This Day in Jewish History / The Best Basketball Coach, if You Ask Bostonians, Is Promoted

Opponents and referees may have been less enamored of Red Auerbach's adversarial style, but no one doubted his devotion to the triumph of the Boston Celtics.

Jack O'Connell / Wikimedia Commons

On April 28, 1966, the day the Boston Celtics won their eighth straight NBA championship, Red Auerbach announced his retirement as the team’s coach — to become its general manager, a job he held until 1984. At that point he became the team’s president, which he remained until his death, in 2006.

Even today, nearly 50 years later, Auerbach is generally remembered as the finest coach professional basketball has ever seen, although his opponents and the referees who came up against his aggressively adversarial style may not recall him with quite the affection that his former players, and Bostonians in general, do.

When Auerbach took over the Celtics, in 1950, its record was 22-46. Within one season the team had a winning record and made it to the playoffs, and in 1956 it won the league title. It was Auerbach who introduced the fast break, in which the offense tries to score by moving the ball down the court toward the opposing basket before the defenders are in place. He also originated the idea of having a full-strength sixth man on the bench who was as capable as the starting five and ready to relieve one of them.

Auerbach was also a brilliant team-builder, whose vision led him into trades and acquisitions whose logic sometimes only became clear to others a season or two later. He was the first coach to draft a black player into the NBA (Chuck Cooper), and he brought the first African-American coach into the league when he appointed Bill Russell to succeed him as coach in 1966. (Five of Auerbach’s players went on to become coaches.)

Arnold Jacob Auerbach was born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 20, 1917. He was the second of four children of Hyman Auerbach, who immigrated to the United States from Minsk, Russia at age 13, and the former Marie Thompson, who was American-born.

Hyman owned a delicatessen on Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue before selling it and opening a dry-cleaning business. Arnold, whose hair earned him the nickname “Red” at a young age, attended P.S. 122 and Eastern District High School, both in Williamsburg. At the latter, he was captain of the basketball team.

After two years at Seth Low Junior College, a division of Columbia University, Auerbach received an athletic scholarship to George Washington University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education and, in 1941, a master’s in education. That year he and the former Dorothy Lewis, who died in 2000, were married. They had two daughters.

Auerbach coached high-school basketball for two years before joining the U.S. Navy, in 1943, where he was responsible for organizing athletic programs at the Norfolk Naval Base and other places.

Record for expulsions

The Basketball Association of America, the predecessor to the NBA, was founded in 1945, the year Auerbach was hired to coach one of the league’s charter teams, the Washington Capitals. Four years later, he moved to the Tri-Cities Blackhawks (the Tri-Cities being Moline and Rockport, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa), the only team with which he had a losing record. That’s when Walter Brown, owner of the last-place Boston Celtics, came calling.

Auerbach remained associated with the Celtics until the end of his life. No less significant than his 16 seasons as coach were his 18 years in the front office, where he became legendary for his trades, and during which the team won another seven titles.

Auerbach could be pushy, even bullying, and his constant badgering of referees got him expelled from more games than any coach in NBA history — he was once even ejected from an exhibition game, when he was coaching an old-timers’ team. But it was hard not to admire his smarts, his desire to win and his loyalty to his team.

Red Auerbach died of a heart attack on October 28, 2006, at his home in Washington, D.C., where his family continued to live throughout his five decades with the Celtics.