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100 Things Celtics Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
By Donald Hubbard
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2010 Donald Hubbard
All rights reserved.
Without Arnold "Red" Auerbach, the Boston Celtics may have folded as many of the other original NBA franchises did. Certainly, team owner Walter Brown had lost money and borrowed significant sums to keep the club alive, but in the first four years of the franchise, the Celtics never won and elicited very little enthusiasm in the local sports populace.
In contrast, Auerbach had coached successfully with the Washington Capitols for three years, starting in 1946–1947, compiling winning records each year. But philosophical and perhaps personal issues developed between him and the team owner, so Red resigned and accepted an offer by Ben Kerner to coach the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. If Red had issues before, they increased exponentially in his experiences with Kerner, a man he despised. Even though the Blackhawks achieved a mediocre 28–29 record, Kerner interfered one time (literally once) too many with player personnel decisions for Red's tastes, so he resigned after one year.
An inauspicious history with two previous professional club owners behind him, Auerbach accepted the offer of a now desperate Walter Brown to coach Boston. The two bonded, as Brown only concerned himself with performance and results, allowing Red to direct his faculties toward winning. The two got along fine. Soon Red rooted into team culture the need for each player to appreciate his role and to subordinate personal honors to team titles. An aficionado of fast-paced action, Red instituted the fast break into the Celtics' offense, as guards whisked downcourt to score before the opposition set up defensively.
Red Auerbach did not live in Boston, not full-time, anyway. He always considered the Washington, D.C., area his primary residence and spent his off-season time there with his wife and two daughters. He visited Washington as schedules and time permitted during the season and returned to his family once the playoffs ended, but he ensconced himself in Boston the remainder of the year.
He maintained an apartment in the Hotel Lenox in Boston's Back Bay for several years and probably enjoyed the relative anonymity of this lifestyle, as most of his neighbors were visitors from out of town or from outside of Massachusetts, and probably had no inkling of the identity of the balding chap clutching cartons of Chinese food in the elevator up to his room.
With NBA franchises crashing all over the place, Auerbach persevered, picking up center "Easy" Ed Macauley and, whether he wanted to or not, a flashy dribbler named Bob Cousy. Adding a sharpshooter named Bill Sharman, he molded his men into a playoff team, but they never won the last game of the Finals. He needed a big man, and through considerable finagling, he landed Bill Russell on his team, thus creating the most dominant club in league history.
Detractors assert that Auerbach did not know how to coach until Bill Russell joined the team, and anyone could have won from that point forward. Disliking the man is one thing, failing to understand him is quite another. For instance, the Red Sox's general manager starting in the mid-1960s, Dick O'Connell, considered hiring Auerbach as the major league team's manager, due to Red's unique ability to maximize the potential of each player he coached. A star player under Auerbach backed up this analysis, confirming that Red knew how to form a team around the right blend of players and then get each player to excel. He could press the right buttons as easily as lighting a cigar, even if he stayed with the Celtics and did not take the helm of the Red Sox.
He made friends and enemies all over the place, lacing into officials and alienating opposing coaches and players. Lakers coach Fred Schaus once said, "I respect Auerbach as a coach. But I don't like him. I just plain don't like him. And he knows it." Often, even some Celtics did not get along with him, as he bargained very hard at times with stars and subs alike for their contracts. The smart ones circumvented Red and negotiated directly with team owner Walter Brown, until Brown died in 1964. Thereafter, serving most years as general manager, he drove some very good players out of town over relative chump change, often letting the valuable player walk or endure a trade out of town. On occasion, he replaced the departing player with a chump.
He coached the team through the end of the 1966 season, retiring a champion, never to return to coaching due to self-admitted burnout. Sagely, he chose Bill Russell as the next head coach and continued to light up cigars at the end of games his team had all but sewn up. It irritated opposing players, coaches, and fans, and once he discovered the effect this had on others, he lit them up with more gusto than ever. It was infinitely more satisfying to light up a good cigar than to flip someone the middle finger, though the malice attached to each gesture did not differ.
Red got on the nerves of others but was not a simple Dickensian figure, lacking in dimension. He felt deeply for his fellow man but had a difficult time expressing his feelings in conventional ways, so oftentimes he showed his concern by talking to someone at length about an issue. He also offered people rides to the airport as a gesture of empathy. For instance, when Bill Russell and some African American teammates refused to play an exhibition in an area that promoted separate but unequal treatment, Red gave them a ride to the airport. He did this also for a player he cut and then asked back the next year to try out, only to cut this same player a second time. Off to Logan Airport went the heartbroken player, escorted by Red, naturally.
By way of further illustration of Red's somewhat stealthy humanity, in the 1982 NBA Draft, Red chose a player named Landon Turner in the 10 round, the two-round draft still years away. Turner had starred on Indiana University's 1981 national champions but subsequently became paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident. A wonderful gesture from a man who never stopped having a heart.
