Without Red Auerbach, the Boston Celtics would not have become the NBA’s winningest franchise. He drafted Bill Russell. Selected Larry Bird a year before Bird finished college. Traded for Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. Coached the Celtics to nine championships, then won seven more as general manager and team president.
On what would have been Auerbach’s 94th birthday, I include an excerpt from Bill Russell’s book Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend to remind you: sometimes, the genius is in fine print.
To set the stage: The year is 1956. The Celtics are thirsty for a big man and Auerbach is desperate to draft Russell, but the Celtics only have the 7th pick. Ed Macauley’s son is sick and Macauley has requested a trade closer to his St. Louis home; Red also wants to use the draft to send Macauley to the St. Louis Hawks. The St. Hawks hold the 2nd pick, so Red needs to devise a plan to A) trade Macauley to St. Louis, B) bring the Hawks’ 2nd pick to Boston, and C) persuade the Rochester Royals, owners of the 1st pick, not to select Russell.
“First, he called Hawks owner Ben Kerner, a man he’d once coached for and despised. If he could maneuver Kerner off [Russell], that would suit Red just fine. So he offered up Macauley, his best shooter, and the Celtics’ seventh pick in the draft in return for St. Louis’s rights to pick second. But Ben Kerner knew he had Red over a barrel. So he demanded more. He wanted to throw in Cliff Hagan, a promising young forward to Kentucky. At that juncture, Celtics owner Walter Brown told Red, ‘You can’t trade Ed Macauley! He’s our best player!’ But then Red had Ed Macauley tell Walter personally, ‘I want you to trade me to St. Louis. You’d be doing me a favor, because then I can take care of my son and still play pro ball.’ That was enough for Walter; he wore his empathy on his sleeve anyway.
“St. Louis was satisfied. Now for the coup de grace: the Rochester Royals. They had first pick, so what could Red possibly do to keep them from saying, ‘Rochester selects Bill Russell’? The Royals already had Maurice Stokes, a great young center who was leading the league in rebounds, so Red figured they didn’t need another big center like me. So he persuaded Walter Brown to call Rochester owner Les Harrison with an unusual proposition. Walter said, ‘Listen, Les. I’m the president of the Ice Capades. If you lay off Russell at Number one, just pick the date and I’ll throw the Ice Capades in your building for two weeks.’ This was Red’s almost compulsively innovative genius working overtime. He knew that in the off-season back then, a lot of those big arenas sat empty. Having the Ice Capades in your building for two weeks was like having the Harlem Globetrotters: guaranteed sellouts every night—and you’ve made a profit for the year! Of course, Harrison bit. He was a businessman, and for him, this was good business.”
And with that, the Celtics secured the draft rights to Bill Russell, set the foundation for the team’s first 11 championships, and marked Red Auerbach as one hombre you don’t want to negotiate with. Even when you win against Red — I’m sure the Ice Capades made Les Harrison a bundle of cash — you lose.
Happy birthday, Red. Smoke a stogey for me.