Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The Enduring Image of Red Auerbach


The enduring public image of Red Auerbach is watching the coach light his cigar at the moment he knew his Boston Celtics had the game won. As coach, general manager, and later president of the team, Auerbach lit a lot of cigars. He built a dynasty in Boston, helped to build a professional basketball into a major sport, and played no small part in changing America.

Red Auerbach died on Saturday at the age of 89. His family, friends, and fellow coaches, many of his players, paid their respects at a memorial service in Falls Church, Virginia this morning. Among them, former Celtics player and coach M.L. Carr:

Mr. M.L. CARR (Former Celtic Player and Coach): There was incredible reverence there I thought. Very short as the family wanted it but it was right to the point. In essence, it was the way Red would've wanted it. Red don't want a big fuss over it. He wants you to know he's a legend but he don't some big fuss over himself. So he went off the way that I think he would've been proud of it. And so we were very reverent, I thought, and very solemn.

When it was, you know, as the Jewish tradition at the very end to toss a little soil on the casket. Some of us did, some of us didn't. I couldn't do it. It was tough. It was very tough. You know, this is like losing, you know, it's like losing a third parent.

CONAN: Joining us now is MORNING EDITION commentator and longtime friend of Red Auerbach, John Feinstein. He wrote a book called Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game with Red Auerbach, and he joins us now by phone, on the line actually from his home in Maryland. And, John, welcome and condolences on your loss.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Thanks, Neal. Tough few days. You could hear it in M.L. Carr's voice there - the way all of us who were fortunate enough to know Red, feel. I've said in the last several days - it's hard to believe you can be shocked by the death of someone who's 89 and who's had all sorts of physical problems for several years now - and yet there is a feeling of shock. Because he was one of those people who, you know it's not true, but somehow you thought he'd never die.

CONAN: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about the memorial service this morning. Reverent as M.L. Carr was saying?

FEINSTEIN: Yeah. As M.L. said it was very brief. In fact, Red didn't want anything. He didn't want a gathering of friends. And his daughter Nancy basically sat him down at some point and said, look, people are going to want to be together, they're going to want to remember you and talk about you. And finally he agreed, okay, do something. I'm not going to be there anyway, so go ahead. But he wanted it simple and brief and it was exactly that.

And as you know, I'm sure the Jewish tradition is to, for the mourners to, put a shovel of dirt on top of the coffin. And having gone through that with my parents, I can tell you how difficult a thing that is. But to see all the people lined up, you know, half the NBA Hall of Fame - plus many, many others who Red touched - was really quite extraordinary.

CONAN: Tell us a little bit - and especially our younger listeners - what did Red Auerbach mean? Not just to the NBA but to America.

FEINSTEIN: I think you have to go back to 1950 when he took over the Celtics. They were a nearly bankrupt franchise in what was then a minor league. Hockey was a much bigger sport in this country than professional basketball - as were baseball, of course, and football. And he built this extraordinary dynasty.

And he did it - along the way, he was the first person to draft and African-American player in 1950. He was the fist coach to start five African-Americans in 1963 in Boston, and you know Boston was not the most open of towns racially in the 1960s.

CONAN: Where Jackie Robinson didn't play.

FEINSTEIN: Exactly. He also was the first person to hire an African-American to coach a major sports franchise in this country when he made Bill Russell the coach of the Celtics in 1966. And while he was doing that, he was winning and he was creating this dynasty.

He made this remarkable maneuver literally trading a week of the Ice Capades to Rochester in order to get the chance to draft Bill Russell in 1956. And the Celtics won 11 of the next 13 NBA titles. And in doing so, made the NBA into a major league. Because they became a target, they became a story. They became the Yankees of the NBA, the team everybody wanted to beat, the team everybody wanted to see lose.

And, of course, Red, with that cigar that you mentioned, was the symbol of that. And that brought the NBA into the big time.

CONAN: We're going to make you tell a little bit more about that story. How did the Ice Capades figure into the trade for the greatest player in NBA history? But we have to wait until after the break. We'd also like to invite those listeners who have stories and questions about Red Auerbach, his life and his career, to join us. 800-989-2855, 800-989-TALK. Or you can e-mail us: [email protected]. Back after the break.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In a few minutes, your letters on virtual lives, the crisis in Darfur and helping disabled voters. But now we're remembering the life and career of basketball career Red Auerbach. We have an extended interview with the coach at our Web page,

Our guest is John Feinstein. He's a commentator for NPR's MORNING EDITION. And author of the book Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game With Red Auerbach. If you have questions or stories about Red Auerbach's life and career, give us a call: 800-989-2855. That same e-mail address: [email protected].

John, just before the break you mentioned briefly the story of how Red Auerbach got Bill Russell, the greatest player in NBA history, for a week of the Ice Capades. A little bit more please.

