Red Auerbach, and How He Made the Boston Celtics
Richard J. Garfunkel
November 3, 2006
Arnold “Red “ Auerbach died the other day at age 89. He was a native New Yorker who was born in Brooklyn. To almost everyone he was known as “Red,” but Bob Cousy, his first great star, and the man that put the Celtics on the map, called him Arnold. To all of us who liked and played basketball, Bob Cousy was our hero. He was not only a “normal” sized man at 6’ 1,” but handled a basketball like a magician. First you saw it here and then you saw it there. Cousy was also from St. Albans, Queens, had attended Andrew Jackson High School and also wound up in the New England area at Holy Cross College in Worcester. Red, who had attended Eastern District High School in Brooklyn went off to George Washington High School in Washington. They of course met almost by accident. Auerbach had seen him play in the Boston area, and didn’t really like his style of play. Cousy had a reputation of being a player who was in the mold of the Harlem Globetrotters. He moved up the court with great speed, and threw “blind” passes at his teammates and dazzled the Holy Cross crowds with his ball-handling. Even his coach Alvin “Doggie Julian, who coached at Holy Cross for two more years, before coaching the Celtics for two years and then moving on to Dartmouth until his death in 1967, wondered about his ability. But in his freshman year, Holy Cross wound up winning the NCAA title and was therefore established as New England’s team. Unfortunately, the insecure Cousy was so unsure about his role at Holy Cross, that he thought about transferring to Saint Johns University in NYC and wrote their famous coach, Joe Lapchick for advice. Lapchick responded that he should stick with Julian, who, in his opinion, was one of the finest coaches in the land. The next year was no better, and Cousy never warmed to Julian. Eventually late in one game against Loyola, with the Crusaders losing, the crowd started to pressure the coach to put the bench-warming Cousy in the game, and they started a rhythmic chant, repeating, “We want Cousy.” Finally he was put in the game, he hit six out of seven of his shots, rallied the team, and they squeezed out a close win.
Joe Lapchick was a member of the “Original Celtics” that dominated basketball from the early 1920’s until they went broke during the Depression in 1931. The “Original Celtics” had nothing to do with the Boston Celtics and had evolved from a team called the New York Celtics. Their stars included Lapchick, Nat Holman, John Beckman, Dave Banks and the great “Dutch” Dehnert. Dehnert remained a “household” name in American basketball until the 1940’s. As the build-up for World War II started, millions of American young men volunteered for the service or were drafted. A friend of mine, and a business associate, Al Maisel, was a ballplayer from Brooklyn in the 1930’s. After enlisting in the service and finishing basic training he met a friend who was wearing Sergeant stripes. Al was in shock, and he told me that if this man was an NCO, all was lost and we lose the war. His old friend, who was also a former basketball player, told him that he had gotten his “stripes” because of his ability to play basketball. Eventually his friend asked him if he wanted a three-day pass to play basketball at an army fort in Mississippi, Maisel thought it over, decided it would be fun and volunteered to go. He even heard that the great “Dutch” Dehnert would be there. (Henry “Dutch” Dehnert, 1898-1879, was a big, strong boy when he starred for the Celtics in the 1920’s. He was the originator of the “pivot” play and that tactic revolutionized “inside” play in basketball. He played in over 2000 games in a 35-year career.) Of course when Al eventually arrived at his destination, found the gymnasium, and was directed to the locker room. He met the coach, received his uniform and noted that all over the field house it was advertised that the great “Dutch” Dehnert would be playing. Al looked around and wondered where he was. Al thought that Dehnert was an “old man” and was amazed that he would still be playing basketball. Finally his team took the court and the players were announced from the bench. Finally Dehnert’s name was announced and Maisel looked around, where was Dehnert? Then he felt a push on his back, and the coach said, “Get out there!” Maisel said, “Me!” The coach said, “Yeh, you are Dehnert tonight!” The game was played, the crowd was happy, and all was right with the world. Later on, Al learned that Dehnert never came to these games, and since the crowd had no idea what Dehnert looked like, there was always a “new” Dehnert almost every game they played. So much for truth in advertising!
In this same period of time, Auerbach, who had transferred from the bankrupt and foundering Seth Low Junior College, in NYC, graduated from George Washington University in 1940. Auerbach had a pretty distinguished career at George Washington, where he played in 56 games over three years, and as a starter he averaged 6.0 points per game. But in his final year, he averaged 8.5 points per game, and that wasn’t too bad in those ancient pre-war years. In his three years, the Colonials were 38 and 19, and Red was their captain and highest scorer. His peers considered him a pretty heady ballplayer. He was lucky he had a great coach in Bill Reinhart, who had a sterling 22-year career at George Washington. Reinhart had his coaching career interrupted by a long military hitch (1943-9) but later had put together some remarkable teams, like the 1954 and 1955 squads which had a combined record of 47-9. Red later stayed on to get his Master’s Degree. After earning his Degree in 1941, and a few coaching assignments, Pearl Harbor was attacked and Red eventually, in 1943, entered the US Navy as a seaman.
