THE UNDISPUTED GUIDE TO PRO
BASKETBALL R O T
green and black and red all over The Mind and Spirit of Auerbach’s Über-Dynasty STOGIES: Cousy called Auerbach’s victory-cigar ritual “the single most arrogant act in sports.” During his career Red smoked, in chronological order, Robert Burns, Antonio y Cleopatra, Hoyo de Monterrey, and Dutch Masters cigars. Red vs. pure aesthetics: In the seventies, Auerbach created a series of Red on Roundball instructional films for the NBA, featuring various stars from the league. For the most part, these clips cover useful subjects like how to set a solid pick. The lone exception came when Pete Maravich dropped by. Maravich engages in such spectacular feats as dribbling two balls between his legs very close to the ground and dropping and catching a ball behind his back with a clap in between. Red struggles valiantly to explain how these drills have any practical application.
etween 1957 and 1969, the Boston Celtics won eleven NBA championships, including eight straight from 1959–66. Usually, when we confront this kind of sustained, bonepulping dominance, there’s cause for uneasiness. At some point along the path to perpetual victory, souls are sold, man becomes machine. This is the banner of the twentieth century. Yet while these Boston teams were ruthlessly efficient, they never forfeited their humanity. They reveled in it, in fact. The dynasty’s architect, the loudmouthed, cigar-chomping Red Auerbach, might have come across as the unlikely hybrid of Mel Brooks and George C. Scott’s Patton. Cinematically speaking, however, the best comparison is John Cassavetes. A film like Husbands may feel improvised, but Cassavetes never stopped clutching his script, and worked closely with his actors so they could approximate just the right kind of naturalism. Likewise, Auerbach put his players in chains so that they might really be free, limiting their roles so they might truly flourish. When Auerbach came to the Celtics in 1950, basketball was unsophisticated, its teams made up of undifferentiated forwards and guards and a de facto center. Lakers coach John Kundla had started the league down the path toward specialization by designating one stronger forward and a principal ball handler. Having George Mikan, the NBA’s first true anything (big man or otherwise), likely encouraged Kundla to move in this direction. But Auerbach made an art of role playing. Hot-shit guard Bob Cousy, who had learned his evasive dribbling and no-look distributing on integrated New York City courts, dominated the ball. This freed up Bill Sharman to pay attention to what he did best: get open shots and knock them down with a minimum of fuss. That makes Sharman the first pure shooting guard. Forward Frank Ramsey was undersized, perimeter-oriented, and preferred to come in off the bench as instant offense. He now holds the dual distinction of being both the NBA’s first small forward and 34
THE UNDISPUTED GUIDE TO PRO BASKETBALL HISTORY
its first sixth man. Tommy Heinsohn’s loopy inside-outside game makes him the forerunner of both tweener forwards and coach-sanctioned gunners. Defensive wizard Bill Russell has claimed that he himself could have scored more, but didn’t deserve the touches. Auerbach’s philosophy allowed individualism and collective order not only to coexist amicably but to fuse into one. By pinpointing which individuals could contribute and making them better at it, Red fashioned himself a tool kit to work with. It was then his job to figure out exactly how all these finished products fit together and how best to employ them. Today these roles are part of basketball’s vocabulary, but at the time they were just Auerbach’s way of letting his players’ strengths dictate the division of labor. That’s not to say Red had no ideas of his own. Before coming to the Celtics, any team he’d coached, from D.C.-area high school up through his tenure with the BAA’s Washington Capitols, had run the fast-break offense Auerbach learned from George Washington University’s Bill Reinhart. However, in what one might sentimentally regard as his breakthrough as a coach, Auerbach had to learn to live with Bob Cousy. Auerbach’s first seasons with Boston saw him grudgingly accept a star he did not want and then use this rare talent to defile his beloved fast break—all without violating his philosophy, and all because circumstance demanded it. Circumstance, in fact, was at the heart of his philosophy—a great American pragmatist if ever there was one. When owner Walter Brown brought on Auerbach in time for the 1950 draft, Red had no interest in Holy Cross standout Cousy. The Celtics had been stockpiling regional college players in a largely futile ploy to boost attendance; Red wanted to win, not pander to fans, and thus angrily dismissed Cousy as yet another “local yokel.” There were also questions as to whether Cousy’s circuitous way with the rock wasn’t just a little too fancy, or foreign, for the hard-nosed pro context. Auerbach got his way but would soon find himself stuck with Cousy anyway. The TriCities Blackhawks drafted Cousy, then traded him to the Chicago Stags when contract negotiations stalled—Cousy was insisting on additional money for his dream business, a Massachusetts driving school. The Stags subsequently folded, and in a dispersal draft, the Celts drew Cousy’s name from a hat. Owner Walter Brown was elated, Red peevish. It didn’t take THEY WALKED THIS EARTH
RED’s PUNCHING BAG: Auerbach never yelled at his two relatively introverted stars, Russell and Cousy, and he was loath to discipline Bill Sharman or Frank Ramsey, neither of whom responded well to criticism. He was also very sensitive about possibly demeaning black players. That left the perennially out-of-shape Tommy Heinsohn and his pack-a-day cigarette habit to bear the brunt of Auerbach’s abuse.
