Wednesday, 18 June 2008


They weren't my first sporting love: that would be Yale football, or my second, that would be the New Haven Blades, but the Boston Celtics weren't far behind that. Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, Satch Sanders, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones, KC Jones, Losty in their low black Converse; every kid I knew who played basketball had to have Converse; would spit on US Keds, and those of us in the know wanted black ones. My parents wouldn't cough up the extra dough for Cons, not until I could make up the difference myself, and black ones weren't easy to find in those days. Not like now, when they're style accesories, and of noticeably cheaper build since they've become that and Converse was bought out.

Is there an American man alive who would know what 'parquet' meant were it not for the floor of the Boston Garden? I mean the old Gahden, not the TD Banknote North or whatever it's called arena. Note to the sponsors: you want me to remember the name, you better sponsor ME. And above it all hung the cigar smoke of Red Auerbach.

The Celtics winning their first title in 22 years, their 17th overall, and stopping Phil Jackson from breaking Red's mark of 9 as coach had a certain emotional power to it. Not that I feel for the team as passionately as I did in college, when I watched them deflate the hearts of my Philly and LA fan friends (Moid and Jay, you know who you are). Bailey Howell, Don Nelson, Larry Siegfried, Willie Naulls. Nor the Dave Cowens-JoJo White-Don Chaney era teams, nor the exceptional days of the 80s, when Bird, McHale, Parrish, Ainge, DJ, Wedman, Walton, Sichting, Westphal may have been the best NBA team ever. You don't believe me, watch a few clips on YouTube, which I did late one night last week: it's amazing team basketball.

I was worried the team was cursed. Red's legerdemain in getting Len Bias in the draft was erased by his cocaine OD the next day. Then draft steal Reggie Lewis died. No team could bounce back from that. I thought they had sunk to levels of mediocrity that would turn Red pale. So give Danny Ainge immense credit for bringing in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. For assembling the supporting cast (was Rajon Rondo the MVP of game six or what? Was Posey great? Is Big Baby the kind of guy the old Celts would love). Doc Rivers may be the second coming of KC Jones as a coach, who knows?

I may not be as passionate about the Celts, because I'm not as passionate about basketball (the game seems more athletic but less interesting than I remember), and because I don't see many games (when you stay up to broadcast, it's harder to make yourself stay up NOT to broadcast!) and because the mystique seemed to be gone, but this team certainly brought some of that feeling back. There isn't a whole lot of mystique in sports these days. There's lots of hype.
There's lots of image. But mystique? It's as rare as a Johnny Most interpretation of a call that was biased in the Celtics' favour.

But it is as if Red were still there. Loads of the Old Celts were there, and someone noted that in Boston, only championship banners are hung from the rafters. None of this 'Atlantic Division runners up' crap you'll find in Hooterville, Florida or Georgia.

In honour of the Celtics' being NBA champions once again, and all (well, maybe not all, but all things basketball) being right with the world, I'm going to post a gem off Mike's spike: an obit of Red Auerbach which was commissioned by the Guardian, but never used. In the end, someone always felt Red's brilliance wouldn't translate to a British audience. See if you agree. And remember, I left out all the good stuff that would have taken too long to explain!

Here it is:

In the late moments of basketball games at the Boston Garden, often with the outcome apparently still undecided, Boston Celtics’ coach Red Auerbach would lean back on the bench, and, with elaborate pretence, light the cigar ever-present in his mouth. This ‘victory cigar’ cued a roaring wave of Churchillian triumph. It also produced hostile rage from visiting players, coaches, and fans, but crucially, that rage would be directed at the short, balding man in the loud jacket, whose team would, more often than not, beat theirs.
Auerbach, who has died aged 89, was professional basketball’s greatest coach. Between 1957 and 1969, his Celtics won 11 NBA titles, a dynastic dominance un-matched by baseball’s Yankees or ice hockey’s Montreal Canadiens. Auerbach coached the first nine champions, then as general manager oversaw the next two, and two more in the 1970s. In the 80s, as team president, he built another nascent dynasty, with three more titles; one which, but for tragedy, might have extended into the next decade.
You can compare Auerbach to a number of legendary football managers. His taunting cigar was the prototype for the Mourinhos or Fergusons, bosses who deflect attention from their players, leaving them free to concentrate on their games. It led to Greg Kite, a reserve whose entry into a game usually signified its wrap-up, being nicknamed ‘the human victory cigar’. Like another football manager, Brian Clough, Auerbach possessed the rare ability to judge talent, constantly stealing other teams’ under-valued journeymen or aging veterans, who then blossomed in his system. Red’s seemingly uncontrollable temper, however, put even Clough‘s to shame. Unlike Clough, Auerbach‘s outbursts, including fist-fights with players, fans, and even an owner, were always directed at opponents. He was as canny a handler of players as Alf Ramsey or Bill Shankly. ‘You don’t handle them,‘ he said. ‘Players are people, not horses’. Auerbach drove the happy-go-lucky Tom Heinsohn relentlessly, yet allowed star centre Bill Russell to rest through virtually all practice scrimmages. And Red could boast the dress sense of Don Revie.
Having grown up Jewish in Brooklyn, where his father, an immigrant from Russia, ran small businesses, Auerbach’s experience of prejudice put him in the forefront of basketball’s integration. He selected Chuck Cooper, the first black player drafted by the NBA, in 1950. Ten years later, in a league whose unwritten rule was ‘2-3-5‘ (‘start two black players on the road, three at home, but play five when behind‘), he started the NBA’s first all-black lineup. After his record ninth championship as coach (since matched by Phil Jackson), he named Russell the NBA’s first black head coach.
Auerbach was a hustler, always looking for a edge, and usually finding it. Small ones, like keeping the visitors’ dressing room in Boston Garden small, dirty, and unheated. And bigger ones, like arranging to choose Russell whose defensive and rebounding skills would prove crucial to the Celtics’ success, in the 1956 NBA draft. Celtic owner Walter Brown controlled the Ice Capades; Auerbach offered Rochester, who held the draft’s first pick, extra dates in their arena by the profitable show in return for passing on Russell. Knowing Hawks’ owner Walter Kerner, who held the second pick, was wary of bringing a black star to segregated St Louis, he offered a star player in return for the pick, and, when Kerner insisted, threw in his current starting center too. The Celtics soon beat St. Louis to win their first NBA title. But it was Russell’s triumphs over Wilt Chamberlain (whose Guardian obit I also wrote) that became the stuff of legend. Only the slender 6-9 Russell could keep the massively talented 7-2 Chamberlain in check, though never completely. But year after year, in the playoffs, Russell seemed to rise to the occasion, and the Celtics with him. So when Philadelphia made Chamberlain the NBA’s first $100,000 player, the otherwise frugal Auerbach gave Russell a contract for $100,001.
Auerbach’s road to Boston began at Washington’s George Washington University, where he played for three seasons. He coached in Washington DC high schools, and taught at a reform school, before serving in the Navy during World War II. In 1946 he was named coach of the Washington Capitols, for the NBA‘s inaugural season, and compiled three winning seasons. After the only losing season of his career, with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, he was hired to coach the hapless Celtics in 1950, and immediately led them to their first playoff appearance.
Over the years Auerbach would risk drafting players committed to other sports, like baseball’s Danny Ainge, or, like superstar Larry Bird, who could have re-entered the draft the following year. By convincing San Francisco he would draft a player they coveted, in 1980 he extracted Robert Parrish and the pick that became Kevin McHale; with Bird they completed the greatest frontcourt in NBA history. He repeated the chicanery to draft Maryland’s Len Bias just after Boston won their last title, with Auerbach as team president, in 1986, but Bias died of a cocaine overdose two days later, which signalled the end to the Celtic’s dynasty, a signal reinforced by the sudden death from heart failure of another shrewdly-drafted star, little-known Reggie Lewis from Boston’s Northeastern University.
Auerbach remained with the team, even once forcing out an owner by threatening to join the New York Knicks unless he sold the club. Three days before his death Auerbach attended a ceremony at which he was honoured with the US Navy’s ‘Lone Sailor’ award. He died of a heart attack before he could travel to Boston for the season’s opening game; the Celtics will dedicate their season to him, though these post-Auerbach days, that is hardly a tribute. His wife of 54 years, the former Dorothy Lewis, died in 2000; he is survived by two daughters.
Arnold ‘Red’ Auerbach born 20 Sept 1917 Brooklyn
Died 28 October 2006 Washington DC

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