At his discharge, almost a year to the day after the Japanese surrender, Auerbach, now a Lieutenant (JG) was free to go back to his career in the classroom and gym. While in the Navy, his old coach, now Commander Bill Reinhardt asked for him to be assigned to the Norfolk Naval Training Base. In the Navy, Red had become acquainted with many other athletes who had been also inducted. The Navy was under editorial criticism regarding the fact that many of the athletes had not been shipped to overseas duty. Therefore, they wanted to set up a physical training program and they wanted all the athletes involved in that training. Auerbach was put in charge of organizing tournaments and at one time had 28 events going at once. One of his many contacts, the young Phil Rizzuto, would have a great impact on his life, career, and success. They spent many hours together and all Phil talked about was his coach and hero Joe McCarthy, the manager of the Yankees. McCarthy knew how to manage men, and did everything to bring class to the Bronx Bombers.
McCarthy had come to the Yankees after the raucous days of the Murderous Row Yankees of the 1920’s. Following the death of the great Yankee manager Miller Huggins in 1929, their owner Jacob “Jake” Ruppert had little success finding an adequate successor. Art Fletcher had finished out the 1929 season with a 6 and 5 record, and in 1930 Bob Shawkey, a star pitcher with the Yanks and the Red Sox, was appointed manager. After a mediocre season, Shawkey was fired and Joseph McCarthy, who had been managing the Chicago Cubs, was hired, and took over the 1931 Yankees. McCarthy was a no-nonsense brilliant manager who instilled pride in his ballplayers. He taught them how to dress, how to tip in restaurants, how to act in a hotel lobby and how to be a gentleman. They looked like champions and they started to again play like champions. All of this was not lost on the crafty Auerbach. He had made up his mind that if he had the opportunity he would make his teams look and act like champions. After his discharge Red started his professional career coaching in the newly organized National Basketball Association. His first season was with the short-lived Washington Capitals, who folded after three seasons and then he moved on to the Tri-Cities franchise in 1949, before joining the Celtics in 1950. (That season with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, Red was 28-29, his only losing season in his 20 year coaching career!)
By the time I became aware of sports, as a young boy, my first team was the Yankees and one of my early heroes was Phil Rizzuto. I didn’t know much about basketball, but every once in a while my father would take me to the old Madison Square Garden on 8th Avenue to see the professional basketball doubleheaders. In the early 1950’s one could attend the Garden and see a double-header featuring the Knicks against the Syracuse Nationals and the Fort Wayne Pistons against the Boston Celtics. Since in those days there were only eight teams in the NBA, one could see half the league play during an evening. Though I am positive my father, who was a terrific athlete, never played basketball, he happened to like Bob Cousy and talked about him constantly. In fact, Cousy had become the matinee idol the league needed. He became the small man alternative to the giant star George Mikan, who played for the Lakers, then located in Minneapolis. Cousy never disappointed his fans. He was the master of the behind the back pass, and unlike other star guards of that era, like Dick McGuire, Slater Martin and Bob Davies, he was a high scorer. (Cousy had averaged 15.2 points per game at Holy Cross would average 18.4 for the Celts.)
In 1955 my father took me to the Garden to see the famous Holiday Festival Finals. In those days all the top college basketball teams aspired to play in New York City. New York had the great crowds, the most knowledgeable fans and all the professional scouts for the NBA. That evening the final four featured the great University of San Francisco Dons with Bill Russell and KC Jones playing his last game before going into the service, UCLA with Willie Naulls, Holy Cross with Tommy Heinsohn and Duquesne with Sihugo Green. The Garden had all the five starting All-Americans on the floor that evening. San Francisco won the championship with Big Bill Russell winning the MVP trophy. It was a sensational evening. Eventually the Celtics would get their hands on not only Bill Russell, but also Jones and Heinsohn. These three, along with their hold over stars, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, would round out the team that eventually initiated Celtic Dynasty.
Red had understood that the excellent shooting Celtics, which had usually led the league in scoring, needed a big center to help them become champions. Russell, who had come out of the West Coast was a defensive specialist and was not seen or known as a scorer. The resident eastern city “poobahs” of basketball had never regarded basketball played out west as comparable to their version. Basketball was seen as a city game, and though Kentucky, Kansas, Indiana, and Ohio, which were quite rural, produced some great players, the West Coast was seen as having little potential. Even after the success of Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor, who had graduated a few years later from the University of Seattle, this view would still prevail. That view didn’t change until Johnny Woodin, the Wizard of Westwood, coached his UCLA Bruins to unprecedented heights in the mid and late 1960’s. Ironically the Uclan’s success was due primarily to a transplanted New Yorker, who had graduated from Power Memorial High School in New York City, one Lewis Alcindor. Lew would later star for the Lakers for almost 20 years as Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Even though Bill Russell had led the University of San Francisco Dons to 56 straight victories and two NCAA titles, he wasn’t as highly regarded by the NBA scouts.
Along the way, with my father’s interest in Cousy, and my memorable evening seeing the great Bill Russell, on his way to a then record 56 game winning streak, I became a Celtic fan for life. Red had a combative style that I always enjoyed. Also his love for cigars and Chinese food was dear to the hearts of the Garfunkel’s. Both my father and grandfather were life-long cigar smokers and up until 1959 and the Cuban Revolution they ordered wonderful Laranaga cigars, by the case, directly from Cuba, the Pearl of the Antilles.
