Arnold "Red" Auerbach, probably the greatest coach in the history of the NBA, passed away this weekend at the age of 89.
As coach of the Boston Celtics in the 1950s and '60s, Auerbach built what is considered by many to be to the most successful dynasty in any professional major league sport in the United States. Between 1956 and his retirement from active coaching in 1966, Auerbach led the Celtics to nine NBA championships in 10 seasons. (More in IHT)
In addition to his success as a coach, Auerbach was equally important as an innovator who helped change the face of professional basketball, and was responsible for making it the fast-paced, exciting game it is today.
Auerbach was also a master tactician, amateur psychologist, and a shrewd judge of talent, whose intelligence and strong, acerbic personality kept him in complete control of his team and usually two or three steps ahead of the opposition.
Born in Brooklyn to a Jewish immigrant family, Auerbach played high-school basketball in New York, but played his college ball at George Washington University in the nation's capital. He would spend the rest of his adult life in Washington.
Overall, Auerbach coached for 20 years in the NBA, starting in the league's inaugural season when he coached the short-lived Washington Capitols. Of course, however, he is best known for his years at the helm of the Celtics.
The cornerstone of what would eventually be the Celtic dynasty was set in 1950, when Auerbach and the Celtics picked the rights to playmaker Bob Cousy out of a hat, when the NBA dispersed the roster of the bankrupt Chicago Stag franchise.
Cousy, with his no-looking, behind-the-back passes brought pizzazz to what had previously been the conservative style of play in the league. He was such a ball-handling wizard that when Boston had a lead with 2-3 minutes remaining in a game, Auerbach would often ask Cousy to "dribble out the clock," since no one was capable of laying a hand on him.
As a result, in 1954, the NBA initiated the 24-second clock, in order to eliminate this tactic and speed up the game in general. No one took advantage of the new rule like the Celtics. The "Celtic fast break" of the Auerbach years, engineered by Cousy, became one of the NBA legends of the era.
In 1956, Auerbach, who also served as the Celtics' general manager, traded one of his stars, Ed MacCauley, and the rights to Cliff Hagan, who would also become an NBA star, to the St. Louis Hawks, in return for the rights to rookie center Bill Russell.
Russell would revolutionize the defensive end of basketball much as Cousy revolutionized offense, and the Auerbach-Russell-Cousy trio formed the foundation for nine titles in 10 seasons.
Russell was such a shot-blocking genius that he would often block them to a teammate in order to trigger a Celtic fast break that would culminate in two easy points at the other end of the court. The modern concept of transition basketball, meaning offense predicated by opportunities provided by effective defense, was a Celtic invention.
Auerbach also invented the concept of the "6th man." Players like Frank Ramsey, followed by Sam Jones and John Havlicek, were as important as any of the starting five, and all went on to become Hall of Famers.
Auerbach was a master psychologist as well as a brilliant tactician. A famous example involved his star, Russell. A highly sensitive and gifted genius, the player would become so anxious before every big game that he would vomit. Once, the Celtics were due to play the seventh and deciding game of an Eastern Conference finals when Auerbach realized that Russell hadn't vomited. He pulled his team off the court before the tip-off and returned them to the locker room. He then barked to his star in heavily accented Brooklynese, "Russell, troo up," as the bewildered opposition and referees waited 20 minutes for Russell to complete his pre-game ritual.
Mission accomplished, the Celtics stormed to another rousing triumph, and Auerbach punctuated the win in the final two minutes by lighting his traditional "victory cigar" on the bench.
Boston's legendary coach left the sidelines with the same flair for innovation that characterized his coaching years. He appointed Russell as his successor, making him the first African American to head a major professional sports team in the history of the United States. Russell led the Celtics to two NBA titles in his three years of coaching, becoming the first African American to lead a major league team to a championship.
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