA season with a losing record of 28–29. When Kerner traded Auerbach's favorite player John Mahnken, an angry Auerbach resigned again.
Prior to the 1950-51 NBA season, Auerbach was approached by Walter Brown, owner of the Boston Celtics. Brown was desperate to turn around his struggling and financially strapped franchise which was reeling from a terrible 22–46 record. So, the still young but already seasoned Auerbach was made coach. In the 1950 NBA Draft, Auerbach made some notable moves. First, he famously snubbed Hall-of-Fame New England point guard Bob Cousy in the 1950 NBA Draft, infuriating the Boston crowd. He argued that the flashy Cousy was too air-headed to make his team, taunting him as a "local yokel." Second, he drafted African-American Chuck Cooper, the first black player to be drafted by an NBA club. With that, Auerbach effectively broke down the color barrier in professional basketball.
In that year, the core of the Celtics consisted of Hall-of-Fame center Ed Macauley, Auerbach's old favorite McKinney and an unlikely addition, Bob Cousy. Cousy had refused to report to the club which drafted him (ironically, Auerbach's old club, the Blackhawks), and because his next team (the Chicago Stags) folded, he ended up with the Celtics. With Auerbach's fastbreak tactics, the Celtics scored a 39–30 record, but lost in the 1951 NBA Playoffs to the New York Knicks. However, the relationship between Auerbach and Cousy improved when the coach saw that the "Houdini of the Hardwood"—as the spectacular dribbler and flashy passer Cousy was lovingly called—became the first great playmaker of the NBA.
In the following 1951-52 NBA season, Auerbach made a remarkable draft pick, namely future Hall-of-Fame guard Bill Sharman. With the high-scoring Macauley, elite passer Cousy and new prodigy Sharman, Auerbach had a core which provided high-octane fastbreak basketball. Other notable players who joined were forwards Frank Ramsey and Jim Loscutoff. In the next years until 1956, the Celtics would make the playoffs every year, but never won the title. In fact, the Celtics often choked in the playoffs, going a mere 10–17 in the postseason from 1951 through 1956. As Cousy put it: "We would get tired in the end and could not get the ball." As a result, Auerbach sought a defensive big man who could both get easy rebounds, initiate fastbreaks and close out games.
Anchored by defensive stalwart Russell, the tough Celtics forced their opponents to take low-percentage shots from farther distances; misses were then often grabbed by perennial rebounding champion Russell, who then either passed it on to elite fastbreak distributor Cousy or made the outlet pass himself, providing their sprinting colleagues opportunities for an easy slam dunk or layup. Auerbach also emphasized the need for role players like Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek, who became one of the first legitimate sixth men in NBA history, a role later succeeded by Don Nelson. Auerbach's recipe proved devastating for the opposition. From 1956 to 1966, the Celtics won nine of ten NBA championships. This included eight consecutive championships—which formed the longest championship streak in North American sports—and beating the Los Angeles Lakers of Hall-of-Famers Elgin Baylor and Jerry West six times in the NBA Finals. Perhaps most notably, this also included denying perennial scoring and rebounding champion Wilt Chamberlain any chance of winning a title during Auerbach's coaching reign.
Flowing from Auerbach's emphasis on teamwork, what was also striking about his teams was that they never seemed to have a dominant scorer: in the 1960-61 NBA season for instance, the Celtics had six players who scored between 15 and 21 points, but none made the Top 10 scoring list. Auerbach also firmly believed in breaking down color barriers in the NBA. In 1964, he sent out the first-ever NBA starting five consisting of an African-American quintet, namely Russell, Willie Naulls, Tom Sanders, Sam Jones and K. C. Jones. Auerbach would go a step further in the 1966-67 NBA season, when he stepped down after winning nine titles in 11 years, and made Bill Russell coach. Auerbach also popularized smoking a victory cigar whenever he thought a game was already decided, a habit that became cult in the Boston area. Furthermore, having acquired a reputation as a fierce competitor, he often got into verbal altercations with officials, receiving more fines and getting ejected more often than any other coach in NBA history.
All in all, Auerbach coached nine championship teams directly and mentored 4 players, Russell, Sharman, Heinsohn and K.C. Jones who would go on to win an additional 7 NBA championships as coaches (two each for Russell, Heinsohn and Jones, all with the Celtics and one for Sharman, with the Lakers). Nine players who played for Auerbach have been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame namely Ramsey, Cousy, Sharman, Heinsohn, Russell, K. C. Jones, Havlicek, Sam Jones and Bailey Howell. Although Don Nelson only played for Auerbach's last year as coach, his influence is profound: Nelson would later join Auerbach as one of the 10 Greatest Coaches in NBA history,. Sharman would become one of only three people to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. Few, if any, coaches can match Auerbach's record of wins and successful mentorship of his players.