FEINSTEIN: Well, it's not quite that simple, Neal. What happened was in 1956, Red had built a very good team in Boston but they had not yet won a championship largely because they didn't have a center. And you've got to have a center in the playoffs in the NBA to win, then as now.

And his college coach, Bill Reinhart - Red played here at George Washington University - called him and said, I've seen your center. His name is Bill Russell, he's at the University of San Francisco. We played against him in a college tournament.

And Red trusted Bill Reinhart implicitly. Remember in those days there was no scouting. I mean you just kind of went on what people told you, what you heard, and maybe, you know, Red would go to the Garden double headers in New York every now and then to see some teams play. But he trusted Reinhart.

And so he had the 7th pick in the draft that year. And he traded two future Hall of Famers, Cliff Hagen and Easy Ed McCauley to the St. Louis Hawks in order to move up to second in the draft. But he still had Rochester in front of him. And Rochester would not trade the number one pick.

So Red went to his owner, Walter Brown, who also happened to own the Ice Capades, and had him call Les Harrison, the owner in Rochester who'd been trying to get the Ice Capades up there for years. And Walter Brown said to him, if you don't take Bill Russell with the first pick, I will send the Ice Capades to Rochester for a week next year.

So Rochester took Sy Hugo Green and Bill Russell went to the Celtics with the second pick. They had a wonderful week with the Ice Capades in Rochester and the Celtics won 11 of the next 13 NBA titles.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners on the line. This is Seth. And Seth calling us from Philadelphia.

SETH (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

SETH: I'm calling because I'm a Philadelphia lifelong Sixers fan and I thought there was some irony today. Because my brother performed the ceremony. He was the rabbi and he was a diehard Sixers fan, as we all were. And we thought that was somewhat ironic. But we also felt that the Celtics were the epitome of who we wanted to be. And the level of emotion that Red Auerbach stirred in us was almost beyond comprehension.

FEINSTEIN: That's a - Seth, I think that's a good point. Because the best thing in sports is when you have a team you can love or you can hate. Whether it's the New York Yankees or the Green Bay Packers or Notre Dame football or UCLA or the Boston Celtics.

And the Celtics were a team that were obviously loved by their fans but hated by opposition fans. A, because they were good, B, because they also seemed to find a way to win, and C, because they had this little guy running the team who when, you know, who when the game was won would light up that cigar. I grew up a Knicks fan in New York and I hated that cigar, and I told Red that repeatedly. And his answer was, you know, deal with it, kid.

CONAN: Seth, thanks very much and good luck to your Sixers.

SETH: Thank you…

CONAN: Except when they play the Knicks. Let's go now to Stewart(ph). Stewart's with us from Portland, Oregon.

STEWART (Caller): Well, I'm a former New Englander, still a dyed-in-the-wool Boston fan on all levels of sport. And I have really a comment sort of bundled with the question about Red's ability to mentor his players. It seems like a common theme throughout everything I've read over the last 24 hours, and it seems like today's players really aren't open to the level of mentoring that he was able to provide, and I would just like some commentary on…

FEINSTEIN: That's an interesting point, Stewart, and I think there's definitely something to that. I mean, you now have players who make millions and millions of dollars and have no-cut contracts, and coaches don't have the authority - in all sports - that they once did. But Red had a way - not just with his players - but with everybody in his life of being able to be very honest with them, tell them what they thought and make them understand that he was saying it and doing it to try to make them better.

Morgan Wootten - the great high-school coach, won more high-school games than anybody in history at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Maryland - was a very close friend of Red's and tells a story about in the ‘50s, when he was a young coach, there was a summer league game here in Washington. And Morgan was coaching, and Red sat on the bench because the place was so packed. It was DeMatha versus the Inter-High All-Star team. And the game went three overtimes, great game. The Inter-high team finally won.

And the next morning, Red - Morgan sees Red, and he says God, wasn't that a great game last night? And Red said yeah, it was a great game. I felt bad for you. He said oh, no, no. It was a summer league game, my kids played great. It's okay that we lost. He said no, that's not what I felt badly about. I felt badly because you lost your team the game. You did a bad coaching job. And Morgan was brought up short. He thought he'd done everything right. And said what do you mean?

He said every timeout, you were talking about your offense. You weren't having any trouble scoring. Your offense was fine. Your defense was lousy, and you never once did anything to improve your defense. You have to feel the game as a coach and feel what your team needs and what you need to give them as a coach during the game. And Morgan said it was probably the best lesson he ever got as a coach. And Red was uniquely gifted in terms of telling people very bluntly what they needed to do to be better and getting them to listen.

CONAN: Stewart, thanks for the call.