Auerbach originally had not wanted Bob Cousy. The Celtics had failed with other local luminaries like Ed Leede from Dartmouth, Tony Lavelli from Yale, and Saul Mariachin and Wyndal Gray from Harvard. They even had taken three earlier stars from Holy Cross, George Kaftan, Dermie O’Donnel and Joe Mullaney and still they couldn’t win or draw fans. Cousy was thought of as another “local yokel!” Though being the greatest collegiate star in New England history, Cousy from Holy Cross, was passed over in the college draft by seven other teams besides the Celtics. Ben Kerner of the Hawks, who drafted 9th reluctantly took him. In the second round, the Celtics and their president Walter Brown made an incredibly unsuspected choice. They drafted the first African-American, one Chuck Cooper of Duquesne, in NBA history. After an awkward silence, a fellow owner asked Brown if he knew Cooper was a Negro? Brown answered, “I don’t care if he’s plaid!” and he snapped, “All I know is this kid can play basketball.” Because of the announcement that five franchises were folding; Sheboygan, Waterloo, Anderson, Denver and St. Louis, there was a rush to sign some of the now newly available talent. At this stage, Cousy was still unsigned. By early October and with the season opener only a few weeks away, another bombshell exploded. The Chicago Stag franchise also folded.
Once again there was a mad scramble for their players. Some opted for teams in lesser leagues, some quit and three remained: Max Zaslofsky, an excellent player, Andy Phillip, one of the best backcourt playmakers and the rookie Bob Cousy. Ben Kerner had traded the rights to Cousy to the now defunct Stags. Because Zaslofsky was in such demand by the Warriors, Knicks and Celtics who each wanted a star player that happened to be Jewish, the Commissioner Maurice Podoloff decided to settle the feuding in the most democratic manner available. Each name was printed on a separate slip of paper and tossed into Danny Biasone’s hat, the owner of the Syracuse Nationals. Ned Irish, of the Knicks, picked first, and got his most fervent wish with former St. John’s star,
Max Zaslofsky’s name on it. Andy Phillip went to Eddie Gottlieb of the Philadelphia Warriors and Brown and the Celtics were left with Cousy. The Celtics also wound up with Ed “Easy Ed” Macauley, who immediately would give them help and would figure in later on as a key piece to their future success.
Of course, the Celtics and Red Auerbach had really lucked out with Cousy. No one could have planned for his name to be left in the hat. They had had many opportunities to sign Cousy, they had seen him play locally for years and they had never really wanted him. Now they were stuck with an unproven rookie who seemed to have a great deal of “flash” but little potential. How wrong they could they be! But in the beginning it wasn’t easy and Red had to fight the press who adored Cousy and didn’t particularly like him. He had to find the right synergy amongst the many new prospects that came to camp in 1950. This adjustment to the untapped and unproven talent of Bob Cousy would be Red’s crucible. With all the pressure on the Celtics to succeed and with everyone anointing Cousy as the embodiment of the “second coming,” Red Auerbach’s survival in Boston was at stake. With Auerbach’s masterful acquisition of Bill Sharman from USC and his convincing Walter Brown to give him the then huge contract of $14,000 per year from their almost empty coffers, they became aesthetically successful. Over the next five seasons they outscored every team in the league but still failed to win a championship. Sharman and Cousy became the greatest backcourt duo in the history of the NBA.
By 1955, the Celtics who had led the league in scoring the three previous seasons understood they needed a big man in the middle. Bill Reinhardt, Red’s old coach from George Washington advised him to keep his eye on San Francisco’s big center Bill Russell. Two great coaches advised Red, Phil Woolpert, of the Dons and Pete Newell of California, along with Fred Scolari and Don Barksdale, who were on the Celtics, that Russell was the genuine article. Therefore Red realized that he had to plan carefully if he wanted to acquire the rights to Russell. Eventually Red learned that his old friend and now nemesis Ben Kerner intended to draft Russell with his second round choice. Cincinnati, who had the first choice, felt they could not afford Russell, who would also be entertaining bids from the Harlem Globetrotters. The Royals already had great rebounding strength from their rookie sensation, the ill-fated Maurice Stokes and were going to draft All-American Sihugo Green. Therefore Red had to make a deal with Kerner. His star center Ed Macauley was from St. Louis and his child had taken ill with spinal meningitis and the young boy was transferred to specialists near his home in St. Louis. Macauley had also graduated and starred at the University of St. Louis and would be anxious to play at home and be near his son. Kerner also demanded that Cliff Hagan be thrown in on the deal. Hagan, who with Frank Ramsey, came from the University of Kentucky, had been drafted a few years earlier, but because they could play another season in college and then had service obligations weren’t available until 1956. Ramsey had played a little for the Celtics when he was discharged early and Hagan was a rookie. Ramsey would later play for the Celtics and become famous as the first “Sixth” man and Hagan went on to star with the Hawks along with Bob Pettit. The Celtics had a “territorial” draft pick and used it to acquire Tommy Heinsohn, another All-American from Holy Cross. When Russell returned in December from Australia with the Olympic Gold medal, and joined the Celtics in mid-season, the “Dynasty” was finally pieced together. The Celtics went on to win eleven of the next thirteen NBA titles. They probably would have won in 1958 but Russell sprained his ankle and the Hawks, led by Petit and Hagan, won the two last games 102-100 and 110-109. In that final game, the great Bob Pettit scored 50 points. Personally I doubt that would have happened if Russell had been healthy. But it did. After that setback, the Celtics went on to win 8 straight titles. It could have easily had been 10!