Red left as a coach at the end of 1966 and then later resigned as GM to become club president, a role he had to relinquish when Rick Pitino came to town. Bad karmic move, yet Red outlived this period and continued to serve the Celtics until his death in 2006. Long before then, he witnessed his fictional No. 2 retired and raised to the rafters of the Boston Garden.CHAPTER 2
To begin to understand Bill Russell, every basketball fan needs to know a bit about Neil Johnston, a Hall of Fame center for the Philadelphia Warriors in the 1950s. For the three seasons from 1953 to 1955, he led the NBA in scoring and participated in six straight AllStar Games, none of which meant a thing once Russell completed playing for the U.S. Olympic basketball team and began his professional career in 1956. After Russell joined the Celtics, he owned Neil Johnston, rendering the Warriors' center and many players like him obsolete, swatting away their shots.
Once Bill Russell's revolutionary impact on the NBA is appreciated, then credit must be extended to other franchises that saw the change in the game and no longer brought in dinosaurs, but fought fire with fire. So the Neil Johnstons disappeared or never got past being backups, while exciting and talented players like Wilt Chamberlain came to oppose Russell, and this is where Russell's greatness can be most appreciated. Even after other teams caught up, Russell continued to dominate, the best player in the league, who led the Celtics to 11 titles in 13 years.
In the 1950s and 1960s every sports hero had a biography out in paperback, with the sport that athlete played essentially irrelevant, as the formula of those publications dictated that the star come off as purebred, happy with everything, and more than pleased to recount his exploits and participation in All-Star Games and championships.
As he did in so many instances, Bill Russell broke the mold with the publication of Go Up for Glory in 1966. Rather than sitting back with an ice-cold glass of milk and telling America that everything was just swell, Russell related the struggles he and others endured in mid-century America as African Americans. The misinformed took the book as an insult; after all, how could Russell, a financially comfortable and revered athlete act like such an ingrate? By confronting racism, Go Up for Glory made itself about so much more than sports.
Since then, Bill Russell has collaborated on a number of books, the literary Russell coming off as a much more likable person than the real-life version. For decades he did not sign autographs and often extended rudeness, not courtesy, to well-wishers and fans. As an African American playing in Boston during its worst days of segregation, and just before busing blew the top off of everything, he had it tough, but he always seemed to find ways to make matters worse for himself.
So, early on, the dichotomy of Bill Russell unfolded, a popular and outgoing teammate, but too often a tactless and ungracious personality to the public. At this critical juncture in Boston's history (before court-mandated busing), Russell became a lightning rod not only to the bigots in the city neighborhoods and the hypocrites in the suburbs, but also to the vast majority of fans who otherwise were favorably disposed to him and his struggles.
At least he got off to a good start, coming off his senior year with the University of San Francisco earning another national champion-ship and leading the U.S. basketball team to a gold medal in the Melbourne Olympics. The good karma continued as he arrived to the Celts late in the 1956–1957 season (due to his Olympics' obligation) and gradually worked his way into the lineup, starring in the NBA Finals that year as his team beat the St. Louis Hawks. His injury early in the third game of the Finals the next year helped the Hawks avenge themselves, but he shut the door on that nonsense almost entirely for the rest of his career, leading his team to 10 of the next 11 titles.
Many excellent players suited up for the Celitcs during their dynasty, but Russell was the constant. He started his career with established stars such as Cousy and Sharman and fellow rookie Tommy Heinsohn, and outlasted all of his original teammates. In his final season he coached John Havlicek, Sam Jones, and Don Nelson, just missing playing with Jo Jo White.
He earned five MVP trophies and, except for his rookie season when the Olympics occupied part of the year, always made an All-Star squad and always finished in the top 10 in minutes played during a season. Even that last statistic partially misleads, as he often paced the league in total minutes played and ended in the top five in that category each year after his rookie year and before his final one. He led the league four times in rebounds and remains the second-leading rebounder in history.
Because Russell was such a team-oriented player, contrasted with his contemporary, Wilt Chamberlain, the risk exists to view him solely as some amorphously gifted athlete who made his team better, always great, but no one quite knows why. While it is accurate that Russell primarily chased titles and not individual goals, his greatness is quantifiable. After all, this is the player who always ended each season in the top three in rebounds per game and is second all-time in rebounds per game with 22.5. The man averaged over 22 rebounds per game and is also second all-time in minutes per game.
Incorrectly, due to his brilliance on defense, slapping back opponents' shots and igniting fast breaks, he is not remembered as an offensive force. This despite contributing an average of over 15 points a game to his team and carving himself into the top five in field-goal percentage the first four years of his career. He not only sparked a fast break with his work on the defensive boards and his passing, but he always hustled down the court to become a factor on the offensive end.