THE UNDISPUTED GUIDE TO PRO BASKETBALL HISTORY
THEY WALKED THIS EARTH
THE JAZZ-O-METER 1960s RATING: Very jazzy (90/100) NAPTOWN NATIVES: Oscar Robertson was a big jazz fan and attended Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis with jazz musicians Freddie Hubbard, James Spaulding, and Larry Ridley. In recent years, Ridley has held a number of “Jazz & Basketball” motivational workshops with former Globetrotter Hallie Bryant, who also attended Crispus Attucks. Hubbard, in particular, had a reputation as a formidable basketball player, and, when asked about it in the immortal book Notes and Tones, he responds by name-dropping Kareem and boasting, “He knows it because I grew up with Oscar Robertson, and he’s the baddest!” GREEN NOTES: On the racially diverse Celtics teams of the era, almost all of the players loved jazz. The night after they won their tenth championship in 1968, the team went out to a jazz club to see Cannonball Adderley. BIG SMALL’s: In 1961, Wilt Chamber-
lain bought the legendary jazz club Small’s Paradise and gave it the awkward and oxymoronic name Big Wilt’s Small’s Paradise. One of the central nightclubs of the Harlem Renaissance, during Wilt’s reign its performers were more likely to be soul acts such as James Brown or comedians such as Redd Foxx.
long for Auerbach to swallow his pride and acknowledge that, in fact, Bob Cousy was more than a native son with a crowd-pleasing game and a love of three-point turns. Had Red been less shrewd, he would have immediately turned Cousy loose on the break and ignited an entirely new style of play—except the shot clock was still four years away, which meant that stalling, the antithesis of what one would have expected from Auerbach and Cousy, was still the surest means of victory. Thus Auerbach employed Cousy’s speed and vision to keep anything else from ever happening. Mercifully, the shot clock was unveiled in 1954, and Auerbach promptly pushed the new rule to its logical (and quite sensible) extremes. More possessions meant more chances to score, and getting up the court before the defense could set up increased field goal percentage. With Cousy, Sharman, and Ed Macauley leading the way, the Celtics turned into a one-way bonanza—until, so the story goes, Auerbach got religion and procured the services of Russell, who would provide the defense (today, proverbially) needed to win championships. Except Russell’s version of defense didn’t slow down the game or stop the ball. It continuously looked to trigger the offense or shave transition down to an instant. Red had never seen Russell play when, in 1956, he dealt the Hawks’ Macauley and the rights to Cliff Hagan, a dreamy Kentucky standout then with the military, for Russell’s draft rights. Reinhart had watched Russell as a junior at the University of San Francisco and convinced Red that this unconventional big man was the latest development in fast-break research. Russell’s teammates funneled opposing players toward the rapacious center, and Russell got the ball back to them as fast as possible, sometimes not even bothering to make it past half-court himself. He could be seamlessly integrated into everything the team was already doing, thus creating a basketball Möbius strip as his defense led to more offense, which led to more defense. The Celtics could remain a free-flowing orgy of scoring, using only a handful of set plays and expecting their shooters to jack up attempts as soon as they saw the basket clearly. Making Bill Russell the most important player on the Celtics was, to say the least, brazen. But, true to form, Auerbach either didn’t bother to note the racial implications of the move or just wasn’t particularly interested in them—even given Russell’s strong political convictions and willingness to share them with others. In 1950, Auerbach backed Walter Brown’s pick of Duquense’s Chuck 38
THE UNDISPUTED GUIDE TO PRO BASKETBALL HISTORY
Cooper, the first African American drafted into the NBA, because Coop could play. Now he was willing to give up two white future Hall of Famers for a young black player who would first gut and then renovate fully the edifice Red had built. What’s more, while Russell needed some refining, he didn’t need Auerbach to tell him who he was. Russell already understood how his skill set could most dramatically affect a game, and in Red he found the one coach who grasped how revolutionary he could be. Call them mentor and muse—there’s no separating Auerbach from Russell. Russell was the totalizing factor that allowed Red’s game plan to encompass both ends of the court. Auerbach won his first championship in 1957, Russell’s first year. The following season, Russell was the MVP, but due to an injury to the second-year center, Boston lost in the Finals to the Hawks and ex-Celtics Macauley and Hagan. They wouldn’t cede the title again until 1967; after that, they tacked on two more for good measure. Red’s approach to sustaining the Celtics dynasty was no less distinctive. With a few