The Red Auerbach Interview
Michael D. McClellan
Wednesday, August 28th, 2002
The Celtics weren’t Auerbach’s first professional coaching job. He coached the Washington Capitols from 1946 until 1949, working for owner Mike Uline. Uline had made a fortune in the ice business, and Uline Arena was home to the Washington Lions of the Eastern Hockey League. In an effort to boost the arena’s income and cut down on the number of open dates on the calendar, Uline purchased a BAA franchise and offered the head coaching job to Auerbach.
The Capitols were competitive under Auerbach, making the playoffs every year and advancing to the finals after the 1948-49 season. There, they lost to the George Mikan-led Minneapolis Lakers.
Ask the casual fan what he knows about Red Auerbach, and chances are pretty good the cigar will come up. The cigar is his trademark. It was during his tenure as the Capitols’ coach that he starting lighting up a cigar near the end of a game when victory was at hand. How big was that? It is not a stretch to say that the victory cigar has become a symbol for success in American sports.
A stop at Duke University followed his turn with the Capitols. He was an assistant coach there, only to leave abruptly for the head job with the BAA Tri-Cities Blackhawks. Neither job worked out as expected, and Auerbach walked away from the Blackhawks following the 1949-1950 season. It was during this time that Walter Brown, an original BAA founder and owner of the Boston Celtics, approached Auerbach about the head coaching position with the Celtics. Walter Brown had and impressive track record in the sporting world. He was the founder of the Boston Olympics, coach of the 1936 US Olympic hockey team, operator of the Ice Capades, and key figure in saving the then-troubled Boston Marathon. He was also president of the Boston Garden and, like Uline in Washington, faced with a glut of empty stadium dates. His solution to this: Convince the other hockey owners to form a basketball league. Thus, Brown also became known as the founder of the Basketball Association of America. The year before Auerbach arrived in Boston, the BAA absorbed six teams from the National Basketball League and became the NBA.
The Celtics were a horrible franchise, and Walter Brown was losing money hand over fist. But Brown was different from many of the other owners – he didn’t place his basketball team below his hockey interests as many of the others did. To most of them, basketball was simply a way to sell concessions and generate revenue. Winning was secondary. Brown loved basketball. Brown hired Auerbach for the 1950-51 season at a price of $10,000 for the year.
Auerbach assumed control of the Celtics in the spring of 1950, a few days before the college draft. Everyone with even a passing interest in the Celtics wanted Auerbach to select Bob Cousy from Holy Cross, a 6’-1” guard with a flare uncommon for that era. Many in New England were enamored with the local product, but not Auerbach. Auerbach wasn’t impressed with Cousy. He didn’t like Cousy’s improvisational style, and he didn’t think Cousy took care of the basketball the way he should. Auerbach wanted Charlie Share of Bowling Green instead. Share was a 6’-11” center and Auerbach was a firm believer of the old adage that height couldn’t be taught. When pressed about Cousy, Auerbach had this to say:
“I don’t give a damn for sentiment or names. That goes for Cousy and everybody else. The only thing that counts with me is ability, and Cousy still hasn’t proven to me that he’s got the ability. I’m not interested in drafting someone just because he happens to be a local yokel.”
It was evident right from the start that Auerbach would do things his way in Boston, and that he didn’t care whose feelings got hurt along the way. For added measure, there was this:
“Cousy won’t bring more than a dozen extra fans into the building. What will bring fans into the building is a winning team, and that’s what I aim to have…proof is that eleven, at least, of the dozen teams would have selected Share as their first draft choice. I’m sure he will make the grade. Right now, I don’t regard Cousy as good as Ed Leede. Remember, Leede has already made the grade and Cousy has to prove he can. He still has to learn what to do when he doesn’t have the ball. Maybe he will, but I think it is more important for us to get a big man like Share.”
It’s ironic that Auerbach, a man famous for shrewd player personnel moves – the trade of “Easy” Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan for the draft rights to Bill Russell remains the most fortuitous transaction in NBA history – stumbled right out of the gate by not selecting Cousy.
Fate would ultimately play a hand in bringing the Houdini of the Hardwood to Boston. Tri-Cities, the team that drafted Cousy, sent him packing to the Chicago Stags, but the Stags folded not long after. Representatives from three teams – Boston, New York, and Philadelphia – met in New York City to pick from the Stags’ three coveted and highly paid players: Cousy, Andy Philip, and Max Zaslofsky. The names of the players were placed in a hat, and the Celtics drew last. Cousy’s name came out. Cousy, of course, went on to become one of the greatest point guards in NBA history.
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