Red Auerbach: An Old Friend’s Telling You to Hang ‘Em Up, 1979

[This article, as they say, is just one man’s opinion. That man is the 44-year-old journalist Dick Joyce, who is reacting negatively to rumors in the late 1970s that Boston owner Irv Levin had offered Auerbach a second chance to coach the Celtics. Levin wanted to return the old Celtic magic to Boston Garden, and in his mind, Auerbach was the only man for the job.

Although Joyce doesn’t get right to the point in this article, he eventually says his “old friend” Red would be a fool to try taming the unfettered greed and entitlement sweeping through the 1970s NBA. In retrospect, the NBA hadn’t seen anything yet in both departments. But Joyce’s worries turned out to be unfounded. Auerbach, who loathed Levin, wasn’t interested. Joyce’s article offers an interesting period piece and offers a nice overview of Auerbach’s storied coaching career with a personal touch. The article ran in the magazine All-Star Sports Basketball Issue, 1978-79.] 

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Light up your cigar, Red, and sit back and relax in your easy chair. You may not like what I’m going to tell you. First, let me butter you up a bit.

I first remember you when you coached the Washington Caps in the old Basketball Association of America, which was later to become the National Basketball Association. You had some dandy teams those days in the late 1940s. You won big, and who can forget such names as Fat Freddie Scolari and Bones McKinney? 

The Caps were the first outstanding team in pro basketball. You were only 29 years old when you took over the Caps, and you had plenty of guts since you had never coached before. But having spent three and a half years in the Navy, you knew many of the top players who were getting out of the service. You were considered a local boy in Washington, D.C., since you had attended George Washington University. You even got a master’s degree. Never lost that Brooklyn accent, though, did you?

Anyway, the Caps set a record of 17 straight victories in that first season, a mark that stood for 14 years. They also captured three Eastern Division championships, only to be eliminated in the playoffs. That was when playoffs didn’t last until June. Remember that? Asked to evaluate those old Caps, you were once quoted as saying: “They weren’t quite the greatest, but they were awfully close.”

It’s foggy in my mind, but the record book says you then joined Ben Kerner’s Tri-Cities Black Hawks. Of course, that didn’t last too long, and neither did the franchise. How could it in such whistle-stops as Davenport, Moline, and Rock Island? You realized that it was hardly big league.

So you jumped at the chance when Walter Brown and Lou Pieri offered you the coaching job of the Boston Celtics in 1950. Hey, now. That was the big-time. Honey Russell and Doggie Julian had preceded you as Celtic coaches. When you took over, it was a last-place club. Funny thing, though, the kid who was to help you most in those early days, you didn’t like so much. You thought he was a showboat with all that razzle-dazzle, behind-the-back stuff. That was the Holy Cross kid, of course, Bob Cousy. Having played at Holy Cross, where he helped the Crusaders put together a 26-game hitting streak in his senior year, Cooz was hopeful and confident that the Celtics would draft him number one. In those days, you’ll recall, teams were allowed to exercise territorial draft picks. You sure blew Cousy’s mind when you took 6-foot-11 Chuck Share of Bowling Green instead.

Boy, the Boston press really came down hard on you, Red. I remember your explanation: “We need a big man. Little men are a dime a dozen. I’m supposed to win, not go after local yokels.”

Thatta way, Red. Give ‘em that tough New York guy stuff. You’ll recall that Cooz was drafted by Tri-Cities, much to his chagrin, and after some hard bargaining, signed. But Kerner then traded him to the Chicago Stags. 

But before the year was out, the Stags folded. The team was dispersed throughout the league, except for three players. They were Max Zaslofsky (the NBA’s leading scorer), Andy Philip, and Cousy. These three names went into a hat, as Commissioner Maurice Podoloff ordered. You wanted Zaslofsky or Phillip. But Boston went first and selected Cousy. Zaslofsky went to the New York Knicks and Phillip to the Philadelphia Warriors. 

I’ll never forget your first words to the press: “Cousy will have to make the club.” And you told this 6-foot-1 whiz: “I hope you can make this team. If you can, I’ll be glad to have you. If you can’t, don’t blame me. A little guy always has two strikes on him. It’s a big man’s game.”

And Cousy made the team. You set up the fastbreak offense, and midway through Cooz’s second pro year, he had blossomed. The rest is history, and the Celtics were on their way to becoming a pro basketball dynasty. You were lucky, Red, you know that, in picking Cousy. You even admitted that years later when you barked: “We got stuck with the greatest player in the league when we drew his name out of a hat.” But we had to take our hats off to you for dealing Chuck Share to the Fort Wayne Pistons for a deadeye guard named Bill Sharman, who couldn’t seem to make up his mind between pro basketball and playing pro baseball. Sharman and Cousy were to go on and form one of pro basketball’s best backcourt tandems. That was quite a coup.

