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Basketball Legend, Red Auerbach Died Saturday at Age 89

October 30, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, memories of basketball legend Red Auerbach, who died this weekend. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: When the game was in hand and the Boston Celtics had another win, Coach Arnold “Red” Auerbach would light a cigar. It was a moment known to fans everywhere, as Auerbach molded the Celtics into one of the greatest dynasties in the history of American sports.

ANNOUNCER: The Boston Celtics are the NBA world champions!

JEFFREY BROWN: Beginning in 1950, through 16 years as head coach, Auerbach led the team to a then-record 938 wins and nine NBA championships.

ANNOUNCER: … putting the ball in play. He gets it out…

… and the Celtics stole the ball. It’s all over! It’s all over!

JEFFREY BROWN: In his role as front office executive, he oversaw seven more.

ARNOLD “RED” AUERBACH, Former Coach, Boston Celtics: When I looked around at all those flags up there, I really feel really great because they mean more to me than flags. They mean people; they mean paying the price for victory.

JEFFREY BROWN: Auerbach made history in other ways as well, drafting the league’s first African-American player, Chuck Cooper; starting its first all-black lineup; and making Bill Russell, a legendary player, its first black coach.

BILL RUSSELL, Former Player-Coach, Boston Celtics: I do not think that I would have been 50 percent as successful any place else as I was in Boston.

JEFFREY BROWN: Larry Bird, a later Celtics star, had this to say.

LARRY BIRD, Former Player, Boston Celtics: Well, he had a unique style. He went out and got players that he thought could fit into the system. The one thing that always surprised me is how he could get players off other teams and they could perform better for the Celtics than they did for the previous team. So he had a talent that I think no one’s ever seen before.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Auerbach, it was a question of motivating players but staying in charge.

RED AUERBACH: You develop a mutual respect. They respect you; you respect them. But nevertheless, you’re the boss, you want things done a certain way, and that’s the way it’s got to be done. That’s all.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Boston this weekend, fans shared memories.

BOSTON CELTICS FAN: And I used to — I’d seem when he’d light up that cigar in the stand and light it up when they were winning that game, and that’s a thrill that you don’t get today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, not everyone was thrilled, as Auerbach well knew.

RED AUERBACH: I know some of the opposing guys used to get mad, but I didn’t do it to offend them. I really didn’t. And most of them knew it, except the time we went into Cincinnati and they gave out 5,000 cigars, figuring they’d beat us and everybody in the place would light a cigar in my face, so to speak. You talk about a motivating pre-game talk.

Contribution to Celtics' dynasty

JEFFREY BROWN: Red Auerbach died Saturday of a heart attack. He was 89 years old.

And some thoughts now on Red Auerbach from sportswriter John Feinstein. John was a close friend of the coach and co-wrote a book with him about his life in basketball called "Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game."

John, welcome.

JOHN FEINSTEIN, Sportswriter: Thanks, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before we go to some of the details for our non-sports fans out there, why is a basketball coach's life so important?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, I think his was important on several levels. First of the all, he made the NBA into a major league. The NBA was really a minor league in the '40s and '50s. Hockey was much more important in every town than the NBA was.

I mean, they were playing in places like Sheboygan, where Red remembers being thrown out of a game in Sheboygan in the '40s, and the guy told him he had to go outside the building. And he said it was three degrees outside. And so he sat upstairs in the stands, which were empty, in order not to go outside.

When the Celtics became a dynasty in the '50s, when they got Bill Russell and they won 11 titles in 13 years, then the NBA had something to grab onto. They were the team everybody wanted to see. That's when the first national TV contracts came into play. The Celtics became a name the way the Yankees were a name in baseball, the way the Packers became a name later in football. That's one level.

The other level is some of the things that were mentioned in the piece, the fact that he was so color-blind. He started five African-Americans in 1963. The most important thing he probably ever did was making Bill Russell the coach of the Celtics when he retired in 1966. There had never been an African-American coach of a major franchise in any sport before that, and Red just did it because it was the right thing to do at the time.

Getting Bill Russell

JEFFREY BROWN: You mention getting Bill Russell. He molded this team, famous as a negotiator, famous for building the team. The story of getting Bill Russell is quite -- one of the most famous stories in sports, right?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Yes, it really is. You know, Red took over the Celtics in 1950. They were near bankruptcy; they were the worst team in the NBA. He built them into a very solid team, but they hadn't won a championship.

In 1956, his college coach, William Reinhart at George Washington University, called him and said, "I've seen your center. The guy is going to win championships for you." There was no scouting in those days, so pro coaches didn't see college players. And Red trusted Reinhart implicitly.

So he traded up to the second spot in the draft, traded two future Hall-of-Famers to get up to the second spot in the draft. But Rochester had the number-one pick and wouldn't give it up. So he went to his owner, Walter Brown, who also owned the Ice Capades. And he had Walter Brown call Les Harrison, the owner in Rochester, and say, "If you don't take Russell with that first pick, I'll send the Ice Capades up to Rochester next winter."

