Arnold Jacob Auerbach was the architect and mastermind behind one of the most dominant franchises in professional sports history.
Born in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn on September 20, 1917, as one of four children, Auerbach’s father, Hyman, immigrated to the U.S. from Minsk, Russia, at the age of 13. His mother worked at a deli while Hyman operated a dry cleaning business. Young Arnold, who quickly became known as “Red” for his flaming red hair and fiery temper, played basketball at PS 122 and for Eastern District High School, earning All-Scholastic second team honors as a senior. Auerbach spent one year at Seth Low Junior College, the Brooklyn arm of Columbia University, before accepting a basketball scholarship to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The 5’9” guard was a tenacious defender and led the Colonials in scoring while earning a B.S. in Education. Auerbach continued his studies at GWU, graduating with a master’s degree in 1941 before making his foray into coaching at St. Albans Prep and Roosevelt High School in Washington D.C. Two years later, he joined the U.S. Navy, where he befriended New York Yankees stars Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzouto while serving as a rehabilitation/physical training officer and coaching the Navy basketball team in Norfolk. In October, 1946, Auerbach was released from the Navy as a Lieutenant [junior grade] before taking his first professional coaching job with the upstart Basketball Association of America’s Washington Capitals. Red Auerbach led the fast-break oriented Capitals to a 49-11 record in his first season, including a 17-game winning streak that stood as the single-season record for 23 years. The BAA—based in the East, merged with the rival National Basketball League—based in the Midwest, to form the NBA in 1949 and Auerbach accepted the head coaching job with the Tri-City Blackhawks in Moline, Illinois. After team owner Ben Kerner traded the Blackhawk’s best player without Auerbach’s knowledge, the coach resigned.
The Boston Celtics were a struggling and financially-strapped franchise when team owner Walter Brown offered 33-year-old Red Auerbach the coaching position in 1950. Auerbach’s first move was to draft Duquesne University’s Chuck Cooper, the first African-American ever selected, breaking down the color barrier in professional basketball. The Celtics also obtained Bob Cousy—the “Houdini of the Hardwood”—who would go on to become the NBA’s first great playmaker. Auerbach coveted a defensive big man that could rebound and initiate fast breaks and set his sights on Bill Russell, who had led the University of San Francisco to two NCAA championships and Team USA to a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics. He sent Hall of Fame center Ed McCauley and rookie Cliff Hagen to the St. Louis Hawks in exchange for the number one pick in the 1956 NBA Draft, chose Russell, and also picked up Tom Heinsohn and K.C. Jones. Russell became the cornerstone of the Celtics franchise, leading them to nine championships in ten years under Auerbach’s guidance. In 1966, the 46-year-old Auerbach left coaching to become Boston’s general manager and named Russell as player-coach. The Celts won two more titles under Russell, who retired after the 1969 season. Auerbach rebuilt the aging Celtics, winning championships in 1974 and 1976 before obtaining Larry Bird—who would lead Boston to three NBA titles–in the 1978 draft. Mr. Auerbach relinquished his general managing duties in 1984 to become president and vice-chairman of the Boston Celtics, a position he retained until his death in 2006.
As a coach, Red Auerbach guided the Boston Celtics to nine NBA titles in ten years. He won seven more as a general manager and team president. Mr. Auerbach was a pioneer of modern basketball, emphasizing team play [he never had the league’s top scorer], defense, and introducing the fast break as an offensive weapon. He invented the “sixth man” concept and was known for choosing players based on talent and motivation, rather than for skin color or ethnicity. Auerbach broke ground by drafting the NBA’s first African-American player, hiring the first black coach [Russell] and, in 1964, was the first coach to start five black players. He was aggressive, challenging and explosive–his fiery temper led to him receiving more ejections and fines than any other coach in NBA history. Arnold Jacob Auerbach coached ten Hall of Fame players, made the playoffs in each of his 16 seasons as coach and built a team that won eight straight championships, the longest streak in the history of North American sports. He famously lit a “victory cigar”–usually a Hoyo de Monterrey–on the bench during the final seconds of each Celtics win and said, “The Boston Celtics are not a basketball team, they’re a way of life.” Red Auerbach was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1969, was Coach of the Year in 1965 and NBA Executive of the Year in 1980–the same year in which he was voted the greatest coach in NBA history.
On this date in 1966, Red Auerbach won his 1,000th NBA game, beating the Los Angeles Lakers, 114-102 in Boston Garden. Later that year, the Celtics would beat the Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals for the last championship of Auerbach’s coaching career.