Meanwhile, over the next few years, doubleheaders were still in fashion at the Garden and I attended one on November 11, (Armistice Day then) 1960. Again the Knicks were playing the Syracuse Nats and the Celtics were up against the resurgent Cincinnati Royals. The Royals had moved from Rochester, as the National Basketball Association abandoned the smaller markets like Fort Wayne, Minneapolis, Tri-Cities and Rochester. The Royals featured the great Oscar Robertson, who had gained immense fame with the University of Cincinnati Bearcat team following his sensational years with Indianapolis’s Crispus Attucks High School. Unfortunately that team gave Oscar little support besides Jack Twyman and Wayne Embry. The Celtics of 1960-1, featured Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tommy Heinsohn and Sam and KC Jones and were at the peak of their game. They easily outpaced the last place Royals. In that season, out of the 632 games played in the whole NBA, 150 were played on a neutral court. In other words, there were not only many double headers played, but also teams played in smaller cities like Providence or Hartford. In the featured game, the hapless Knicks with Willie Naulls, Iona’s own Richie Guerin, Kenny Sears, and many lesser lights, were beaten by the Nats led by All-Pro, and later Hall of Famer, Dolph Schayes, along with Hal Greer, Red Kerr, Dick Barnett and Larry Costello. By the 1963-4 season, the Syracuse franchise moved to Philadelphia and was renamed the 76ers. The old Philadelphia Warriors moved out west to San Francisco to become a natural rival of the Los Angeles Lakers, who had abandoned Minneapolis after the 1960 season.
When the NBA had originally started in 1946 there were eleven franchises and most of the big cities east of the Mississippi were represented. Even Toronto had a team and the only smaller city was Providence, Rhode Island. In that inaugural year Red got his first NBA job as the coach of the Washington Capitals, and with Bob Feerick, Fred Scolari and Bones McKinney, he led them to an outstanding 49-11 record. Their .814 winning percentage would be the highest in league history until the great Philadelphia 76er team with Wilt Chamberlain established a 68-13 record with a .840 winning percentage. Over those early years, from 1946 through my freshman year at BU in 1963, many changes happened in professional basketball. There were many franchise moves, there was expansion and contraction regarding the size of the league and teams now played on the West Coast.
When I had finally arrived at Boston University, in the fall of 1963, Bob Cousy had just retired from pro basketball and became the coach of Boston College. I loved basketball in those days and played a pretty decent game myself. My old buddy from Mount Vernon and fellow basketball player, sophomore Ken Ackerman, was a starter on the BU basketball team in my freshman year of 1963. BU, which was always a college hockey power, suddenly had a decent basketball team. Often I would drive up Commonwealth Avenue and get on the hard courts with some of the players from BU, BC (Steve Adelman) and other schools and play some old country half-court basketball. BU at that time, played in the Sargent College Field House, and had a great little guard from Oceanside, New Jersey named Ken Leary, a big guy from Maine, nicknamed the “Moose” (Dick Morehead) who for a time led the country in rebounds until grades did him in, and a great shooting forward whose name currently eludes me, who was our big star. They were so good that season that I went to every game. Unfortunately many others didn’t. In a game versus West Point, which had a very scrappy squad, Bob Cousy, the now coach of Boston College, was sitting virtually alone on the sparsely filled visitor’s side of the gym. He was scouting both teams. I spotted him immediately, and told my friends that I would switch sides, and say hello to the “Cooz.” I did just that and sat down next to the legend. Eventually I said hello, told him I was a great fan of his and the Celts, and he was polite enough to talk to me for a moment or two and then I let him get on with his work. Cousy had some great teams with Boston College with his great backcourt star Johnny Austin from Washington DC. He was a fabulous recruiter and some of the BC players told me that they were always in awe with him during every practice. Unfortunately a story came out in Life Magazine about how the New York District Attorney, Frank Hogan (Mr. DA) had questioned Cousy about point-shaving in the early 1950’s and in the article it alluded to many other unsubstantiated inferences and rumors about Cousy and gamblers. The article was a hatchet job and Cousy fought it vigorously. Later Life Magazine, embarrassed about their sources,backed away from their story. But the damage was done, and Cousy who had been growing disillusioned with college basketball, and the pressure to recruit, thought about making a career change. At the end of the 1969 season he resigned from Boston College and that was the end of the New England era for Cousy that had started in 1946. Cousy joined the Cincinnati, and later Kansas City-Omaha Royals as a coach for five seasons. He never had a winning season, and retired in 1974 with a 141-209 record. Cousy eventually joined the Celtic broadcast team and has been with the club ever since. Being in Boston, I was able to get to the Garden often and the battles between Russell and Chamberlain, who had been in San Francisco in 1963-4 and then was traded back to the Philadelphia 76ers, were legendary.
But, from my perspective Bob Cousy was still “Mr. Basketball.” He was the ideal for all of us who were not giants. I cannot really complain because I was never really short, but it was easier for most basketball fans and players to relate to a star at 6’ 1” rather than one who was 6’ 10” or a 7-footer. Of course life went on without Cousy on the Celtics, and as long as Russell was there success was never far away. They kept on winning. Auerbach was always ahead of the curve. He drafted John Havlicek out of Ohio State, and even though he was also not considered a scorer he developed into one of the greatest basketball players of his time. Sam Jones and KC Jones took over seamlessly for Sharman and Cousy and Havlicek replaced Frank Ramsey.