He did many things well, but perhaps best, he did not treat his talented teammates as sidemen, puffing up his own numbers and squandering their potential. After Lakers coach Fred Schaus saw his very strong team dismantled in the 1962 Finals, he remarked, "There is still no one on the horizon who can counteract the things Bill Russell can do to you." Routinely in this era, Sports Illustrated led with headlines or teasers that "this year" some team might catch the Celtics, and yet in their preseason prognostications, the editors always conceded that if Bill Russell stayed healthy, the Celtics would repeat as champions, and they almost always did.
A lot of credit belongs to Red Auerbach, who understood Russell's prickly personality and catered to him at times, knowing Russell hated losing, and as long as he had that trait, the social graces mattered little. Plus, Russell got along with his teammates off the court, and in games he ceaselessly tried to make them better. Since Russell played nearly entire games during the regular season, Auerbach largely let Russell sit during practices, drinking tea, knowing that satisfaction came in winning wars, not prevailing in battles.
Along the way, Auerbach and Russell became friends, and Red probably took advantage of the friendship he had developed with his star to ensure the Celtics kept winning titles. Russell might not sign autographs for strangers, but he would never let down a friend.
The first African American head coach in NBA history, he led the Celtics to two championships in three years, before he retired both as a player and coach after the 1969 playoffs. After leaving the Celtics, his ventures have met with mixed results, with coaching stints in Seattle and Sacramento not proving as gratifying as his time in Boston. A popular basketball commentator, he found little satisfaction in that capacity and voluntarily left it. Although he deliberately kept the retirement of his Celtics' number private, he did return to Boston decades after leaving to have a more public honor accorded to him, and only then did he seem to make peace with the city in which he enjoyed his greatest professional triumphs.CHAPTER 3
Since Red Auerbach shrewdly drafted him as a junior, Larry Bird's potential to come to Boston was debated and anticipated, with the cynics worrying that he might pass on the Celtics and enter the draft after his senior year. And what a senior year! Taking previously unheralded Indiana State to the NCAA Championship Game, only to finally lose to Magic Johnson and Michigan State, his value continued to ascend. Shrewdly, Bird picked a local agent, Bob Woolf, who tantalizingly took Bird to a Celtics game during the "will he or won't he?" phase, which only made him more desirable in the eyes of the local fandom.
Red Auerbach probably did not want to spend as much as he did to bring Bird aboard (a then very high $650,000), but he had been outmaneuvered. In the end, the Celtics got the bargain, as Larry Bird not only had the skills and dedication to make it as a professional, but he helped bring titles back to the franchise and, with Magic, made professional basketball in general a much more appealing and lucrative sport.
Bird came to Boston at the dusk of a very ugly and thankfully brief era in team history. Selfish players like Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe had created a disruptive atmosphere and coaches got dismissed until Bill Fitch took over operations. If Fitch left any doubt concerning proper deportment at team practices and during games, Bird erased them, backing up the newfound commitment that characterized the team.
Remarkably, in Bird's first season, the Celtics went 61–21, this after having compiled a 29–53 record the previous year. Fitch and Bird cannot take all of the credit for the surge. After all, the team did pick up M.L. Carr and Gerald Henderson in that interim, but Bird can claim most of the plaudits. On the court, Bird averaged 21.3 points a game and placed third in three-point field-goal percentage, en route to Rookie of the Year honors.
The next year, the Celtics only improved their regular-season record by one game but added Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, thus forming the nucleus of the excellent Celtics squads through the remainder of the decade. At the conclusion of their first year together as the Big Three, Bird, McHale, and Parish led the team to a title. And Bird famously got to tell the world what he truly thought of Moses Malone's game when, at the team's victory parade, he noticed one fan's sign and shouted out that, yes, "Moses Malone does eat shit!"
Fitch's act curdled after the '81 season and by the end of the Eastern Conference Semifinals two years later, when the Bucks swept the Celts, he was gone, with K.C. Jones replacing him as head coach. While Bird openly professed his respect for Fitch, the Legend also played very well under Jones, as the club won the 1984 and 1986 championships.
By this time, Bird had appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and many fans and scribes alike began to anoint him as the greatest basketball player of all time. Old-timers and boosters of Magic Johnson and the young Michael Jordan might object, but Bird sailed to the MVP award at the end of the 1984, 1985, and 1986 seasons and won Finals MVP awards in '84 and '86. During the 1986 All-Star festivities, Bird surveyed his competition for the three-point shooting contest and informed his peers, "I want all of you to know I am winning this thing. I'm just looking around to see who's gonna finish up second." He won, of course, and it looked like the good times would continue to roll.
Excerpted from 100 Things Celtics Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die by Donald Hubbard. Copyright © 2010 Donald Hubbard. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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