After a bye week on Throwback Thursday, the Coach is back for a Thursday and a Throwback of epic proportion. As I woke this morning to what is hopefully the return of Spring sunshine, the first thing that came to mind on my way to my AM hydration and opening set of pushups (also my closing set) was that tonight is one of the biggest NBA games in recent memory. With a victory tonight, the Celtics will defy the odds, prove the critics wrong and show the basketball world just how effective TEAM continues to be in comparison to one all-world talent. At the same time, there is a very good chance this is LeBron’s curtain call as a Cavalier. As stated in the Dime office earlier today and later tweeted furiously, “Tomorrow my LeBron jersey will be a throwback.”
One more Celtics win tonight can, and most likely will, change the NBA landscape for a decade. A franchise starving for new life will get that if they can sign James. That leads me to today’s throwback. The man that built the Celtics, that changed the playing field, integrated black and white, built champions from both the sideline and the front office, and of course made smoking a cigar during winning time one of the most memorable sights in the history of sports: Arnold “Red” Auerbach. His jersey below was part of a commemorative release limited to 938, which is his win total as a head coach.
Ironically, Auerbach was born in Brooklyn and everything about him from his intensity, work ethic, attitude and sense of humor was New York. Auerbach would have build his dynasty anywhere he could, but by chance it happened to be in Boston. He first started in D.C., then in 1950 at the age of 33 (coincidence? I think not!) found his way to Boston to takeover the Celtics. He ended up with Bob Cousy (even though he did not love him at first) by picking him out of a hat, and then was able to grab the draft pick that turned into Bill Russell by working the rights to the ice-capades into the deal in the spring of 1956. From 1957 to 1966, Auerbach led the Celtics to nine championships in 10 seasons. There was no scouting department, digital film technology, coaching staffs of eight-deep or front offices like there are today. He was pretty much a one-man operation that stressed TEAM in every sense of the word, from defense to transition to ball movement to being a family off the court. Back in the 1960s, our country was being torn apart by civil rights violations and many Celtics fell victims to these terrible acts. Red stood by his guys as he did not see color. And that is what explains his lifelong friendship with Russell.
Red’s success is partly what drove teams to do more scouting, more preparation but more importantly, integrate their rosters. But Auerbach did it first and did it more efficiently than anyone else that ever built a team and a franchise. After stepping down as head coach following the championship in 1966, he had the foresight to see that by naming Russell player coach he would again be changing the landscape of professional sports, not just basketball. Russell represented the first black head coach in any of our country’s three major sports and it was a huge statement that it was for the Boston Celtics because of the racial tensions that remained ongoing in Boston through the end of the 20th century.
Russell won two championships as player coach to close out both his career and the decade in 1968 and 1969. With Auerbach now in the front office, he was determined to extend the dynasty. Two more championships in the 1970s kept the Celtics in winning mode, but the late 1970s proved to be dark times for the Celtics and the League. Red in fact almost left the Celtics to go the Knicks, but instead stayed put, drafted Larry Bird a year early, then traded the draft pick that became Joe Barry Carroll for Robert Parish and the pick that became Kevin McHale and the BIG THREE were born.
After a championship in 1981, some more tweaking needed to be done and he traded reserve big man Rick Roby for Dennis Johnson, which helped the Celtics beat the Lakers in 1984 and then the Rockets in 1986. Many forget that the Celtics won the championship in 1986 and then had the 2nd pick overall in the Draft which was Len Bias. Red had traded Gerald Henderson Sr. the season before to the Sonics for their pick the following year. Auerbach had done it; he had extended the dynasty into the next decade, or so he had thought. Fate, poor decision making, years of pulling the wool over everyone else’s eyes, whatever you want to call it, brought the future of the Celtics to a screeching halt. Len Bias’ death had an effect on Red, the Celtics and the basketball world for two decades. Many still feel it.
After battling health issues for close to a decade, Red Auerbach passed on in October of 2007 – one year before the start of the 2007 resurgence of the Celtics. Red would have loved this team, from their attitude, to their tenacity, to their teamwork. Paul Pierce had a great relationship with Red and realized how lucky he was to have known him in his years as a Celtic. Tonight is one of those nights many in the organization will think of Red, from Danny Ainge to Pierce to the fans who will be bringing it tonight at the Garden. Tonight is a night that will change the landscape of the NBA, just like Red did over the span of five decades.