In 1966 I attended the National Invitation Tournament in Madison Square Garden, the one-time Mecca of college basketball. This was a place where basketball had made its name in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Of course the whole sport had become tarnished with the point-shaving scandals in the late 1940’s. The scandal had reached a white-hot meltdown proportion with Manhattan DA Frank Hogan’s investigation of the local colleges. It started with a Manhattan College player named Junius Kellogg, who said he had been offered $1000 to “shave” points. Of course this meant to make the game closer and effect the bookmaker’s “point-spread” on the game. Initially this meant that the player would still try to win the game, but to make the score or “spread” closer. But, now and again, a heavily favored team would lose, and this brought about immediate scrutiny from the press. Eventually, this investigative dragnet, would envelope and ensnare the whole starting five of the CCNY team. The fabled Kangeroos of CCNY, under the coaching tutelage of venerable, legendary and scrupulously honest Nat Holman, had won both the NCAA and NIT Tourneys in 1950. Eventually players from LIU and NYU were also caught in the ever-spreading net. The scandal eventually ruined the careers of both Holman (1896-1995, Holman coached for 37 years with a record of 421-190, later came back to CCNY and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.) and the brilliant Claire Bee (1896-1979, the author of the “Chip Hilton” books) the longtime coach of LIU. It was said by one influential columnist that “basketball as a big-time sport was dead.” Because of the collapse of college basketball at the Garden, pro basketball was able to prosper as it filled in the vacuum created by the scandal and the cancelled college schedule. Scandals did not end in the early 1950’s. They would pop up again in the early 1960’s with more problems involving New York schools. NYU was especially hard hit, but by the time I playing the game and was running off to the Garden for Holiday Festival Triple-headers I could care less. In a few short years, the scandal at NYU (Ray Paprocky, I believe!) was seen as a localized event and most of the bad publicity was soon forgotten.
One great and lasting college basketball memory occurred when I came to the new Garden, on a cool March 19, 1966 afternoon, with Mount Vernon friend and NYU junior Alan Rosenberg. A good NYU (15-9) team, led by former White Plains star guard Mal Graham, met lily-white Brigham Young (17-5) in the National Invitation Tournament finals. NYU had beaten DePaul, Wichita and Villanova, while Brigham Young had defeated Temple and Army. Graham, a high school All-American, who had torched Mount Vernon High School, in our senior year (1962-3) for 42 points in two separate games, led the Violets with an outstanding average of around 25 points per game. The next year he would average 29 points per game and be second in the nation in scoring. The other star on NYU was the 6’4” Bruce Kaplan from James Madison High School in Brooklyn. When we arrived Alan took me into the locker room where I met Graham and Kaplan. It was my first and last time that I was in the locker room of the Garden and unfortunately it was a blowout for the Mormans from Utah, whose quick guards ran the Violets ragged and won going away, 97-84. Interestingly, the coach of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was the famous Bobby Knight, who was an Ohio State teammate of two of the current Celtics, John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried. When I was in college I got to meet Siegfried at a number of Boston University parties. Knight always felt he was a better ballplayer than Siegfried. They were both selected in the 1962 NBA draft and both wound up sitting at the end of the bench of their respective teams. Siegfried was signed for $1000 bonus and Knight for $500. When it came time for cuts to be made by their respective teams, Knight was cut because his team had only invested $500 in him, wherein Siegfried, who was on the Cincinnati Royals was kept around because $1000 was a larger investment. Siegfried was eventually cut and Red Auerbach, and the Celtics, liked his style of play. He remained there for years, and contributed mightily as a scrappy ballplayer who collected 6 championship rings and averaged over 13 points per game for a number of seasons. After a 9-year career, in which he averaged over 10 points per game, he retired. Knight felt he should have been drafted higher than Siegfried and therefore gotten a bigger bonus. He blamed his low draft position to a poor performance in Madison Square Garden. His father had died right before a tournament and the scouts, who were all there, saw an underachieving Bobby Knight.
Of course the interesting thing about that day at the Garden was the fact that the Knicks were playing the Celtics that evening and all of Boston players were hanging around the Garden and watching the game. I was able to get the autographs of Sam Jones, KC Jones, John Havlicek and Tom Sanders. I still have the program will Mal Graham’s signature prominently in the middle. When I walked up to Red Auerbach, I asked him for his autograph, but he was in a hurry, I couldn’t find a pen and he was in no mood to stop and pull out one of his own. That was Red. He was always in a hurry, always pretty gruff and had little patience for anyone who happened to get in his way. It is over 40 years ago and I can still see him in his plaid jacket, his raincoat on his arm, his cigar clenched in his mouth and his classic rolled up scorecard. Meanwhile the Celtics must of liked what they saw with Mal Graham, because they drafted him a year later after a great senior year. Mal played a few years with the Celtics, but got sick and his career was cut short. Graham wound up going to law school and eventually became a judge in Boston and to this day remains a friend of Alan Rosenberg.