STEWART: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Let's go now to Judith, Judith calling from Maryland.

JUDITH (Caller): Yes. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JUDITH: My father and Red Auerbach were very close friends. We were close friends with the family. In fact, he - Red and my dad used to shoot craps in the basement of the synagogue at B'Nai Israel when they went to services. They got in a lot of trouble.

CONAN: I'm sure there are no police listening.

JUDITH: I'm telling you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JUDITH: They - well, trouble - synagogue trouble. You know, the kids…

CONAN: The statute of limitations has probably run out, yeah.

JUDITH: What? Yes, exactly. They - we spent a lot of time, the families, together. And they met when my dad was at G.W. and Reds was at G.W. My father was the baton-thrower in the marching band - you know, the one who marches in the front and throws up the baton.

FEINSTEIN: Back then, they had football at G.W., so there was a marching band.

JUDITH: They had football at G.W., that's right. And it was sports and the synagogue games in the basement that pulled them together, so…

FEINSTEIN: It's interesting. You know, Judith, I hear you referring to Red as Reds, and when he was younger, that's what his friends called him. And Red evolved later in his life. I got a lot of letters when the book came out from older friends of his, like your father, who referred to him as Reds with the S on the end of it.

JUDITH: With Reds - he was always Reds, never anything else.


JUDITH: I'm the same age as Nancy, so we used to spend a lot of time at their house, their pink house on Nebraska Avenue. You know, they had a pink house, a bright pink house.

FEINSTEIN: Yeah. I never saw that pink house, I only saw Red in the apartment.

JUDITH: Well, Dorothy had a taste in pink.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Pink and parquet, yes.

JUDITH: Yes, exactly. There's lots of stories. I can tell another one, if you've got time. I don't know how many callers you have waiting.

CONAN: We have a lot, but a quick one, sure, go ahead.

JUDITH: Okay. A quick one is my brother, who went to basketball camp with -Reds did love children, and we always had a great time together. My brother's still playing basketball, although it was a little intimidating to play around some of those big guys in the ‘60s. So I'll let you take some of your other calls, but we're going to miss him a lot.

CONAN: Judith, thanks very much.

JUDITH: Thanks so much. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And why don't we go now to Val, Val calling us from Phoenix, Arizona.

VAL (Caller): Hello?


VAL: Like Stewart, I'm an ex-New Englander and still a Boston sports fanatic. I can remember Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, the battle of the giants in those days. The question I have is this: just how much of a player like Bill Russell, or for that matter, a lot of the other great players in the Celtics teams of those years - really great players because of the coach, or would they have just been your basic, everyday athlete on any other team if it weren't for the coaching and the team that they were on? And I'll take your response off the air.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Val.

FEINSTEIN: That's a good question. You know, and obviously, it's one of those chicken-and-egg things where you can never be sure. But if you look historically at who the Celtics stars were, Bill Russell was never a scorer. He was a great defender, a great shot-blocker, great rebounder, who made others around him better.

K.C. Jones was never a scorer. What Red did that I think was his genius was he never asked players to do what they couldn't do. I know that sounds simplistic, but Bob Cousy could pass, so he asked him to pass. Bill Sharman could shoot. He asked him to shoot. Tom Heinsohn could go to the basket. He asked him to go to the basket. He only had six plays. He didn't do anything fancy. You know, he believed in playing very hard on defense and being in better shape than the other team - all basic things. It sounds simple, but you know, in today's NBA in particular, getting teams to do any of those things isn't simple. And yet Red always got his teams to do those things.

CONAN: And always seemed to have a game. As you say, these seem simple, but certainly you and I both remember the Knicks could never figure it out. But he got the teams to press, play defense together, which in those days, 120-point games were not unusual.

FEINSTEIN: Right. And the benches weren't as deep as they are now. You know, you played six or seven guys. Of course, Red invented the concept of the sixth man when he was here coaching the Washington Capitals in the 1940s - hold back one of your three best players, put him in 10 minutes into the game with fresh legs and give your team a burst of energy. And, of course, now there's a Sixth Man Award in the NBA because it's so important.

But you're right. He got - you know, Bill Russell was a big star. Bill Russell had - by the time we got into the ‘60s, Bill Russell had already won numerous championships. He was probably the highest-paid player in the NBA. He didn't necessarily need to win more. But he convinced Russell the more you win, the better it is for you, the better it is for me, the better it is for everybody. And from there they sort of moved the wave out to the rest of the players on the team, because they all took their cue from Red and from Russell.

CONAN: John Feinstein, thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate your time today.

FEINSTEIN: My pleasure, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And again, sorry for your loss.


CONAN: John Feinstein is a commentator for MORNING EDITION and author most recently of Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four. He joined us today from his home in Maryland. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.