Red Auerbach Rates Basketball’s Best Battlers, 1973

[More Red Auerbach. This time, Red weighs in on some of the NBA’s all-time brawlers. But he mostly ponders the state of the NBA’s rough play in the early 1970s, and writer Marty Bell folds in some other telling observations. Bell’s article, which graced the now flaking pages of the April 1973 issue of the magazine Sports Today, isn’t too long. Definitely worth the read.]

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“Without a doubt, the best fighter I have ever seen in professional basketball is the Knicks’ Sweetwater Clifton,” asserts the sly, astute, cigar-munching historian of the National Basketball Association, Arnold “Red” Auerbach.

The president and general manager of what, through the years, has been the game’s roughest team, the Boston Celtics, has watched the size of pro basketball and the size of its players grow since its inception in 1946, when he coached the old Washington Caps of the Basketball Association of America (BAA). As men got bigger and stronger and better and faster, none of the behemoths whom Red can remember could match Clifton as a battler.

Sweetwater Clifton (with the ball)

“Oh, sure there have been muscular guys who have had great reputations as fighters. Guys like the Lakers’ Jim Krebs and the Celtics’ Jungle Jim Loscutoff. And then there were the biggest guys to play the game, like Willis Reed and Wayne Embry and Chamberlain. They were all very strong physically and could handle themselves well. But they weren’t real scrappers, real fighters,” Auerbach maintains.

Sweetwater was a sweet, quiet guy, according to Auerbach. “But once a fight started out, watch out. He could handle anybody. You know how guys are always running on the court when a fight starts? Well, whenever Sweets struck a fighting pose, you could smell rubber burning from the sneakers coming to a stop.” 

Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton joined the Knicks in 1950 after eight years with Abe Saperstein’s most-popular Harlem Globetrotter teams. The eight years of clowning were made necessary by pro basketball’s shortsightedness. Basketball was the Irish kids’ game, and the Jewish kids’ game. But in 1949, the BAA and the National Basketball League (NBL) merged and became one league, and with the success of baseball’s welcoming of Jackie Robinson, basketball followed suit with the Knicks signing Clifton and the Celtics signing Cuck Cooper. And with this, the road to the kind of pro ball we know today—with Black players dominating—was paved.

The 6-foot-7, 225-pound graduate of Xavier College in Louisiana was a versatile athlete who placed among the top 10 scorers and rebounders at various times in his eight-year career in the NBA. He became a top player, although more than 30 years of age. During most of those years, he played basketball during the winter and spent his summers playing minor league baseball for Wilkes-Barre.

But none of his accomplishments stuck with Auerbach as much as the intimidation that his reputation as a fighter brought to the opposition in every game in which he participated. “If he wanted to be,” Auerbach said, “Sweets could’ve been the heavyweight champion of the world.”

Sweetwater Clifton may never have considered going one-on-one for the glamour championship of all sports, the heavyweight crown, but Wilt Chamberlain, the basketball star generally considered the strongest man in the world, did.

Wilt first mentioned his desire to challenge the then-Cassius Clay in a magazine story following the 1965 NBA season, a story written at a time in his life when the sensitive giant had accomplished almost everything in basketball and still faced the abuse of the general public. That thought quickly evaporated until after the 1970 season, when it was reported that Wilt had gone to Houston to sign for a bout with Muhammed Ali, but had backed out at the last minute.

“Chamberlain likes to pop off about how tough he is and how he’s going to challenge Ali.” Auerbach said about one of his least-favorite people. “He’s tremendously strong, but that doesn’t mean he’s a fighter. Ali said if they got in the ring together, he would kill Chamberlain. And he’s right.”

Red doesn’t even remember seeing Wilt fight in a basketball game. In fact, he doesn’t recall too many fights during the games of the last few years. The brawl, which was once part of the strategy of basketball, was practically vanquished, Red says.

In the early 1950s, when Sweetwater played the game, intimidation, the cliché used nowadays to describe the role of the big man closing up the middle on defense, was used in discussing the players who discouraged body contact simply because they had reputations as brawlers. The reputation of a Sweetwater Clifton would give forwards second thoughts about driving to the hoop and risk bumping the big man into a fit of anger. Red Auerbach claims he is largely responsible for the elimination of this tactic as basketball strategy.

“Years ago, a team would intentionally try to start a fight with a reserve player. The rule then was to throw out any men who fought immediately. When we played Syracuse, they would send out Paul Seymour to start a fight with Bob Cousy, and both of them would be gone.

