Red Auerbach, the architect of the Boston Celtics dynasty, once said “There’s no substitution for winning. None. Never forget that.”
The cigar-chomping Auerbach won 16 NBA titles in 29 seasons as coach and general manager of the Celtics – more than any other NBA official. He coached 11 Hall of Famers, including Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. He is considered by many the greatest basketball coach ever, having transformed the game into a team sport that emphasized defense and the fast break.
Auerbach was a ferocious competitor who habitually lit his victory cigar during games to taunt the opposing team. “He ached when we didn’t win,” said his favorite player, Bill Russell.
He arrived in Boston in 1950, an obscure coach of the little-loved sport of professional basketball. Before Red Auerbach, “Boston was a baseball and a hockey town, the Red Sox and the Bruins dominating the sports scene at a time when pro basketball was a poor relation to the college game,” the New York Times reported in his obituary. Auerbach’s winning ways transformed Boston into a basketball-mad city and established the proud Celtics tradition. Along the way, he pioneered race relations, selecting the first black player in an NBA draft and starting the first game ever with an all-black line-up.
Arnold Jacob Auerbach was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Sept. 20, 1917, one of four children of Marie and Hyman Auerbach. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Minsk, Belarus, and his mother was born in America. They owned a delicatessen and later a dry cleaner. Arnold was nicknamed Red because of his red hair and ferocious temper on the basketball court.
Red Auerbach won a basketball scholarship to George Washington University, where he was a standout player. He went to work for the new Washington Capitols in 1946, coaching the team to winning seasons. After a year with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, he joined the Celtics as head coach.
One of the first things he did was to draft an African-American player, Chuck Cooper, breaking the color barrier in professional basketball.
For the next five years, the Celtics would make the playoffs with winning records, but were always eliminated. In 1956, Red put together the first great Celtics team, drafting Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn and K.C. Jones. He already had Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy, the ‘Houdini of the Hardwood.’
The Celtics would win nine of 10 NBA championships from 1957 to 1966. Before playoff games, Auerbach motivated his players by telling them, “It’s easier to win and not have to explain anything than lose and spend the summer explaining why you didn’t win anything.”
Bob Cousy said Auerbach won so many championships because he knew how to manipulate his players. “We all wanted to win badly,” Cousy said. “He more than anybody. But psychologically, he knew how to maintain that motivation.”
Auerbach made sure the Celtics were stable teams that played together well. Though he was a strict disciplinarian, he stood up for his players on and off the court. When he turned 75, 45 of his former players came to his birthday party. “The Boston Celtics are not a basketball team,” Auerbach once said. “They are a way of life.’
Journalist David Halberstam called the Celtics ‘a mass of contradictions.’
“Red Auerbach went after the players of the highest intelligence and character, and then of course paid them horribly,” Halberstam wrote. “They had great coherence as a team, great personal loyalty to each other, great respect and love for Auerbach, who had created this unique institution and honored each of them by making him a part of it, and then of course great anger at him for paying them so little.”
On January 12th, 1966, the Celtics beat the Lakers 114-102, and Red became the first coach to win 1,000 games in the regular season and playoffs. By then he was so loved in Boston that restaurants posted signs, “No pipe or cigar smoking, except for Red Auerbach.” On his 68th birthday, a life-size statue of him was unveiled at Faneuil Hall.
Auerbach retired as coach the next season, becoming the Celtics’ general manager. The team went into a slump but rebounded with a championship team built around Dave Cowens and John Havlicek. He then assembled the next dynasty with Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.
In 1984, he quit as general manager to become president and vice president. In 1986, the Celtics’ first-round draft pick Len Bias died of a drug overdoes. Seven years later, Reggie Lewis died suddenly. Auerbach later confessed he was at that point more interested in racquetball and cigar-smoking than in coaching.
Red Auerbach died on Oct. 28, 2006, at the age of 89.
This story was updated from the 2014 version.
Rare photo of Red without a cigar!
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