[Broadcaster Howard Cosell liked to “tell it like it is.” So, did Boston’s Red Auerbach. When an inquisitive journalist asked him the right question at the right time, Auerbach would light up a cigar at his wooden desk and speak with an opinionated, up-from-the-streets, razor-sharp honesty that, like Cosell, could rub some people the wrong way. In this article from the magazine Basketball Sports Stars of 1971, reporter Larry Bortstein asked Auerbach whether it was true that the 1969-1970 New York Knicks were the greatest team in NBA history? Auerbach gives Bortstein an earful.]
“The New York Knickerbockers may be the greatest team in the history of the National Basketball Association.” The word crackled out of New York and sped to every border. It was clear and concise and left no doubt as to its meaning. It was not conditioned by time or circumstance, nor was it set in the backdrop of history. The word that stung was “greatest.”
It took little time for that word to filter to a modishly-appointed office on the second floor of the Boston Garden, where Arnold (Red) Auerbach sits behind a large wooden desk and operates the affairs of the Boston Celtics. With that word “greatest” came a flash of anger and indignation, then an expression of disbelief that a rational-thinking person could pass such a judgment.
“Greatest team in history? Team of destiny? it took them seven games to beat Baltimore and seven more to beat the Lakers. That certainly is no indication of any dynasty, but maybe of a helluva ballclub.”
That was it in Auerbach’s mind, “a helluva ballclub.” He knew something of the subject, too. Greatness had become his business and long ago had impaled his heart and his energies in an effort that lasted nearly a decade and a half. It had left behind a feeling of well-earned pride and an audacity that dared anyone to challenge his record.
Someone indeed had challenged that record—that record that said a team forged by Red Auerbach won 11 NBA championships in 13 years, eight of those coming in succession. The challenge was being hurled on behalf of a team that had won its first championship ever and was taken to the last allowable day of the season to accomplish the fact.
The more he thought about it, the more the impact of the thought began to penetrate Auerbach’s razor-sharp mind. The whole idea soon became rather ludicrous.
“Maybe I should be mad, maybe I should be amused at this whole thing,” Auerbach said, carefully picking his words. “You’ve got to realize that most of the national publicity comes from New York. For example, how could anyone pick the New York Mets as the team of the decade over the Green Bay Packers or the Boston Celtics? A decade, as I know it, is 10 years, not one year. Yet, the Mets won the World Series one year, that’s all.”
Auerbach had picked his ground, and he meant to stand on it. At the same time, he would give what he felt was just due to the team that had succeeded his own as NBA champion. “The Knicks have a great ballclub. They are well organized, have fine depth, and have a great crowd of rooters behind them. They are well coached, and they play in a place that seats 19,500 persons. The Knicks were the sentimental choice to win the championship because they never before had won much of anything. That kind of thing is an added plus in helping people decide about the worth of a team.
“But,” he continued, verbally shifting his gears and his attack, “their players will tell you—guys like Dick Barnett—that they got more ink from wining once than Boston got from winning five or six times. Pretty soon, even the players start believing all that exaggerating. Pretty soon, everyone starts believing it, because they see it so often in print that they gotta think that it’s true.”
That was tantamount to Auerbach saying that in no way was it true. He elaborated, “New York has done nothing but win a world championship. They lost 20 games during the season in trying to do it, and they came nowhere near our record. What’s so great about that? They didn’t run anyone off the floor in four straight in the playoffs, and maybe that is something you’d expect ‘great’ teams to do.”
He knows that dominant feeling, and so did the Minneapolis Lakers of 1958-59. They were blitzed in four games by Auerbach’s Celtics in the NBA’s championship series. The St. Louis Hawks of 1960-61 went out in five games, so did the Los Angeles Lakers in 1964-65, and the San Francisco Warriors the year before. Even the so-called “over-the-hill” Celtics won the NBA title in six games from the Lakers in 1967-68.
No one can tell Auerbach what it takes to win a championship, nor can anyone tell him what it is like to remain a champion. Certainly not those immersed in the euphoria that surrounded the Knickerbockers last season.
“They’ll be in for a lot tougher time than they ever imagined,” he said. “When you become the champion, then you start to pay the price. Everybody wants a piece of you, every time you play. To them, you are the big game, and they’ll try to beat your butt.
“So what happens if you start losing and things aren’t as rosy as they were last year? Now, the little squabbles begin among the players and the team effort suffers. And what about the players who are busy now counting their money, thinking of their businesses in which they have just invested that playoff share? They start to feel the fortunes and the misfortunes of the business world, and the basketball world starts to pass them by.
