Monday, October 30, 2006


-Auerbach left indelible mark on the game-

He started out with little more than the gift of gab and a world of self-confidence.
Back in the summer of 1946, he was an inexperienced high school coach when he conned
team owner Mike Uline into hiring him to oversee the Washington Capitals just prior
to the Basketball Association of America's inaugural season. His primary selling point
was that he could stock the Caps with veteran players from various military teams he'd
played for and coached during the war. Which he did.
The likes of Bob Feerick, "Fat" Freddie Scolari, Horace "Bones" McKinney. John Mahnken,
Johnny Norlander and other long-forgotten heroes, back when hoopers were called "cagers,"
"roundballers" and "goons."
Once that first season began, however, it was evident to his players that he was in over
his head. Xs and Os were largely a mystery to him, and so were the intricacies of game
preparation and player motivation. But his belief in himself never faltered. Indeed, even
though he had been a mediocre high school player, he regularly boasted that he was better
than any of the Caps' guards. That's why he routinely challenged them to play him one-on-one.
That his players normally shut him out and laughed in his face didn't change his bloated
opinion of his on-court capabilities.
The most important contribution he made to his team was to make sure they were in superior
shape when the season began — a factor which led to the Caps racing to the top of the league
from the get-go. And he was always a quick learner. The Caps finished that season at 49-11,
101 games better than the league's next-best team (the Chicago Stags). At home, his charges
were an astounding 29-1. Nobody was more surprised than he was when Washington was
unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs by the Stags.
After two more seasons in Washington, the BAA merged with several teams from the National
Basketball League to form the NBA. By 1950, he was coaching the Boston Celtics.
By then, he was an accomplished tactician. For sure, he could still be obnoxious. (Remember
his victory cigars?) And nobody ever rode the referees as viciously as he did. He was gruff
and stubborn, too. Sometimes charming, oftentimes dismissive. But he was deemed by his peers
to be nothing more than a good coach. Resourceful. An excellent judge of talent. A coach
whose teams always played with emotion. Then, in 1956, when he engineered a trade for Bill
Russell, he became a bonafide genius.
That was also the year in which the 24-second shot clock became law. Trouble was that most
of the other coaches didn't really know how to adjust their game plans to suit the new
restriction. Their offenses remained basically unchanged, and when the clock was on the verge
of oblivion, somebody forced up a shot.
Ah, but he had it all figured out: Pressure the ball on defense, deny reversal passes and
funnel ball-handlers toward Russ. Then get out and run. And keep running, from tip-off to
buzzer, from baseline to baseline, from October to May.
So it was that speed trumped strength. That opponents were forced to play, and think, quicker
than they wanted to. That defense created enough offense for the Celts to win multiple
Through it all, he never did master the coaches' alphabet of Xs and Os. But he did become a
master psychologist who lectured his players on the virtues of endless hustle. Of always
making the extra pass. Of the absolute expectation, and necessity, of winning. He also valued
role players, guys who could only play defense, guys who could only wield ruthless elbows,
guys who could do whatever it took to come up with a crucial loose ball, or set an
obliterating pick. He developed an uncanny sense of evaluating just how a player could (or
could not) fit into his designs. And he wasn't afraid to play five black players at the same
time. Not even in the marginally racist culture of post-mid-twentieth century Boston.
Sure, he grew crotchety in his later years. Resenting Phil Jackson for matching his nine
championship rings, and even denigrating Jackson's achievement in the watered-down modern
But he was happy enough to still be able to smoke his cigars, eat his favorite Chinese food
(chicken with broccoli), reminisce about the good old days, and be rightfully regarded as an
authentic living legend.
He was easy to love and just as easy to hate. But he could never be ignored, and he always
demanded (and deserved) the utmost respect from both his friends and his foes. He was a true
pioneer who significantly shaped the past, the present and the future of the game he loved.
And now he belongs to the ages.
So long, Red. Thanks for the run.

By Charley Rosen, rewritten by Foreigner in CS - Oct 30 2006 8:49AM

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