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The Coach Who Made the Celtics Unstoppable


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Basketball fans are mourning one of the sport's biggest legends. Red Auerbach, famed coach of the Boston Celtics, died of a heart attack yesterday in Washington, D.C. He was 89.

Auerbach created one of the most revered dynasties in American sports. As coach and later in the front office, he had a hand in 16 Celtic championships. You knew the Celtics were close to victory when he lit up his signature cigar from the bench, to the ire of opposing teams.

He was beloved by his players and did what he had to do to defend them. In a recent interview with NPR, he recalled one of many run-ins with an NBA official.

Mr. RED AUERBACH (Former Celtics Coach): I come out of the stands (unintelligible) no wonder you're a referee, you're ignorant and you're stupid.

ELLIOTT: Auerbach was an NBA pioneer. He broke basketball's color barrier by hiring the game's first African-American player, Chuck Cooper, and later appointed Bill Russell as the first black coach in pro basketball.

Boston Celtic great Tom Heinsohn was both a player and a coach under Red Auerbach and won championships in both capacities. I spoke with him earlier today.

Mr. TOM HEINSOHN (Former Celtics Player and Coach): It is a sad day for Celtic fans.

ELLIOTT: I'm sorry for your loss.

Mr. HEINSOHN: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Now, you started with the Celtics back in 1957, and you ended up winning Rookie of the Year honors. But I understand that back then Red Auerbach was a bit skeptical that you'd even make the team. What was it like that first season for you?

Mr. HEINSOHN: Well, he had said some things in the paper while I was a senior at Holy Cross, that I was out of shape and what have you, and I think he held that feeling for as long as I played.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEINSOHN: I was going to play for the Peoria Caterpillars in the AAU League, and as soon as I got back from visiting with them, they called me up and invited me down to Boston and said, don't believe everything you read in the paper, and we're going to take you with our territorial pick, and we want you to be on our team. And I virtually signed a contract that day and was really involved with the organization in one way or another for 50 years.

ELLIOTT: Was he an intimidating coach when you first started?

Mr. HEINSOHN: Well, everybody thinks he was a dictator and a tough guy to get along with. And quite the opposite, he was really a management genius. He got everybody to contribute who they were as people to what they did, their full personhood - their intelligence, their physical abilities, their knowledge of the game. He got us to believe that playing for the Boston Celtics was like the Cosa Nostra; it was our thing. And he was so staunch in his strategy, his tactics, and his philosophy that it carried on through three, four generations of players.

ELLIOTT: If you had to give us a shorthand of his philosophy, what would it be?

Mr. HEINSOHN: Well, I think from his World War II experiences was to destroy the will of the other team to beat you, and he put you through a supreme physical and mental test with his strategy of running hard and a fast break and full-court press, so you were always being attacked, one way or another. It was like a guerilla warfare, and the other team had to sustain playing at twice the pace that they normally played at and having to think twice as fast as they normally did.

ELLIOTT: You know, Auerbach had an eye for talent. Some of the superstars that were on the Celtics teams for him included, you know, Bill Russell, Larry Bird, John Havlicek. What was it that he looked for in young players? How did he know these guys were going to be what he needed them to be?

Mr. HEINSOHN: Well, what he did was, during his career as a coach, there were only eight teams, so he was able to pick guys that were four-year players and had played with a successful college teams. And he knew that they may not be the star of that particular team, but they knew how to win and knew how to sublimate their egos to a team effort.

ELLIOTT: You know, Red Auerbach is known for his competitive spirit. You can picture him, you know, puffing away at his cigar, strategizing on the floor of the Boston Garden, but what was he like out of the spotlight? What was he like in the locker room?

Mr. HEINSOHN: Well, he's one of the guys, believe it or not. I could tell you that he gave me a loaded cigar one day when I was having a bad day. And he asked me why I was down in the dumps, and I told him my tale of woe that happened to me that day. He said, well, I'm going to give you this cigar. I said, you know I don't smoke cigars. He said, you take this on the way home. It'll relax you, and you'll feel a lot better. So I drove half the way home, and I said, what a nice thing for Red to do. And I unwrapped it, put it in my mouth, and took one puff, and it blew up in my face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEINSOHN: So I mean he was a practical joker, and to tell you the truth, I gave him a cigar - a loaded cigar six months later, but it took me about a hundred bucks worth of cigars before he finally stopped looking to see if they were loaded.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEINSOHN: We had a lot of fun, the players. And I mean he set crazy rules like you couldn't eat pancakes the day of the game. And if you were caught, we'd have mock trials in the locker room where everybody would actually make sure the guy was guilty and you have to ante up for eating the pancakes.

ELLIOTT: What's wrong with pancakes on game day?

Mr. HEINSOHN: Nothing. It was just a rule.

ELLIOTT: If you have to think back on his legacy, what would you say it is? What is his legacy to the NBA?

Mr. HEINSOHN: Well, he was a pioneer of the game of basketball. And he came into the game when it was being played in dance halls. He developed a style of play that featured teamwork and it caught on with the public, and he was determined to make professional basketball recognized for the great sport it has become.

ELLIOTT: Tom Heinsohn remembering Red Auerbach, who died yesterday at the age of 89. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. HEINSOHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.