Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Boston's great integrator, RIP

One of the most surprising things about Baastin to people in the South, and even to some northeasterners, is one simple fact: Boston is one of the most racist cities in the country. As encapsulated by one comment in the recent movie, The Departed, by Matt Damon's character to Anthony Anderson: "You're a black guy in Boston, you're already f----d."

But the biggest sports icon in Boston was the great basketball innovator, and the great basketball integrator, Arnold "Red" Auerbach.

Ultimately, the Auerbach influence in the NBA had no parallel in Boston. As former Celtic forward Tommy Heinsohn once noted, Russell led the Celts to 11 titles but the city named the airport tunnel for Ted Williams, whose teams won nothing. When Russell moved into an upscale neighborhood in Boston, vandals broke into his house, shattered the windows, graffiti'd the walls and defecated in his bed. The Monk has lived in Boston, as has MonkCousin1. It really is a nasty little racist city.

But Auerbach did make it the home of the NBA's Yankees.

Born in Brooklyn, the son of a Jewish immigrant who ran a dry-cleaning business, Auerbach's success was a product of his own tenacity -- he literally talked his way into the Celtics' head coaching job after an undistinguished college playing and previous coaching career.

Then he made history.

First, Auerbach erased the color line in the NBA by making the Celtics the first team to draft a black player, Chuck Cooper (who was the second black player to actually play because Earl Lloyd received court time first).

Then, in 1964 Auerbach became the first coach to start an all-black lineup.

Lastly, when Auerbach retired in 1966, with 9 NBA titles in hand including eight in a row, he became the Celtics president and appointed the first-ever black coach in the NBA, the franchise's center, Bill Russell.

Auerbach was an innovator on the court too: he pioneered the concept of the Sixth Man, who would come off the bench to ADD something to the team instead of just offering rest for the starters; he also game-planned and scouted opponents to a degree theretofore unknown; and he designed the controlled-break fast pace that the Celtics used to win 11 titles in 13 years.

His front-office moves also displayed creativity and foresight: Auerbach traded up to the No. 2 pick to obtain Russell whilst concurrently telling the Celts' owner to make a deal with the Rochester Royals' owner to ensure Russell would be available. In 1978, Auerbach picked Larry Bird with the No. 6 overall pick in the NBA Draft even though he knew Bird would not play until after the '79 season. Auerbach's coup led the NBA to change the draft rules to prevent drafting eligible players and waiting on them to leave college.

Auerbach remained a force in the Celtics front office for decades -- he hired KC Jones, architect of the most recent Celtics' successes -- and became the eminence gris of all the NBA, cigar at the ready.

He died Saturday at age 89.

Red Auerbach, architect of the Celtics, icon of the NBA. RIP.

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