And the Celtics were rolling in those years, solid contenders in Cousy’s first four years and Walter Brown was operating in the black. I know you’ll never forget the 1953 Eastern Division semifinal playoff game against the Syracuse Nats. Cousy made 17 of the Celtics’ last 21 points, as Boston won 111-105. It only took four overtimes before you could light up your victory cigar. Cooz wound up with 50 points, including 30 of 32 free-throw attempts.

You had pulled some good moves before this, too, in landing Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan. Yet, you didn’t have the championship that you wanted so badly. So, you shipped Macauley and Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks, the Western power, for the rights to a guy named Bill Russell. But that skinny 6-foot-10 University of San Francisco All-American was off helping the United States win the Olympic basketball title, and you didn’t get him until halfway through the 1956-57 season.

In earlier years, you had some solid draft choices, too, like Frank Ramsey from Kentucky and Jim Loscutoff from Oregon. In 1956, you made Tom Heinsohn, another Holy Cross product, your number one pick. Russell was number two, and you brought along his college and Olympic buddy, K.C. Jones, as the third pick because Russell highly recommended him. You won the title in 1957. After that season, your top draft choice was a guard named Sam Jones, who was from little-known North Carolina College. You almost took the NBA crown again in 1958, but St. Louis won it four games to two. Russell playing injured didn’t help.

But the Celtics bounced back and won the NBA championship from 1959 through 1966. Russell, a shot-blocking standout who revolutionized defense and was a master of the outlet pass, played a major role as the Celtics became as dominant in basketball as the Yankees were in baseball and the Montréal Canadiens were in hockey.

Cousy bowed out on a winner in 1963, and you decided to turn the coaching reigns over to Russell after the 1966 triumph. When Cousy retired, you had Sam Jones and K.C. Jones, a defensive stickout, ready to take over in the backcourt. You had installed a certain pride in the Celtics, an unselfish and winning style of basketball. 

You had made some brilliant draft choices before this. Tom Sanders of NYU in 1960 and John Havlicek of Ohio State in 1962. In 1964, Mel Counts was your number one. You got two meager seasons out of him for the rights to Bailey Howell. A brilliant stroke, Red. You didn’t make all your number one plums, though. Just for the record, there were some number ones around this time as Mal Graham, Gary Phillips, John Richter, Bill Green, and Ben Swain. They’ll never be identified with Celtic glory.

With Russell at the helm and you handling the general manager’s chores, the Celtics also won the title in 1968 and 1969. But 1969-70 was a disaster, mainly because Russell was no longer a player-coach; he was just a coach, and the Celtics finished last in the East. You had several more good number one selections, though, in 1968 (Don Chaney of Houston), 1969 (Jo Jo White of Kansas), 1970 (Dave Cowens of Florida State), and 1971 (Paul Westphal of Southern California). 

To replace Russell, you named another one of your old boys, Tommy Heinsohn, who had given you so many strong seasons at forward. The Celtics failed to make the playoffs again in 1970 and were knocked out in the Eastern title game by New York the next two seasons. But, lo and behold, Red, the Celtics won it all again, knocking off Buffalo and New York and then Milwaukee, despite Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in the 1974 championship game in a hard-fought 4-3 series. 

In 1975, the Celtics went as far as the Eastern final when they were bumped out by Washington. But you wouldn’t know. Boston went on to win another title in 1976 by beating Buffalo, Cleveland, and Phoenix.

That’s something, Red. With you serving as general manager and-or coach, the Celtics won 13 titles in the last 22 years. There have been no titles the past two years, and things don’t figure to get better. And early last season, you had to do an extremely tough thing—fire Heinsohn. You sent for another old Celtic [Tom Sanders], who spent the last four seasons failing to build a winner at Harvard. Tommy should be happier selling insurance, don’t you think? You gave him a lot of All-Americans. They wore the Celtic green, but they hardly played like the old Celtics. Instead of being a fluid, coordinated team, they were lackadaisical and selfish.

I saw them in Madison Square Garden early last year, and I thought they couldn’t be the real Celtics. You must have gotten the uniforms in a sporting goods store firesale. Charlie Scott. He was something. With 24 seconds left in the first half and the Knicks leading the Celtics by eight, Scott starts dribbling . . . and dribbling . . . and dribbling.

With three seconds left, he fires at pass to Cowens. The pass goes out of bounds. And that’s not the only time he did it. With the score tied at 109 and everybody in the Garden figuring the Celtics will play for one more shot, Scott dribbles and hands off to Havlicek in a crowd. Then he takes the ball back and keeps dribbling. With time running out, he feeds White. Now, White is well covered and 25 feet from the basket. Jo Jo misses with an off-balance shot, naturally.