Eventually Auerbach would retire from coaching after that same 1966 season. It was just too much to be doing everything. He had been the General Manager, coach, chief scout, the road secretary, the public relations and the marketing person and almost everything else. He remained the General Manager, and when he retired he asked Cousy to coach the Celtics, but Cousy turned it down. He was still under contract to Boston College. Bill Russell became the coach, and they were able to win two more titles. It was interesting that Auerbach, who was instrumental in drafting the first black player, Chuck Cooper, also fielded the first all-black lineup in an NBA game, and went on to select the first black coach in a major American sport. Russell, after having his best record in his first year (60-21) was knocked out of the playoffs by the great Philadelphia 76er team, led by Wilt Chamberlain. That team would win a then record 68 games and beat the San Francisco Warrior team that had left Philadelphia with Wilt a number of years before. Russell would coach two more years with the Celtics, and though his aging team would not win a division title again, they would prevail in the NBA finals and he would add two more World Championship pennants to the Garden rafters. Russell retired after the 1969 season and most thought the Celtic dominance had ended forever. (He later came back in 1973 later to coach four mediocre years with the Seattle Supersonics.) But the Auerbach magic would continue and he was able to fashion two more championships eras with newcomers like Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, Don Chaney, and Don Nelson and eventually the final run with Larry Bird.
After a four-year hiatus, in 1974, The Celtics were able to return to the championship ranks with a team blended with veterans like John Havlicek and a newcomer from Kentucky via Florida State University, named Dave Cowens. Red picked Cowens in the first round, and this unlikely small-sized center brought incredible energy and spirit to the newly resurrected Celtic franchise, that had added new additions like Don Nelson, Jo Jo White, Paul Silas, Don Chaney, ML Carr, and Charley Scott.
Cowens would play his heart and body out over the next seven years and the Celtics were able to again win a title in 1976. But bigger stronger teams were starting to dominate the undersized Celtics and their aging field captain John Havlicek. Finally when both Cowens and Havlicek were gone from the scene the Celtics had not won a title in four long seasons. Auerbach was faced with the daunting challenge of trying to create another winning chapter. Few coaches are able to win just one championship. The first era that had ended with Russell, had produced 11 championship banners in 13 years. With Red’s pick of John Havlicek in 1962, no one could have ever predicted that this barely heralded and light scoring (only average 14.6 points per game at Ohio State) player would last 16 years and average almost 21 points per game over 1200 regular season games and over 22 points per game in a record 172 playoff games. Havlicek would retire with eight championship rings, become a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and be selected to the NBA’s 35th All-Time team. Only Auerbach could have found a player like Havlicek and made him into an all-time great. But now he was gone, along with the other retired Celtic greats who he either played with or had just followed: Sharman, Cousy, Sam and KC Jones, Ramsey, Sanders, Russell and a host of other roll players. Cowens would retire early and Auerbach had to re-build once again.
With his brilliant foresight, Red picked the little known Larry Bird as a junior in 1978. The next year Bird exploded on center stage in the NCAA finals with his lightly regarded Indiana State Sycamore team. In a titanic struggle, in the finals against Michigan State, against the 2.5 year younger Ervin “Magic” Johnson Jr., Larry Bird established not only his mark, but also justified Red Auerbach’s foresight and confidence in his ability.
It would not be long before Bird led the Celtics back into first place in their division and titles in 1981, 1984 and 1986. Bird was sensational. He was a perennial all-star, a three time MVP, a first team all-NBA starter and a great scorer and all-around player. The Celtic team was re-built from the bottom up and Bird’s teammates, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Dennis Johnson, and Danny Ainge would comprise one of the greatest five man lineups in basketball history. Their playoff battles with the Lakers were legendary. Competition was stronger than ever and teams like the Knicks with Patrick Ewing, the 76ers with Moses Malone and the Bulls with Michael Jordan were always challenging the Celtics for supremacy in the East. From Bird’s first season in 1979-80, and through the next eight years the Celtics would finish first in their division eight times and second once. In that period they would be one of the most successful and exciting teams in basketball history.
As the Larry Bird era drew to a close, injuries and old age ended the Celtic dominance. Unfortunately with the untimely deaths on Len Bias and Reggie Lewis we won’t know whether Red would have been able to fashion a fourth winning chapter. In truth the retirement of Larry Bird ended the Celtics great run of success that lasted for almost 35 years. Will there ever be another run like that, directed by one man, who knows? But it won’t be for me. It certainly may happen in the future one day, but with the retirement of Larry Bird and the death of Red Auerbach my love affair with basketball has all but ended.
