Sunday, November 05, 2006

"Lazzari's Sports Roundup" ---- 11-11-06

Remembering: Red Auerbach

Occasionally in this column, I try to honor those individuals who've made a huge impact on the sports world--people whose legendary status is indisputable. This week, I've decided to share some thoughts about one who, without question, is at the very top of that esteemed list of influential sports figures--basketball's Mr. Arnold "Red" Auerbach. Quite honestly, it's a rather daunting task trying to find established words to accurately convey this man's greatness--and his place in sports history.

Let's start with 938 NBA coaching victories in twenty years of coaching; on the surface, that alone would earn someone tremendous accolades and punch one's ticket to the basketball shrine in Springfield. Let's add championships to the "legends recipe"--16 of them either as coach, GM, or team president of the NBA's Boston Celtics between 1957 and 1986; hell, he won EIGHT in a row as coach from 1959-1966 in perhaps the most dominating single stretch in sports history. Yes, the numbers are huge and significant--similar to the victory "stogies" he'd often light up on the bench when a Celtics win was comfortably secured.

Without question, the man was a basketball genius. His personnel maneuvering in order to draft San Francisco center Bill Russell was, in fact, the centerpiece of the Celtic dynasty. He drafted the first black player in NBA history, was the first to start five blacks on an NBA floor, and hired the NBA's first black coach (Russell, 1966). A forerunner--no doubt; you see, color didn't matter to Red Auerbach--WINNING did. He drafted a skinny blonde named Larry Bird out of Indiana State in the late '70s--even knowing the gawky player would have to wait a year before turning professional; yeah, I guess it was worth the wait. He dealt the 1st and thirteenth picks in the 1980 draft in order to acquire Robert Parish and Kevin McHale; together, with Bird, they'd win three titles during the ‘80s. Quite simply, there has never been a better evaluator of basketball talent than Red Auerbach. I'll hypothesize that there never WILL be.

The Boston Celtics did not become the NBA's model franchise by accident, folks. Auerbach incorporated a team concept in Boston that was unmatched; he stressed fundamentals. He'd be responsible for popularizing the "sixth man" concept--knowing how important that certain, off-the-bench individual was (does John Havlicek ring a bell?) to a team's long-term fortunes. In addition, Red Auerbach DEMANDED the unselfish approach to basketball (sadly missing these days) and his players bought into it voraciously; seeing the ball move around the key and ultimately touching the hands of all five Celtics players in workmanlike fashion during a possession was a common sight at Boston Garden. Yes, it was that selfless "extra pass" that had Red Auerbach's signature stamped all over it--and it was almost as pretty as the stunning Celtics Dancers who now grace TD Banknorth Garden and provide in-game entertainment in Beantown. Finally, there was NOT a single more-devoted individual to one professional franchise than Red Auerbach. "The Boston Celtics are not a basketball team," he once said. "They are a way of life."

Fourteen players who were coached or drafted by Mr. Auerbach are now enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame--further evidence of the effect the Brooklyn native had on the game of basketball; Auerbach himself was inducted as a coach back in 1968--YEARS before he'd win another half dozen championships as a front-office "architect." And behind the perceived brusque personality was another Red Auerbach as described to the AP by renowned basketball writer John Feinstein: "He was a unique personality, a combination of toughness and great, great caring about people. He cared about people much more than it showed in his public face, and that's why people cared about him."

Red Auerbach, the consummate teacher/evaluator/tactician, is gone now--the victim of a heart attack at the age of 89. This would have been Red's 57th season with the Celtics--still involved in a consulting capacity with the team he loved so much. As a kid in the ‘70s, I remember watching his halftime instructional series "Red On Roundball" during CBS telecasts; the gruff, portly gentleman still could get a point across--even to a developing, clueless youngster who knew nothing about the cigar-chomping man's basketball wizardry.

Like many others, I know better now.

Bob Lazzari

Reprinted by permission of the Valley Times.


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