In the overtime, they’re smart enough not to give the ball to Scott. White got the pass in the waning seconds and drove for the hoop. But Bob McAdoo blocks it to save the game.

Oh, there were other such non-Celtic happenings. You know, you were there. Dave Bing loses a sneaker, picks it up, and plays defense with a sneaker in one hand. Sidney Wicks falling two feet short of the hoop with a 15-footer. Tom Boswell shooting line drives at the basket. Cowens hitting the side of the backboard.

Someone who looked just like you said after the game: “We played good enough to win. We just didn’t make our foul shots.” Willis Reed, the Knicks coach, probably hit the nail on the head when he said: “They’re not the old Celtics. There’s no team like the old Celtics, and there never will be again.”

Let’s face it, Red, these new Celtics should be arrested for “stealing” money. There was a time, you’ll recall, when you wouldn’t talk to a player-agent or give long-term no-cut contracts. But you had to give in to the inflated salaries of today’s overrated players, the off-the-wall demands of their agents.

This is eating you up, let’s admit it. Not only that you still think you’re the coach, despite carrying only the title of general manager. We saw you one night sitting in the front row of Madison Square Garden’s VIP seats, directly across the court from the Boston bench. 

You were still pulling the strings, and Heinsohn was the puppet. Throughout the game, you signaled instructions to Heinsohn or Sanders, then Tom’s assistant. Sometimes you used gestures. Sometimes you were less subtle.

With 5:30 remaining in the second period, you shouted: “Put Dave in.” Without blinking, Heinsohn reached over and tapped Cowens on the shoulder, sending him to the official scorer’s table to enter the game when play stopped.

When things went right, you kept a low profile—and for you that’s not easy. But you didn’t sit still when the Celtics began slumping early last season. It was you who made the decision to change the emphasis of the team’s offense from the medium-range jump shot to the inside game. It was you who ripped into the players behind closed doors following one of those losses early last year. You called some of the veterans quitters.

You have no one to blame for the Celtics downfall except yourself. You know that. That’s why you were exercising so much direct control over the club. You’re aware that you left the Celtics woefully undermanned in recent years with first-round draft choices like Clarence Glover, Steve Downing, Glenn McDonald, Tom Boswell, and Norm Cook.

You got rid of team-oriented players like Don Chaney (you got him back, too), Paul Westphal, and Paul Silas. Instead, you acquired individualists like Scott, Wicks, and Curtis Rowe. But you finally unloaded Scott, the same guy for whom you gave up Westphal and two number two draft choices. When the Celtics were fortunate in 1976 to win the NBA title, people were calling you a genius for your acquisition of Scott.

The trouble was brewing. Havlicek was becoming unhappy, and Silas wanted out. You got Wicks for cash, a tipoff that nobody around the league wanted this one-time star who had lost his aggressiveness. You dealt Silas, a good team player who had helped Cowens bang the boards. Coming to Boston in the three-way deal was Curtis Rowe, another of the UCLA products turned sour.

So you made Heinsohn the scapegoat by firing him. We believe you when you say it was the toughest thing you ever had to do in your life. Oh, by the way, wasn’t the Christmas party you threw for the “Celtics family” really something last year. Only Havlicek and White showed up. Where were the other nine?

What we’re trying to say, Red, is that you should hang ‘em up and enjoy yourself. You’re the most successful coach in the history of the NBA, with 938 regular-season victories and 99 more in the playoffs.

Your boys are all gone now. Cowens is the only player who typifies the old Celtic spirit now that Havlicek has retired. Jo Jo has become a moaner. 

Let’s face it, the inmates are running the asylum in Boston. You admitted yourself that “familiarity breeds contempt,” as a reference to how the players had tired of Heinsohn. They laid down on the job knowing he would be fired. And in response to questions after Heinsohn’s firing, you said, “The attitudes of guys with long-term contracts would have to be hard for a real hard-nosed guy like Tommy to swallow. He was a victim of the impact that the courts have had on sports, with their free agents and their contracts.”

It’s awful tough for you also to swallow, isn’t it? You were smart to turn down the offer made by Boston owner Irv Levin. He wanted you to succeed Heinsohn. Somehow, they thought the Celtic magic would be there, and you’d be lighting your victory cigar at the end of the bench, and another banner would be hung from the historic rafters of the Boston Garden.

But those days are over. No more Cooz . . . Russell . . . K.C. & Sam . . . Sharman . . . Don Nelson . . . Heinsohn . . . Clyde Lovellette . . . Jack Nichols . . . Frank Ramsey . . . Easy Ed . . . Larry Siegfried. 

As one wag put it: “Perhaps they should retire the Celtic uniforms. All of them.”

Heed those words, Red. Sit back, light up a cigar and relax. You don’t need the aggravation anymore. 

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