Arnold “Red” Auerbach, one of the most successful coaches and executives in professional sports history, died yesterday of a heart attack near his home in the District, according to an NBA official who spoke to the Associated Press. He was 89.
Auerbach coached the Boston Celtics to eight consecutive NBA championships and nine overall in the last 10 years (1957-66) of his 17-season tenure. Later he saw the team win six more titles while he was general manager. At the time of his death he was president of the team, which will dedicate the upcoming season to him.
Born in Brooklyn, Auerbach maintained a permanent home in the District after attending George Washington from 1937 to 1940. His wife, Dorothy, died in 2000 and his brother Zang, a former staff artist for the Washington Evening Star, in 2004.
Auerbach was a colorful, uninhibited coach who frequently wrangled with game officials over what he considered improper calls. He also was known for the “victory cigar” he lit on the bench when victory in any game was assured for the Celtics — a trademark that would not be permitted in today’s smoke-free environments.
When he stepped down as coach at the age of 48 in 1966, Auerbach had won more games (938) than any coach in NBA history, a total since surpassed by four others. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1968. He also is a member of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the Washington Hall of Stars at RFK Stadium.
As a coach, Auerbach was an innovator who valued the team concept above individual stars and glory. His players were disciplined and unselfish, and he created the concept of a valuable “sixth man” — one who didn’t start but came off the bench to provide a lift at crucial moments. One of his players, John Havlicek, filled this role so effectively that he also was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Auerbach once described the ideal role player as one “who willingly undertakes the thankless job that has to be done to make the whole package fly.”
In later years, Auerbach decried the enormous salaries and bonuses commanded by All-American college players who are drafted by pro teams. As he put it, “An acre of performance is worth a whole world of promise.”
Although his Celtics featured star players like Havlicek, Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Larry Bird, Frank Ramsey, Tommy Heinsohn, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and Dave Cowens — all now enshrined alongside him in Springfield — they played within the team concept Auerbach demanded as both a coach and executive. He described the kind of player he wanted as “a kid who was great but never stopped being nice.”
Auerbach also was colorblind at a time when segregation still existed in many areas of sports. In 1950, he became the first NBA coach to draft a black player, Chuck Cooper of Duquesne, and later he was the first to start five black players in a game.
And when he retired as coach, Auerbach anointed Russell — a man whose intensity and desire matched his own — as the first black coach in major professional sports.
Auerbach’s early coaching career was closely tied to the District. After graduating from George Washington, where he starred on the basketball team under local coaching legend Bill Reinhart, Auerbach coached at St. Albans School and Theodore Roosevelt High School before serving in the Navy from 1943 to 1946.
When he returned to private life, the Basketball Association of America (later the NBA) was starting up, and he was hired to coach the Washington Capitols by owner Miguel “Mike” Uline, who also ran dilapidated Uline Arena at Third and M streets NE, where the team played. Eighteen years later, the facility, now called Washington Coliseum, was the site of the Beatles’ first appearance in the United States.
Auerbach’s Caps — featuring outstanding players like Horace “Bones” McKinney, Fred Scolari, Bob Feerick and Johnny Norlander — won the Eastern Division championship with a 49-11 record but were upset by the Chicago Stags in the league finals. Yet the NBA attracted little attention and few fans in its early years, and Auerbach quit the Caps in 1949 after a contract dispute with Uline. The following season, coaching the long-forgotten Tri-Cities Blackhawks, he suffered the only losing record of his career (29-35).
Meanwhile, the Celtics had finished last in the East with a 22-46 record, and owner Walter Brown was told Auerbach was the best coach available. Brown hired him, beginning one of the most successful partnerships in sports history.