Boston’s Bob Brannum (right) takes aim at Syracuse’s Earl Lloyd.

“Well, I called the commissioner, Maurice Podoloff, and told him that the next time Seymour tried that, I would send out Bob Brannum to start up with Dolph Schayes. Schayes was pretty tough, and he would surely fight back, so the both of them would be gone. Against that team, I would trade Cousy for Schayes.”

But despite the lack of all-out combat, Auerbach insists that today’s NBA ball is rougher than ever. “People say that basketball is a non-contact sport, but that’s a lot of hooey. Football is violent, but basketball is physical. In football, you only play for a small amount of the action, and you have 30 seconds between the plays to regain your control. But basketball is rugged all the way through. It wears you down. And it’s the only contact sport where the players are playing with no pads.

“The game is rougher today because the players are bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter. It’s all part of the evolution process in sports, where records are continually broken. Look at the players in football now. They’re all 20 pounds heavier than 10 years ago. And football never had 6-foot-7 defensive linemen. They were our guys.

“But with all the contact, there is so little fighting today because the players realize what a dangerous thing it is. They are standing bare fisted on a hardwood surface in tennis shoes. They have perfect traction. If they don’t win with one punch, they are in trouble no matter who they are fighting.

“And the reputations as fighters do nothing to the game. Everyone who sticks with the NBA teams is tough enough so that he will drive the middle and test you. No one’s afraid of getting leaned on a little.”

But there are those voices in the game today who think the leaning is turning to shoving, and changing the game from one of grace and skill to a game of brute strength. One such voice is Alex Hannum, the coach of the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association who gained a reputation as one of basketball’s toughest personalities when he coached in the NBA. And Hannum, as sly and outspoken as Auerbach but without the long background of championship success to give him the attention, has never been one to hold his protest to himself. 

Early this season, Hannum found his Rockets being pushed around by the Virginia Squires and down by 18 points with 4:52 to go in the third period. As a protest against the loose rules, Hannum ordered his team to foul the Squires each time they came down before they got to shoot. The Rockets finished the game with 56 personals and seven disqualifications. Virginia scored 74 of its game-winning 155 points from the free-throw line, including 44 of 56 attempts in the endless fourth quarter.

Hannum’s teams, including the world-champion Philadelphia 76ers of Chamberlain and Luke Jackson, have always had a reputation for bumping and hand-checking on defense. He said he had been thinking about this unusual move for a long time. He claims that no one has known how to keep the game under control. And so, he conducted an “experiment” inspired by the trend towards “pressure defenses.”

“I wanted to see how far you could actually go without hurting your team’s chances,” he said. “The teams that play aggressively are the teams that seem to win. The team comes out and establishes its aggressiveness early. They start doing something—time and again—and by the end, the officials are only calling half the fouls.”

The day after this fiasco, ABA commissioner Bob Carlson, fined Hannum $2,500 for his team’s display. Later, Carlson declared the game a forfeit, and all the records for fouls that the game established were erased from the books.

While not too many people in either league would go to the extremes that Alex Hannum will go to make a point, one can see why he wanted to make a point in the Virginia game. The contact under the basket has gotten out of hand. It now can mean the difference between winning and losing.

No NBA team can win consistently without having the muscle and knowing how to use it. And although all-out fighting would force the pro leagues to take some action, the lack of fisticuffs has disguised what really is going on. The players get their licks in without being penalized.

Boston’s Bob Cousy gets grabbed.

The New York Knickerbockers, the team best known for out-finessing opponents, were not successful until they added the muscle of Dave DeBusschere to Willis Reed. Now, with Jerry Lucas and Phil Jackson, Auerbach feels that despite their emphasis on finesse, the Knicks are the strongest team in the league.

Red’s own Celtics made the move from good to outstanding this year with the addition of Paul Silas’ heft under the boards. When the Celtics and Knicks clash, the outcome is largely dependent on the muscle play in the clinches.

In fact, the most-recent major fight in the National Basketball Association was between the Knicks and Celts in the fourth game of their semifinal playoff series last year. Late in that 116-98 Knick victory at Madison Square Garden, the Celts’ Steve Kuberski and the Knicks’ Luther Rackley squared off. The eruption soon spread to the Celts’ Rex Morgan against the Knicks’ Charlie Paulk—and then into the crowd. Kuberski and Rackley were thrown out of the game.

The fight brought back memories of Auerbach’s Celtic battlers of the past, of Russell breaking Jim Krebs’ jaw, of Loscutoff decking Dick Schnittker with one punch, and of Brannum flattening Dolph Schayes.

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