My All-Time Celtic Team 1950-1990
First Second Third Fourth
Center Bill Russell Bob Parrish Dave Cowens Ed Macauley
Forward John Havlicek Kevin McHale Tom Sanders Bailey Howell
Forward Larry Bird Tom Heinsohn Reggie Lewis Cedric Maxwell
Guard Bob Cousy Bill Sharman Jo Jo White Nate Archibald
Guard Sam Jones Dennis Johnson KC Jones Frank Ramsey
Fifth Super Subs
Wayne Embry ML Carr
Don Nelson Jim Luscutoff
Paul Silas Gene Conley
Danny Ainge Larry Siegfried
Gerald Henderson Bill Walton
My impressions of the Celtics
Russell was the greatest of all players. He was like a giant bird of prey. His timing was impeccable and brought an incredible level and style of defense to the sport that had never existed before. Before Russell and the 24-second clock, which forced a team to take a shot within a time parameter, basketball was slow, defensive, plodding and very physical. Games could be slowed down to a crawl. With the advent of the 24-second rule the game opened up and scoring increased immediately. The “fast-break,” which was instituted by guards like the pre-war stars Hank Luisetti and Bob Davies, came into its own with Cousy who made it into an art form. When Russell came into the fray he became the engine of that system. Russell’s ability to block shots, to intimidate the opposition and to control the ball after it was blocked was unique. Almost no one else could do what he did, and even today 50 years later, no one has really mastered that skill at the level Russell had developed right from the start. Others who followed batted the ball away, like Chamberlain. But Russell not only grabbed rebounds, both defensive, but the all important offensive ones, but he set up the fast break with his remarkable outlet passes from controlling the blocked shots of his opponents. That was and still remains unique. Others like Jerry Lucas, Bill Walton and Wes Unseld were strong and mobile and could move the ball and shoot. But they did not have Russell’s uncanny timing, and they could not shut down the middle off to the opposition like Russell could. I went to the Boston Garden often and the games that I saw that pitted Russell against Wilt Chamberlain were monumental. The “Wilt” was unlike any other athletic specimen. No one could stop him, but at least Russell could keep him contained. The fact that Chamberlain averaged 50.4 point per game throughout one season (1961-2) probably remains the most remarkable achievement in sport’s history. Therefore without Russell in his way, Chamberlain would have bulldozed the whole league and owned all of the championship banners that were available. The Russell-Chamberlain rivalry was probably the greatest confrontation in the history of sport. It far outweighed; Borg-McEnroe, Jimmy Brown-Sam Huff, Joe DiMaggio-Bob Feller, Helen Wills-Helen Jacob, Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johanson, Ali-Frazier, Gordie Howe-Rocket Richard, Bird-Magic, or even War Admiral and Seabiscuit. In this greatest of all battles between these titans of the game, Russell and Chamberlain matched up 142 times, not counting All-Star or exhibition games. Wilt; who outweighed Big Bill by 50 pounds, and was at least 5 inches taller even grabbed an amazing 55 rebounds against him in 1960. But in these classic struggles Russell’s Celtic teams won 86 games or 60.6% of the time. In those 142 games, Chamberlain averaged 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds per game, wherein Russ averaged 14.5 points and 23.7 rebounds per game. In their respective careers, including both regular season and playoffs Russell averaged 15.24 points per game and 22.8 rebounds, while The Wilt averaged 29.07 points per game and 23.10 rebounds per game. Statistically there is no “smoking gun” between them. Russell and Auerbach always felt that Chamberlain would get his points, so it was more critical to limit his teammate’s contributions and therefore win the game. Russell could shoot when he wanted to and averaged between 16 and 18 points per game through his middle years with the Celts. The truth is that Russell didn’t have to shoot and was much happier and productive setting up his teammates.
Bob Cousy was the magician. Though never a jump shot artist like West, Robertson or Sam Jones, Cousy was the classic “point” guard, who was the ultimate field general. He could be ahead of the field finishing off a lay-up, could do a behind the back dribble and his trademark play was to swing the ball behind his back to his other hand while he was in the air driving toward the basket. Sometimes he would pass off to a teammate for an assist, and often he would score. He had a one-handed set shot and could easily hit a hook shot from either hand. He had titanic struggles against Bob Davies the great guard from Rochester who was eight years older, and regarded Slater “Dugie” Martin of the old Minneapolis Lakers and St. Louis Hawks as his greatest rival and toughest competitor. Cousy was an emotional person and player and always had to conquer self-doubts, but he grew into a “legend in his own time.” He had a great role in publicizing the positive aspects of professional basketball. Though he was not as big and strong as Robertson, or as gifted in shooting like West, Sam Jones or Hal Greer, he had leadership skills that were unique. He also had great a dribbling talent that few could match. All in all, Bob Cousy was one of my great favorites, whom I’ll never forget.
Larry “The Legend” Bird was obviously one of the greatest ballplayers who has ever lived. The “hick” from French Lick, Indiana, was a remarkable athlete. He wasn’t insanely strong, fast or able to leap through the sky. But he could shoot, and shoot in the clutch. He could pass with any “big man” who has ever played. He could rebound, and find the “open” man. In his great rivalry with Julius Erving, if one would compare Bird’s ten year career with Erving’s first ten years in the league, one would see Bird’s dominance. Bird played 717 games to Dr. J’s 776. Bird averaged 25 point per game to Erving’s 22.4. He out rebounded him 7319 to 5337 and out passed him with 4396 assists to Erving’s 3023. Their field goal percentage was almost the same .503 to .508 with an edge to Dr. J. Bird out shot him from the free throw line .880 to .775. Bird could take the ball up the court, could shoot from the inside and outside and he even scored 60 points in one game against Atlanta. I will always remember Larry Bird’s steal of an inbound pass by Isiah Thomas with about 2 seconds left in a playoff game. With the Celtics down by a point and almost no time left, Bird was guarding Thomas from in-bounding a pass. Bird faked running up the court, reversed himself and intercepted Thomas’s pass. In one motion he fed the on-charging Dennis Johnson who made the lay-up as the game-ending buzzer sounded. This reamrkable play snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, and I consider it the greatest play in basketball history. Even the famous and oft repeated, “Havlicek steals the ball” doesn’t compare with that heady play. It is now almost twenty years since the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson-Michael Jordan rivalries. The NBA was overloaded with stars and Larry Bird was at the top of his game and few would not rate him as good or better than those two other luminaries.
