[I’ve been working on a project that has me rummaging through my files filled with old newspaper clips. That has me lately posting more stuff from the broadsheets here on the blog. After all, my newspaper grab bag is chockfull of dusty basketball material that’s worth revisiting, including this wry review of Red Auerbach’s 1967 book Winning the Hard Way—Basketball’s Greatest Coach Tells His Story.
It’s from Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times’ great sports columnist of that era. As you’ll see, Murray uses the book’s release not so much to review its 373 pages as to poke at Auerbach, who wasn’t particularly popular in SoCal. Heck, he wasn’t particularly popular anywhere but Boston. Respected, yes; popular, no.
And yet, more than 50 years later, Auerbach’s NBA memory is hermetically sealed in a larger-than-life legend as the ultimate winner. As Murray lays out in his humorous way, Auerbach, like Sinatra, did it “My Way” and at great personal sacrifice, though one wonders whether Auerbach would have accepted this point. His nine months spent each year in Boston, away from home and hearth in Washington, was just part of the process, part of soldiering onward to victory and collecting the championship banners suspended from the rafters of Boston Garden.
That’s why it’s important to go back and read what Auerbach’s contemporaries really thought of him to avoid wading too deeply into myth. Ride the salty waves of a few stormy testimonials that attempt to capture Auerbach’s gruff personality. Murray’s nationally syndicated column, which is harsh in places and likely didn’t earn him any favors around Boston Garden, appeared in early March 1967.]
Arnold (Red) Auerbach was born in Brooklyn of Jewish parents, ate Chinese food, drank Coke for breakfast, collected letter openers, lived like a monk apart from his wife nine months of the year, and saw absolutely nothing funny about his life. Which was a pity because, by some standards, his life was hilarious.
He directed all his life drive to winning an annual professional basketball championship, which is the athletic version of collecting letter openers. And he is not the least bit defensive about it. “I didn’t have to be a basketball coach, you know,” he said. “My father had a dry-cleaning business.”
“Red’s sense of humor stood him in good stead,” a friend observed. “He didn’t have any.”
Red saw his career as one long walk through enemy territory armed only with purity of heart. It’s set forth in poker-faced detail in a new book, Winning the Hard Way—Basketball’s Greatest Coach Tells His Story, which you can get for $5.95. [Ed: In 2022, you can snag a used copy for $24.44]
There are those who say Red’s success can be summed up in two words: Bill Russell. And Auerbach insured himself of instant immortality the day he signed the majestic San Francisco center to a $19,500 contract.
If so, Red’s life has been a study in waste motion, or the unnecessary movement of people and things. He has 1) racked up an all-time league high of $17,000 in fines; 2) socked the owner of the St. Louis Hawks in the jaw; 3) walked his team off the court; 4) loosened more teeth than sugar by slugging private citizens; and 5) publicly condemned the league, league president, the officials, press, rival owners, his own owner, and every institution short of the Congress of the United States with equal fervor and conviction. He had all the social graces of the Bowery Boys.
On the plus side, he 1) quietly brought the first Black player into the NBA; 2) fumingly held up a game in Yugoslavia one night until the hosts came up with an American flag to go with the Communist ones on the rafters (on the same trip, he blasted the U.S. ambassador to Egypt for not greeting the team—”President Johnson and [Secretary of State] Dean Rusk saw us off, why can’t this creep phone us up? I have to say, we got some real phonies in the diplomatic service.” His Excellency was glad to get back to people who merely stoned the embassy after a word from Red).
He led the league in lawsuits. People holding their jaws were constantly showing up at the desk sergeant’s demanding a warrant. He got a technical foul the afternoon they gave him a ceremony for his 1,000th victory. He got kicked out of the game at the All-Star contest in San Francisco when he came out of retirement for one night. When his first struggling franchise hit Boston, the regal Bill Cunningham, Back Bay’s oracle, phoned him up to say, “Tell me a funny story, and I’ll do a column on your team.”
“I’m a coach, not a comic,” growled Red and hung up.
His first book, Basketball for the Player, the Fan, and the Coach, contained some of the most-practical advice this side of How to Rob a Bank. You had to think YMCA officials didn’t have THIS in mind when they invented the game: 1) “grabbing or pulling the pants or shirt of an opponent can be very aggravating”; 2) “place the scorer’s and timer’s table near YOUR bench”; 3) “when the other team is given possession of the ball, don’t throw the ball directly to the opponent. The ball should be thrown rather slowly to the official. This will give your men time to get set on defense”; 4) “if the opposing team has a high scorer, keep reminding the other players of their uselessness.”
He had a strict policy against socializing with any of the Celtics’ Wives During the Season—and this included Mrs. Auerbach, who lived in Washington in season while Mr. Auerbach lived in Boston. He got home for Christmas ONCE in 20 years. His daughters not only didn’t believe in Santa Claus, they were a little suspicious of that fable about Dad.
Red played the game of life as if it were sudden-death overtime. The Celtics under Auerbach didn’t laugh much. But they cried a lot. They were as emotional as “Aida.”
The betting was heavy there wouldn’t be a sniffle in the room when Red retired, but William Felton Russell, himself, arose to say: “When I took this job, somebody said, ‘What did you take it for? You got nothing to gain. You got to follow Red Auerbach.’
“I don’t think I’m going to be another Red Auerbach. Personally, I think you’re the greatest basketball coach that ever lived. You know, over the years . . . I heard a lot of coaches and writers say the only thing that made you a great coach was Bill Russell. It helped. But that’s not what did it.
“Now, this is kind of embarrassing, but I’ll go so far, Red, as to say this: I like you. And I’ll admit there aren’t very many men that I like. But you I do. For a number of reasons. First of all, I’ve always been able to respect you. I don’t think you’re a genius, just an extraordinarily intelligent man. We will be friends until one of us dies. And I don’t want too many friends, Red.”
I know some men who have to make do with a lot less epitaph than that.