However, Auerbach could not prevent the Celtics going into a slump at the end of the 1970s. When scoring champion Havlicek retired in 1978, the Celtics went 61–103 in two seasons. But in 1979, Boston's fortunes changed when Auerbach set his eyes on talented college player Larry Bird. Despite knowing that Bird had a year of college eligibility remaining, he drafted him in the 1978 NBA Draft and waited for a year until the future Hall-of-Fame forward Bird finally arrived. Auerbach immediately sensed that the brilliant, hardworking Bird would be the cornerstone of a new Celtics generation.
In 1980, Auerbach made another great coup. He convinced the Golden State Warriors to trade him a #3 overall pick and future Hall-of-Fame center Robert Parish in exchange for the #1 pick in the draft, namely Joe Barry Carroll, who went on to have an unremarkable career. With the #3 pick, Auerbach selected the player he most wanted in the draft, Kevin McHale, who would also join the Hall of Fame. The frontcourt of Parish-McHale-Bird became one of the greatest frontlines in NBA history. Other valuable role players were M.L. Carr, veteran point guard Nate Archibald and Gerald Henderson, and later Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge. Auerbach's hand-picked coach Bill Fitch led the revamped Celtics to the 1981 NBA title, and it was another Auerbach pupil, K.C. Jones, who continued with another title in 1984.
In an interview, Auerbach confessed that he lost interest in big-time managing in the early 1990s, preferring to stay in the background and concentrating on his pastimes, racquetball and his beloved cigar-smoking. He would, however, stay on with the Celtics as president until 1997, as vice chairman until 2001, and then became president again, a position he held until his death. although he grew visibly frail in his final years.
Auerbach was known for his love for cigar smoking. Having made his victory cigars a cult in the 1960s, Boston restaurants would often say "no cigar or pipe smoking, except for Red Auerbach". In addition, Auerbach was well-known for his love of Chinese food. In an interview shortly before his death, he explained that since the 1950s, Chinese takeaway was the most convenient nutrition: back then, NBA teams travelled on regular flights and had a tight time schedule, so filling up the stomach with heavier non-Chinese food, meant wasting time and risking travel-sickness. Over the years, Auerbach became so fond of this food that he even became a part-owner of a Chinese restaurant in Boston.
Despite his fierce nature, Auerbach was popular among his players. He recalled that on his 75th birthday party, 45 of his ex-players showed up; and when he became 80, his perennial 1960s victim Wilt Chamberlain showed up, a gesture which Auerbach dearly appreciated.
In an interview with ESPN, Auerbach stated that his all-time team would consist of Bill Russell - who in the former's opinion was the ultimate player to start a franchise - as well as Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, with John Havlicek as the sixth man. Regarding greatest basketballers of all time, Auerbach's candidates were Russell, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Robertson."
During the 2006-07 NBA season, Auerbach appeared posthumously in a series of NBA commercials where he breaks down formations like "3 on 2 situations" and "rebounding," and as a testament to his importance in the Boston sports world, the Boston Red Sox honored Auerbach at their April 20th, 2007 game against the New York Yankees by wearing green uniforms and by hanging replicated Celtics championship banners on the "Green Monster" at Fenway Park. Boston won 7-6.
Prior to Boston's season opener against the Wizards, his signature was officially placed on the parquet floor near center court, thereby naming the court as "Red Auerbach Parquet Floor." The ceremony was attended by his daughter Randy and some of the Celtics legends. The signature replaced the Red Auerbach memorial logo used during the 2007 season.
In addition to coaching, Auerbach was a highly effective mentor; several players coached by Auerbach would become successful coaches themselves. Bill Russell won two titles as Auerbach's successor, Tom Heinsohn won a pair of championships as a Celtics coach in the 1970s, K.C. Jones led the Celtics to two further titles in the 1980s, and Bill Sharman coached the Los Angeles Lakers to their first title in 1972. In addition, prototypical sixth man Don Nelson had a highly successful coaching career and joined his mentor Auerbach as one of 10 Greatest Coaches in NBA history.
In Auerbach's honor, the Celtics have retired a number-2 jersey with the name "AUERBACH," memorializing his role as the second most important Celtic ever, behind founder Walter Brown, in whose honor the number-1 "BROWN" jersey is retired.
While Auerbach was not known for his tactical bandwidth, famously restricting his teams to just seven plays, he was well-known for his psychological warfare, often provoking opposing players and officials with unabashed trash talk. For his fiery temper, he was ejected more often and received more fines than any other coach in NBA history. Concerning his own team, Auerbach was softer. Earl Lloyd, the first black player to play in the NBA, said: "Red Auerbach convinced his players that he loved them […] so all they wanted to do was please him."