I used to hate the Boston Celtics. Going to high school near Philly, I had no choice. The year after a magical rookie killed my beloved Sixers, Boston soared back from a 3-1 series deficit. After a few glorious seasons in the late ’70s, when they stunk, the Celtics had thus become a powerhouse, if not a dynasty, once again. And everybody knew who the architect was.
Red’s victory cigars were legendary, especially since he got to smoke them so often. They made him seem arrogant, wise, and unbeatable. Not yet old enough to take much interest in the past, I considered him to be an evil genius, one who needed to be defeated at all costs. So I pulled hard for the Lakers, feigned interest in the Rockets, even cheered on the Pistons. Admittedly, it did feel pointless at times, like the night Larry snatched the ball from Isaiah.
It’s been more than a decade since such passions mattered to me, of course. I harbor no regrets about hating the Celtics, even though I now acknowledge that some of my arguments against them missed the point. Studying recent history, I’ve come to see their importance. And ever since moving to Brooklyn, I am now able to appreciate Red.
Born in 1917, Arnold “Red” Auerbach grew up in Williamsburg. His family lived in a three-story building in the neighborhood just south of the Lincoln Savings Bank on Broadway (near S. 5th). Located at the edge of the Hasidic section, Red’s old turf is rather nondescript today. An asphalt school basketball court at Hewes and Lee only vaguely captures the atmosphere of the ’20s and ’30s, when athletic competition was everywhere and meant everything.
After some earlier successes in the restaurant business, during the Depression era Auerbach’s father owned and operated a dry cleaners at N. 3rd and Bedford. His brother, meanwhile, did the same at N. 8th and Bedford. Now 83, Red still remembers the terrain well. “I know those streets, don’t I?” he said to The Rail recently, as he mapped out his youthful travels throughout Williamsburg, then mostly Jewish and Italian, and Greenpoint, at the time predominantly Irish.
Asked when he first started playing basketball, Red replies, “when I could walk.” As he got taller, he sharpened his skills not only in school but out, at places like the Y.M.H.A. off Marcy, and at the Annex, a “tough, Irish working class” rec. center on McKibbin St. in Greenpoint. Such places operated as “boys clubs, where we competed in all kinds of different games against one another.” On the court, skill apparently mattered far more than ethnicity.
This was also the case, he explains, at Eastern District High School, the still-hulking mass on Grand just past Bushwick. At the time, the only games played there were basketball and handball; those wanting football or baseball had to go to Boys High School. Red characterizes his hoops squad at Eastern District as “a real melting pot—we had Italians, Irish, Jewish guys, and one black player.” For his part, Auerbach succeeded both on the floor and off, earning All-Brooklyn roundball honors and becoming class president.
Such striving for athletic and professional success formed a core part of the local character. “We had a guy, Vic Hershkowitz,” Red recalls, “who didn’t make the handball team at Eastern District. After graduating, he became a fireman, but he kept playing handball. A few years later, he won a national championship.” Though few remember its champions today, handball remains a favorite local game.
Reflecting on the influence of his Brooklyn youth on his later career, Auerbach singles out a common theme: “It was very competitive, you always wanted to succeed.” Such a view is far from uncommon in the sporting world, of course. But in what was then a far more densely populated section of the city, filled with many other melting pot ingredients, competition came to mean doing what was necessary to win, regardless of what background one’s teammates came from. This may not sound so distinct now, but keep in mind that when Red graduated from high school in the mid-1930s, Jackie Robinson’s Dodger debut was still more than a decade away.
Auerbach left Brooklyn after high school, first on a scholarship to Seth Low Junior College of Columbia University, before moving on to George Washington University, where he played three years of varsity ball.
Upon graduating in 1940, he taught high school for a while in D.C., then joined the American Basketball League’s Harrisburg Senators for a year. His first pro coaching post came for the Washington Capitals of the Basketball Association of America in 1946. After these leagues consolidated to become the N.B.A. in 1949, Auerbach took the helm of the Tri-City Blackhawks. Davenport, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, may have been alien land for a Brooklynite, but Auerbach’s stint there was mercifully brief.
In 1950, Auerbach landed a post in a more high-profile city, Boston, and there he would remain for the rest of his coaching career. Although he had a good team—sparked by the ball-handling legend Bob Cousy—in the first part of the decade, it was not until University of San Francisco center Bill Russell came on board in 1956 that Auerbach and his Celtics began to establish their dominance. Against their archrival, the St. Louis Hawks, they won the title in Russell’s rookie year, only to fall the next year by four games to three. Such defeat would be temporary, as the following year’s title became the first of eight Celtic championships in a row.
