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Red Auerbach and Bill Russell

“[Red Auerbach] was a master at handling people — a master psychologist.

Time and again you hear Celtics describing Red as ‘a player’s coach.’ To the world outside his own huddles and locker room he was… a boisterous dynamo who peered at you through cigar smoke after his troops had impaled yours.

But not with his own players. He supported them. He had their backs. They knew it, so they did everything to please him. He emphasized people far more than X’s and O’s.

‘Red Auerbach convinced his players that he loved them,’ said Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first African-American player. ‘So all they wanted to do was please him.’

Former NBA coach Hubie Brown remembered what worked so well: ‘[Red] had a relentless fast break, pressure defense and Bill Russell in the back that allowed him to play this style. They were also very organized in their play sets. Then, I feel he had the ability to motivate them individually, because it is extremely difficult to maintain excellence. It comes down to that ability to maintain excellence. He knew how to push the right button on each guy to get him to be subservient to the team.’ […]

The 1960-61 squad may have been the Celtics’ finest under Auerbach. The team went 57-22 and, amazingly, had six scorers averaging between 15 and 21 points a game without one finishing in the top 10.

‘In any good coach is the ability to communicate,’ Auerbach explained. ‘In other words, a lot of coaches know their X’s and O’s, but the players must absorb it. Team was important. We didn’t care who the starting five was. The sixth-man concept was my idea.’ […]

Auerbach could be a taskmaster in practice. Sure, the Celtics were knee-deep in talent, but they also worked harder than other teams…

Bill Russell and Red Auerbach

As the Celtics’ routinely whipped the opposition, Red would frequently sit back and enjoy the end of the game — with a cigar. Hence, the ‘victory cigar.’

‘It all boils down to this,’ Auerbach said. ‘I used to hate these college coaches or any coach that was 25 points ahead with three minutes left to go, and they’re up pacing and they’re yelling and coaching because they’re on TV, and they want their picture on, and they get recognition. To me, the game was over. The day’s work is done. Worry about the next game.

‘So I would light a cigar and sit on the bench and just watch it. The game was over, for all intents and purposes. I didn’t want to rub anything in or show anybody what a great coach I was when I was 25 points ahead. Why? I gotta win by 30? What the hell difference does it make?

‘The commissioner [Maurice Podoloff] said you can’t smoke the cigars on the bench. But there were guys smoking cigarettes on the bench. I said, “What is this, an airplane — you can smoke cigarettes but not cigars?” No way. I wouldn’t do it.’ […]

On April 28, 1966, Auerbach, who earlier in the season had announced he’d be retiring, coached his last official game. Appropriately, it was a Game 7, at Boston Garden, against Los Angeles. Russell had 25 points and 32 rebounds, enough to offset Jerry West’s 36 points, and the Celtics narrowly won, 95-93.

Red’s victory cigar was knocked from his mouth by the surging crowd. He lit up another in the dressing room and Russell pointed to Auerbach, saying, ‘There is the man. This is his team. He puts it together. He makes us win.'”


Pulled from Ken Shouler, who has written portions of Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia. You can read more in John Feinstein’s book with Auerbach, Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game.

Auerbach won 9 championships in 10 years, a record that’s only surpassed by Phil Jackson, who won 11 in 20 years. He was the first coach to implement team defense strategies and fast breaks as an offensive weapon. Auerbach also spurred other innovations: he drafted the first African-American, Chuck Cooper, in 1950 and fielded the first all black starting five in 1964.

… knee-deep in talent, but they also worked harder…

(Photos courtesy: SNCA, Boston Sports, Rompedas)

Red Auerbach