Sports Nut

The Coach Who Never Paid Retail

Red Auerbach (1917–2006), from Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame

former Boston Celtic's coach Red Auerbach.
Red Auerbach (Left) in 2000. Over the course of four decades, Auerbach outsmarted the rest of the league in drafting, trading, and signing players.

Photograph by John Mottern/AFP/Getty Images.

This piece comes from Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, and published this week by Twelve.

Jews are known for many things, but strength, swiftness, and agility are not among them. There is one trait, as controversial as it is familiar, for which Jews are above all known, and that is shrewdness in business.

And in the history of sports, there was none shrewder than Arnold “Red” Auerbach, mastermind of the Boston Celtics when they won 16 NBA championships between 1957 and 1986. Auerbach grew up in Brooklyn, the son of an immigrant from Minsk who owned a delicatessen and a dry cleaning store. He won a basketball scholarship to George Washington University, but soon found his calling as a coach, working in high schools, the wartime Navy, and, for a few summers, a Catskills resort (where he coached a waiter named Wilt Chamberlain). In the late 1940s he was named coach of the Washington Capitols and then the Tri-Cities Blackhawks before taking over the Celtics bench in 1950. He became the team’s general manager in 1966 and its president in 1984, holdingthat position until his death in 2006.

Auerbach’s remarkable success as a coach—938 wins overall, and nine championships in one 10-year period—came in equal parts from personality and ingenuity. He was warm but demanding toward his players, belligerent toward the referees, and sometimes obnoxious toward opponents, particularly in his habit of celebrating an impending victory before the game was over by lighting up a cigar. He is credited with several innovations that changed the game forever; each exploiting a blind spot in the adversary. While high scorers fill the seats and please the crowd, Auerbach forced his Celtics to concentrate on defense and team play. (The team had no scorer in the league’s top 10 during its reign as perennial champions.) Other teams started the game with their five best players; Auerbach kept one of his on the bench as the “sixth man,” who came in at the first substitution and made hay against tired or second-string opponents. He also perfected the fast break, in which a rebound or inbounds pass sent a pack of teammates blitzing down the court past backpedaling defenders.

But Auerbach’s greatest impact came off the court. Jerry Seinfeld once observed that in team sports, fans are essentially rooting for clothing: “You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city.” A dynasty therefore depends not on the prowess of the bodies that fill those clothes at any one time, since they churn through team rosters so quickly, but on the cleverness of the mind that repeatedly puts them there. Over the course of four decades, Auerbach outsmarted the rest of the league in drafting, trading, and signing players.

I took special pleasure from watching Auerbach outdeal his competitors, not just as a Celtics fan but as a fellow member of an extended family of small businessmen. I am not the descendant of a long line of rabbis (as an improbably large proportion of Jews claim to be) but of makers or sellers of gloves, neckties, auto parts, and women’s garments; I grew up with the belief that God made the Jews as a light unto the nations and made the Gentiles because someone had to buy retail. I fondly recall the relish with which my uncles and grandfather would retell accounts of getting the better of some slow-witted supplier fair and square. As Canadians they were fans of hockey, not basketball, but they surely would have appreciated the genius with which Auerbach bested other managers.

Among the future greats he picked in the draft after every other team had overlooked them were K. C. Jones, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Don Chaney, Don Nelson, and Dave Cowens. Other bargains came in young players who were clearly destined for stardom but whom other managers had assumed were undraftable: Jo Jo White because he had been conscripted into the Army (Auerbach got him into the Marine Reserves), Danny Ainge because he was under contract to the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team (Auerbach somehow freed him), and, most momentously, Larry Bird, because he was still a junior (Auerbach bided his time and offered Bird a record-setting contract a year later).

But it was Auerbach’s trades that became the stuff of legend. Over and over he exchanged has-beens, head cases, and who-the-hells for future Hall of Famers and good team players who would lead the Celtics to strings of NBA championships. In 1956 he swapped Ed Macauley and the rights to Cliff Hagen to St. Louis for the draft pick that would become Bill Russell. He traded Charlie Share for Bill Sharman, Charlie Scott for Paul Silas, and Mel Counts for Bailey Howell. Best of all was a pair of deals in which Auerbach sent Bob McAdoo (whom he would happily have given away) to Detroit for M. L. Carr and two draft choices, which a year later he traded to Golden State for Robert Parish and a pick that would become Kevin McHale. (Golden State coveted Boston’s higher pick because they had their hearts set on Joe Barry Carroll, a center who went nowhere.) At other times, Auerbach convinced various general managers to trade him Dennis Johnson for Rick Robey, Bill Walton for Cedric Maxwell, and Quinn Buckner for Dave Cowens—who had been retired for two years. Goyishe kop!

Acumen in wheeling and dealing is, to be sure, a touchy subject. On top of the contempt with which the literary intelligentsia treats the world of commerce, there is the obvious fear that any such association could only reinforce ugly stereotypes and vicious conspiracy theories. Yet to ignore Jews’ success in the art of the deal would be to deny what made them historically distinctive. Jews are not so much the people of the book as the classic middleman minority—retailers and moneylenders who are not tied to the land or a guild, who instead cultivated mobility, occupational flexibility, family ties, cultural distinctiveness, and human capital, including numeracy, literacy, and intuitive psychology. This profile of skills may help explain the Jews’ longevity as a diaspora people, their financial and professional success in many parts of the world, and even, according to a controversial theory, their high intelligence. It also explains the other common fate of middleman minorities—resentment, oppression, expulsion, and occasionally genocide by economically ignorant majorities who see middlemen not as essential contributors to general prosperity but as parasites and exploiters.

Commerce is a noble profession, and Jews should get over any self-hatred they might harbor from contemplating the capitalist spirit of diaspora Judaism. Great thinkers of the Enlightenment, including Montesquieu, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, and the framers of the American Constitution, extolled commerce as a force for peace, because an infrastructure of trade makes it cheaper to buy things than to plunder them and makes other people more valuable alive than dead. Today’s political scientists have analyzed large datasets and shown that the Enlightenment exponents of the theory of gentle commerce were correct: countries that are open to the world economy have fewer wars and genocides.

The humanitarian benefits of voluntary deal-making bring us to another signature virtue of Red Auerbach. Auerbach famously drafted the first African-American player back in 1950, years before the civil rights movement took off. In 1964 he sent the first all-African-American starting lineup onto the court. And in 1966, he named Bill Russell as his successor, making his longtime star center the first African-American coach in American professional sports. Auerbach allowed Russell to coach and play at the same time because he thought that Russell, still in his prime, could not be properly coached by anyone else. It was a sign of the intense respect in which the two men held each other, perhaps the deepest between coach and player in the history of professional sports.

Auerbach’s progressive attitudes on race were emphatically not a reflex of political correctness. (When Russell contemplated leaving the NBA for a career in Hollywood, Auerbach teased him, “Russ, how many roles do you think there are for a six-foot-nine schvartze?”) Nor was it affirmative action: In the 1980s he assembled a championship team that defied the league’s racial statistics by having Bird, McHale, and Ainge in the starting five and Walton as the sixth man. Auerbach’s color-blindness surely came in part from principle and integrity, but it just as surely derived from one of the great virtues of the commercial spirit. Racism, because it favors color over talent, is bad for business.