notable exceptions, Auerbach was a firm, almost arrogant believer in “best available.” He didn’t attempt to clone players or turn specialization into standardization. In fact, as teams around the league were starting to process the lessons of Celtics 1.0, Auerbach was grooming a second wave that revamped the original team’s division of labor. By the time Cousy retired in 1963, the Celtics had taken on more of Russell’s personality—in both game and temperment. Sam Jones, K. C. Jones, John Havlicek, and Satch Sanders were all relentless defenders, exceptional athletes, and extremely capable scorers who sought balance above all else. Gone were all traces of the early NBA that had sometimes infected the Celtics, the egotism and lust for buckets that had reigned when contracts were based on scoring and when financial security was scarce. Sam Jones could take over games but preferred to do so only when necessary. This almost dismissive attitude toward individual glory was about as abrasive as well-balanced basketball gets. Playing a role was a form of professionalism and a point of pride, not an exercise in self-abnegation. And, just as important, the team’s self-sacrifice was, as Nietzsche suggests, its own kind of pent-up swagger. Celts 2.0 emerged gradually, propping up the Cousy/Heinsohn/ Sharman teams while at the same time phasing out their style of play. The championships continued unabated, the vets wore down THEY WALKED THIS EARTH
DOUBLE-DIPPING: A number of Boston Celtics played other sports professionally. played in the Brooklyn Dodgers minor-league system from 1950 to 1955.
pitched in the majors for eleven seasons, posting a 91–86 record and a 3.82 ERA over his career.
K. C. Jones was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams despite not even playing college football. John Havlicek was drafted by both the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Browns in 1962.
The Real Mr. Clutch: Jerry West is Mr. Clutch, but among the Celtics, Sam Jones held the nickname. Using his patented bank shot, Jones averaged at least 23 points per game in five consecutive playoffs, including a 28.6 mark in 1965, when the Celtics defeated West’s Lakers in a five-game Finals.
Kickin’ It With Kennedy: After the Celtics won their fifth straight NBA championship in 1963, the team was invited to the White House to meet the president. At the time, such visits had not yet become a tradition, and they were invited only because John F. Kennedy, being from Boston, was a huge Celtics fan. The players got to hang out in the Cabinet Room, pretending they were government officials and joking with the president. When Kennedy and the team said their good-byes, Tom “Satch” Sanders famously told JFK, “Take it easy, baby.”
more slowly than they would have otherwise (and sometimes hung on longer than they should have), and the players who would define the team’s future had to content themselves with supporting parts well into their primes. It was not until the retirement of the irreplaceable Russell, in 1969, that the team’s regenerative process ground to a halt. But these extended apprenticeships were a key element of the Celtics culture. In 1964–65, the New Celtics became the first NBA team to field an all-black starting five when Willie Naulls stepped in for the injured, and aged, Heinsohn. The team played better with this lineup, and while it’s tempting to claim that racism kept Naulls from retaining his starting spot, this analysis ignores precisely what kept this diverse bunch so tight: Heinsohn was taking his curtain call, and no matter who got the most minutes, he’d start as long as he was able. No one objected because no one questioned the value of respect. Today Red Auerbach is a hero to those who espouse a conservative, coach-centric version of the game. That makes a certain amount of sense; he casts such a long shadow over the NBA’s history that his name is synonymous with tradition, and nostalgia dictates that the game under Auerbach’s watch was in some sense prelapsarian. Plus, the man shouted, cursed, stomped, and won like crazy. It’s this perception of Auerbach and his teams that has led those who see coaches as subordinate to—or at least only as good as—their players to conclude that Celtics hegemony was just one big fucking drag. However, now anyone with an Internet connection can readily watch footage of these teams racing down the floor, whipping the ball past defenders, and then knocking down a split-second jumper or finishing with brio—tough and focused, sure, but a hell of a lot of fun. Red’s way speaks directly to the sphinxlike riddle of basketball: How do individual and team coexist in a way that makes the most of both? Auerbach’s intermingling of player and team identity is perhaps his greatest insight. And, at the same, it’s a nonanswer. That might explain why, to this day, no team has managed to replicate either Red’s methods or the run of success they yielded. —B.S.
THE UNDISPUTED GUIDE TO PRO BASKETBALL HISTORY