Les Harrison took Sihugo Green; the Celtics took Russell. And the rest is history. The Celtics won 11 of the next 13 titles. I'm sure the Ice Capades were very entertaining, though.

Turning players into champions

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, a lot of this -- I was telling you earlier before we started -- a lot of this is near and dear to my heart, because I grew up in Boston. I went to many of these games at Boston Garden with my father throughout those years.

What stays with me is that they were famous as a team. They created the notion of playing as a team -- on defense, the fast break -- but they put players together to work together. How did Auerbach do that?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Red had a very simple philosophy of coaching. You ask players to do what they can do, not what they can't do. He asked Bob Cousy to pass, because he could pass. He asked Bill Sharman to shoot, because he could shoot. He asked K.C. Jones to play defense, because he could play defense.

Russell was never a scorer. Russell blocked shots; Russell got rebounds; he started the fast break. That was what he did. He didn't say, "This is my system, and you will play my way." He said, "This is your team, and I will build the team around your skills." And he adapted as players came and went.

When John Havlicek became part of the team, they went more to quickness around the basket, because Havlicek was so quick. He always adapted to the skills of his players; he never made them adapt to his coaching style.

JEFFREY BROWN: You read these profiles, and one thing is quite clear, is he's a tough guy, right? I mean, he is the boss.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: No question. But the players had no problem with that, because they understood that, whatever he was telling them, it was because he wanted to win. And they wanted to win, too.

In those days, of course, winning a championship meant more because the players needed that extra playoff money. That was the motivator for them. It's not like now, when they make so many millions of dollars, that winning a championship doesn't mean anything money-wise.

And he would always say, "Hey, fellows, you want that playoff share at the end? You want that championship share at the end? We have to do it this way. We have to" -- one day he couldn't get them to play hard in practice. And he walked out of the gym, came back in, put six cigars down on the bleachers, and said, "Each of these takes me 20 minutes. I can sit here, and smoke every one of them or you guys can play the way I want you to do, and we can be out of here in 20 minutes." They played.

Red's later years

JEFFREY BROWN: You got to know him more recently in his later years. Tell us about him. What was he like?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: He was always fun to be around. He was a great storyteller, obviously. He's known everybody. He knew all the presidents going back to Truman. He'd talk about how lonely DiMaggio was after he broke up with Marilyn Monroe. There wasn't anybody, it seemed, that he didn't know and didn't have a story about.

But he also had this soft side that he didn't like to show in public. He adored children. He loved talking about his great-grandchildren. He became very close to my son, Danny, who's now 12.

We would go to games at George Washington, his alma mater, and Danny and Red would sit together and talk about the game. And then afterwards, Red would say, "Hey, Danny, let's go out and eat." And Danny would turn to me and say, "Hey, Dad, we're going to go to eat." The only reason I was invited was because Danny needed a driver. They were that close.

And he loved to be around his friends. And this lunch group that I was a part of, what Red loved about it was bringing together all these eclectic personalities from different backgrounds and seeing them interact with one another.

JEFFREY BROWN: It struck me today, thinking about this, it's an interesting breed, the sports coach or manager. As a fan, sometimes it seems to me there's so much attention on them. The camera nowadays is always on them. It seems too much to me sometimes. They're all geniuses, or we hear about them. But some in history deserve the attention.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, I think when you talk about the Mt. Rushmore of coaches, Vince Lombardi is on it. John Wooden of UCLA is on it. And Red's on it. That, to me, is the list.

But what's interesting about Red, he always had a philosophy that, when the Celtics won a game, he would talk to the media for no more than five minutes. And then he'd say, "Fellows, the players won the game. Go in and talk to them." If the Celtics lost, Red talked to the media for as long as they wanted, because he was the coach, and he was responsible, and he would answer all the questions. And he always believed that was the way it should be.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how closely did he follow the game up to the end?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: He would have been in Boston Wednesday night for the opener.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the opener.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: And, in fact, I was in the hospital with him last January. He was very sick; he had some kidney problems. He was hooked up to a bunch of tubes.

And a good friend of his, Murray Lieberman, one of his doctors, told him about a trade that the Celtics had made. And Red didn't like the trade. And, I swear to God, Jeff, I thought he was going to rip out all the tubes, pull the ventilator out of his throat, and call Danny Ainge right at that moment, because he was so angry about the trade.

JEFFREY BROWN: I have to ask you, finally, one last thing about the cigar. Of course, nowadays you couldn't get away with that, but I understand there was an exception in Boston?

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Boston City ordnance says, "No smoking in any public buildings, except for Arnold 'Red' Auerbach in the TD Banknorth Garden. He can light up any time."

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The life of Arnold "Red" Auerbach. John Feinstein, thanks a lot.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Jeff.