As they reigned supreme in the basketball world throughout the ’60s, the Celtics also became the first N.B.A. team with a mostly black starting lineup. Although they were clearly led by Russell, along with K.C. and Sam Jones, the Celtic teams of that time also relied on solid white players, like Heinsohn and Nelson, and on great ones like Havlicek. In Boston, as elsewhere in the Northeast, the racial climate grew increasingly tense throughout the mid-1960s, particularly as the Civil Rights struggle moved north. Yet on the court, the Celtics seemed to be well ahead of the game in many respects—they were moving beyond full integration, and potentially towards black power.
Outspoken on racial issues throughout his career, Russell in the mid-’60s said he really wasn’t sure where Auerbach stood on the issue. In Go Up for Glory, his controversial 1965 autobiography, Russell called his coach an “authoritarian,” one interested in winning far more than friendship. On the “Negro question,” Russell said, Auerbach was nothing more than a “middle of the roader.” Such insubordination might have earned a lesser player a bus ticket to Detroit, in exchange for draft picks from the lowly Pistons, but Russell actually received the opposite treatment. After the Celtics lost Game One of the 1966 Finals, Auerbach announced that Russell would become his successor in the following season, making him the first black coach in any professional sport, and inspiring the Celtics to win their 8th straight title.
By handing over the reins, was Auerbach responding to Russell’s challenge to take a stand on racial issues? Might Auerbach have been trying to secure a “place in history,” to transcend sports, and thus pick up where Branch Rickey left off? “I’ve been asked that a million times,” Red says, somewhat testily. “I did it because I knew that at that stage of his career, nobody could motivate Russell other than Russell, and he needed a challenge greater than just playing.” To keep Russell interested, he adds, was obviously “in the best interests of the Celtics.” With their new player-coach, the Celtics were temporarily dethroned by the great 76er team of ’66-’67, but then climbed back on top to win two more titles, before Russell bowed out on top in 1969.
After perennially contending, and then winning two more titles (with teams led by Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White) by the mid-1970s, the Celtics finally went into their “rebuilding years”—which totaled two. The second came after Auerbach, then the team’s G.M., used the Celtics first round pick on a player who was not coming out of school for another year. But a second consecutive lousy season was worth 13 years of Larry Bird. The Celtics won 60 games in Bird’s rookie year, after which Auerbach staged another personnel coup, landing both Robert Parrish and the right to draft Kevin McHale in the same trade. In that trio’s first six years together, the Celtics won three titles, and lost in the finals (to the Lakers) two other times.
For a Celtic hater like myself, the ’80s were indeed difficult years. They were so damn good that there was no way to criticize them. Yet on more than one occasion, I do remember trying to dismiss them as a “white team”—and I know that I was not alone in making this case. With Bird, McHale, and later Ainge playing such prominent roles, the charge seemed obvious to disgruntled 76er and Laker fans. Auerbach, not surprisingly, considers the label to be a “bunch of B.S.” “We won championships with eight black players and four whites, and with eight white players and four blacks, but what’s the difference? It’s about winning with the best players you can get your hands on.” “Look at it today,” he adds, “when it’s two Chinese players that everybody is after.”
Begrudgingly, I now must agree with Red’s assessment of the Celtics of the ’80s. They of course would not have won those titles without first Tiny Archibald and Cedric Maxwell, then Dennis Johnson, and always Parish; and they likely would have won a couple more had cocaine not taken Len Bias away. That K.C. Jones coached them to two of their three titles during the mid-’80s further falsifies the notion that the Celtics were too white. And how the Celtics fit any sort of mold regarding a particular racial style of play escapes my analytical skills. They just won.
Still Vice Chairman of the Celtics, Red shows no signs of losing enthusiasm for the game. He’d rather discuss who is going to win—“The Lakers if Kobe is healthy, the 76ers are tough, though”—than the fact that Kobe and Iverson keep creating foolish controversies. Meanwhile, a standard sports question about who was the best player can still get him excited. “Jordan,” he says succinctly, “but if I’m starting a team, I’ll take Russell, because he’ll get you the ball.”
Asked whether he ever gets nostalgic for Williamsburg, Auerbach replies, “what was there to miss?” Such nonchalance is the outlook of a person who, after leaving home, strove to reach the top of his profession, and after doing so never needed to look back. Red’s ascent though, came with the masses, rather than at their expense, and so should not be underestimated. It means, after all, that Brooklyn never left him.