When John Havlicek came out of Ohio State University, no one had any idea how good he would become. By the time he had finished his sixteen glorious seasons he would own many of the Celtic records. No one played more games, more minutes or scored more points than “Hondo.” He was second to Larry Bird in points per game and averaged over 36 minutes per game in those 16 years. Only Russell averaged more. Havlicek had great endurance and though he started his career as a “sixth” man, replacing Frank “The Kentucky Colonel” Ramsey in that role, he often got into the game quite quickly and had the uncanny ability, not unlike Ramsey, of hitting his first shot. He could break the back of the opposition and when he became a full-time starter he was capable of playing a 46+ minute basketball game. He was always on the run, was exceptionally strong and for a small forward at 6’5,” he accumulated over 8000 rebounds. He turned into a great scorer and eight years in a row he averaged over 20 points per game with one season at 28.9. He was steady, consistent, in control of his emotions, and a consummate team player. Probably no one in the history of the professional game was able to come from college, where he only averaged only 14 points per game, and then become one of the NBA’s greatest scorers. His heart was immense, his dedication was unsurpassed and his desire to win was remarkable and he could outrun anyone in basketball history.
Sam Jones, who hailed from little North Carolina Central College, was another one of Red Auerbach’s diamonds in the rough. No one knew who he was and “Sudden Sam” or “Slippery” as he was variously known by, eventually reached the Basketball hall of Fame. His .456 shooting percentage from the field wasn’t too far behind all-time greats Jerry West and the Oscar “The Big O” Robertson. He started as a backup guard with KC Jones and for the first few years he and KC would come off the bench and bring excitement and speed onto the floor while replacing the all-star duo of Cousy and Sharman. After Sharman retired at the end of the 1961 season, Jones became a full-time starter with Cousy and his scoring dramatically increased. In his early days his trademark shot was a bank shot off the glass, but eventually he realized that using the backboard didn’t help him from the corners or at the top of the key. He was incredibly fast and could stop off the dribble and hit a jump shot from any place on the floor. His first step was legendary and that was why he got the nickname “Sudden Sam.” He was a great shooter that always could be counted on for a clutch basket. He was always up in the top 15 in scoring from the time he became a starter through his next seven years. Though a quiet, and undemonstrative player he always got the job done.
As a lifetime Celtic fan I have appreciated many of the other great players who have stepped on the famous parquet floor of the old Boston Garden. I was there many times in my four years at Boston University and I could not close without mentioning a few others.
Tommy “Tommy the Gun” Heinsohn was a great shooter from the corner, a rough player who never quit and a forward that could play the inside with the best of his peers. Through most of his career he was always near the top of the Celtic scoring. KC Jones was a great running guard who was tenacious on defense. He was a great athlete like Havlicek and could have starred at almost any sport. When Cousy retired he was again paired with Sam Jones and they led the Celtics to a number of championships. He was always a winner. Bill Sharman was also a multi-talented athlete that was originally signed by the Dodgers and was touch as nails. He was an amateur boxer and on the foul line he was an all-time great. He was famous for his great lifetime free throw shooting percentage of .883 that still leads the Celtics. He averaged over 18 points per game was a great shot from the outside and was the perfect complement to Cousy’s ball-handling and court leadership. He was a first and second team NBA all-star seven times, a Hall of Famer and named to the NBA’s 25th anniversary all-time team. Bob Parrish and Kevin McHale were great stars of the Bird era. Parrish was solid in the middle and Kevin McHale was certainly one of the best inside players in NBA history. He was almost unstoppable when he was near the basket. Both Parrish and McHale played very hard and were both excellent shooters. McHale’s shooting percentage ranks him highest in Celtic history and he was not far from the top in all of NBA history. From my vantage point they both were integral pieces in those great Celtic teams. In 10 seasons from 1980-1 until 1989-90 the threesome of Bird, Parrish and McHale averaged between 50 and 68 point per game every year. For six of those seasons, that threesome averaged over 60 points per game. In other words, they were consistently great!
I could not leave out Dennis Johnson when discussing the great Bird era. DJ, as he was known, was one of the top guards of all-time and was an excellent ball-handler and ball-hawk! He is often forgotten when one discusses other Celtic guards like Cousy, Sharman, Sam Jones, Jo Jo White and Nat Archibald, but he was big, fast, strong and an excellent shooter. He could also rebound for his size and with three big men up front, Parrish, Bird and McHale he was still able to snare his share off the boards. Dave Cowens had great heart and incredible hustle. Both Cowens and Siegfried picked up many proverbial splinters diving for balls and rolling around the court. Cowens could score from the outside and even with his legendary match-ups with all-time great Kareem Abdul Jabbar he was able to win ten games in a row against his giant rival. Two others deserve important mention; Tom “Satch’ Sanders and Paul Silas. Sanders, who was drafted by the Celtics from NYU, played his entire career with them, was an under-rated defensive genius. He was always assigned the top scorer on the other side of the court. He was unheralded, but was an essential part of their championships. Paul Silas was one of the many role players like Clyde Lovelette, Willie Naulls, Don Nelson and Wayne Embry. He was also a successful sixth man in the tradition of Ramsey, Havlicek, McHale and Bill Walton. He came to the Celtics at 29 and in four seasons established his mark. Even while playing only an average of 31 minutes per game over those four years he was able to average more than 1000 rebounds per season and over ten points per game.
There were many others over the years that contributed mightily, but the real success of the Celtics was embodied in the heart and mind of Red Auerbach. Many of the others came and went, but he remained. He survived owners great and horrible. He transcended different eras and the changing sociological clock. He remained the one constant that held this great franchise together. All the many fans and foes of the Celtics, who lived through that 56-year era, will never forget him.