“I want to see how they’ll react to things like this before I start to consider any team as ‘the greatest’ because this is what they’ll have to contend with. And let’s see ‘em do it year-after-year, say for 11 of the next 13 years. That’s my measuring stick right there—let’s see someone match the Celtics’ record. Then I’ll listen to their arguments.”
Auerbach has been through the same discourse countless times when someone would ask if anyone ever could approach or surpass the Celtics’ accomplishments. He has lived with the record and existed in spite of it. He has seen to it that the Celtics did also, year-in, year-out through the 1960s with awesome regularity.
Now he wants to see if the Knicks are willing to pay the price of their championship and become a dynasty in the mold of the Celtics. He doubts that it will be done, that anyone ever will be able to match the record. “Oh, it’s possible,” Auerbach granted. “But I don’t think it’s probable, particularly if the merger comes. This year, for instance, the draft had two players who could be labeled ‘great.’ They were Bob Lanier and Pete Maravich. Who got them? The lower teams. The year before, there was Lew Alcindor, period. Who got him? The two lowest teams flipped a coin.
“Let’s see them go year-after-year without getting that top player and see how long they can hang up there. Before expansion, the champion would get a good shot at some talent. Even when there were nine and 10 teams, the chances were pretty good that [the champs] could squeeze in someone on the second round. We never got a superstar, but we didn’t do too badly. But not anymore. There are too many teams.”
Then, as an afterthought, he added:
“Hell, if we’d drafted Alcindor last year, we’d have taken the whole thing again. We’d have knocked their butt off. If I had Lanier right now, I know we’d knock New York on its heels. We’re not that badly off that a Lanier or an Alcindor wouldn’t put us back on the top again.”
Auerbach had his “Lanier” and his “Alcindor,” and he had both in one man—William Fenton Russell. If you’re going to build a dynasty and an unchallenged litany of world championships, there is no better place to begin than with Bill Russell. The trouble is, there is just one Bill Russell in a lifetime, and neither the New York Knicks nor the Los Angeles Lakers nor anyone else has yet to come up with another.
“Willis Reed is a great ballplayer, but he is no Russell,” Auerbach repeated for the umpteenth time since the propaganda began to flow from Madison Square Garden. “No one compares with Russell and what he did,” Auerbach continued. “Alcindor is great, Lanier can be great, but let them put it all together for the next 10 years and let’s see the record at that time. Then we’ll begin to make comparisons.”
Russell not only led the Celtics to nine championships as a player, he was player-coach for two others—two which the so-called experts said never were supposed to happen. Toss in two or three of those other titles under Auerbach’s tutelage, too. They weren’t supposed to happen either because the Celtics “were over the hill.”
All of this still amuses the Celtics’ general manager and brings him right back to the whole point of anyone trying to match his team’s record. “Everyone, even New York, needs help right down the line,” he said. “When they start getting the last draft choice for a couple of years, they’ll start sweating like we did. Right now, they can look over their shoulder and see that Detroit is a helluva club with Lanier and maybe even Terry Driscoll, their No. 1 pick from a year ago.
“Milwaukee has Oscar (Robertson) and Alcindor. Atlanta is a great club, and the young teams like San Diego and Phoenix are damn tough. The Lakers are getting old and getting hurt and probably are fading, but there are no easy marks in this league. These other teams aren’t that far away from each other, and a top player each year can make a big difference.
“If the Knicks want to be top dog for a long time, let’s see them—let’s see anyone—do it without getting the big star. They’ve got to go out and do the job night-after-night against this improving competition. Let’s see it happen for the next 10 years.”
If it is—and was—so tough, how come the Celtics accomplished the feat? “Maybe because I was too mean to let ‘em enjoy it,” said the redhead, who has little hair—red or grey—left to show for his work.
“Maybe I knew what would happen, and I started to prepare them,” he continued. “I always told them, ‘It’s a new year, so what’s happened lately?’ The answer was nothing had happened, so we were going to go out and make something happen. There was no way they were going to live on yesterday’s paycheck, and they knew it.”
So Auerbach has flung down the gauntlet. It is up to the New York Knickerbockers—or anyone else—to pick it up. And it is the same gauntlet that Auerbach has flung down since his Celtics won their first championship more than 13 years ago.
Somehow or other, very few ever were capable of picking it up. Few in his opinion ever will be.