Monday, October 30, 2006

The Passing of an American Legend – Red will never be forgotten

Life presents opportunities which when offered are what makes for “moments in time” moments where life stands still, occasions that you’ll remember forever. April 1989 was one such moment in the life of yours truly. Recently hired by Basketball Canada and tasked with organizing a tribute dinner of the late Jack Donohue, the man who brought basketball to Canada, a sport invented by a Canadian, I had the responsibility of contracting many of Coach D’s New York and New England basketball honchos. Coach D’s connection to Red Auerbach came first from Coach D’s coaching days at New York’s Power Memorial High School (coaching among others Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and then at New England’s Holy Cross College, it made perfect sense to give Coach Auerbach a call to see if he’s like to be a part of an evening dedicated to an old friend.

One little problem about contacting Red Auerbach, yours truly grew up a Celtics fan, and the cigar smoking Auerbach was a boyhood hero of mine for the man he was. What exactly do you say to someone who you wrote a paper on when you were 10 years old and attending afternoon Hebrew School? The paper I wrote in 1966 while living in Montreal, great Jewish heroes. The entire class wrote papers on biblical heroes of yesteryear. When you’re ten-years old and asked to write a paper on a Jewish hero – Moses was a popular choice.

I choose a sports figure, a basketball coach, who the teacher at first didn’t believe was Jewish. The teacher thought maybe I’d write a paper on Sandy Koufax (that was next year’s choice) but honestly had never heard of anyone named Red Auerbach, and when first told coached the Boston Celtics believed Auerbach had to be Irish. Forty years later, as clear as if I had written the paper yesterday, I remember why I wrote the paper on Auerbach. I loved the Celtics, the Celtics won and the Celtics didn’t care who was on their team (as long as they won), and Auerbach and his cigars made me laugh as a youngster. Forty years later, basketball remains central of my professional and personal life and today the world is a little sadder without Red Auerbach, but at the same time the world is a great deal better for the greatness Red Auerbach instilled.

Growing up in Montreal in the 1960’s you had access to the Burlington, Vermont ABC affiliate (through UHF – not cable), televised the Celtics, Red Sox and Bruins. Les Canadiens dominated life in Montreal, but basketball was always a passion and the Celtics filled that fervor to youngsters not only in New England but in Eastern Canada as well.

Montreal in the 1960’s was a city on the move, where race was never an issue. Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line when he joined the Montreal Royals in 1946. Robinson made a lasting impression on Montreal’s sports community. Auerbach who broke basketball’s color barrier four years later when the Celtics drafted Chuck Cooper who became the first African-American in 1950, sent a message to Celtics supporters. Red wanted to win; he wanted players who could lead the Celtics to championships. The Boston Red Sox where the last Major League Baseball franchise to have an African American on their roster, Elijah (Pumpsie) Green, who joined the Red Sox on July 22, 1959. Would the Red Sox have been more successful if they’re concern was a man’s ability to play baseball and not the color of a man’s skin. Five key members of the 1955 World Series winning Brooklyn Dodgers where African Americans. Red Auerbach cared about winning and anyone who could help him accomplish his goal was welcomed to the Celtics.

In 1995 The Center for the Study of Sport in Society (CSSS) at Northeastern University, recognized Auerbach’s contributions to sports by inducting Auerbach into its Hall of Fame. Auerbach was the second person to be honored, following Muhammad Ali’s 1994 induction.

Auerbach whose life lessons are what legends are made of shared a key learning lesson with John Feinstein when the two got together for the best selling 2004 book -- Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game. One summer while attending Washington’s George Washington University in 1938, Auerbach along with three teammates, joined, four from Georgetown, four from American, and four from the University of Maryland -- were given internships to work at the National Training School for Boys. The man who twelve years later integrated the NBA was offered a unique opportunity to understand what it was like to be young Black man in the late 1930’s.

"It was, basically, a very tough reform school," Red recounted in the book. "It was for kids who were federal offenders. They had stolen cars and taken them across state lines or committed crimes that involved guns. Some of them weren't kids, either, because birth certificates weren't all that easy to track down in those days."

"The place was segregated. There were four white companies and two black companies. I worked there 20 hours a week. I don't think I ever learned more about leadership, about discipline, about dealing with people than I learned there."

"One of the men in charge of one of the black companies was Mr. Burns. I don't think I ever knew his first name. He was unbelievable. He was tough, so tough that when he took time off they had to bring in three guys to sub for him. But he understood people. He knew when to get in their faces and when to reason with them. He told me that the best way to get your job done wasn't to intimidate -- which I couldn't have done anyway -- but to earn their trust. You said something was going to happen -- good or bad -- make sure it happened. I tried to remember that."

"One time, I caught a bunch of my guys with a still out in the back. They'd found a bunch of dandelions out there and had managed to brew up some awful, cheap alcohol. They were drunk as could be. I got 'em back inside, sobered 'em up, and put 'em to bed. Didn't turn 'em in. Who could blame them for wanting to get drunk in that environment? They remembered that."

"Another time, we're getting ready to go out for exercise, and I realize that one of the master keys is missing. This is a big deal, because someone has that key, they can get in anyplace on the complex, steal just about anything they want to steal. I get my guys together and say, 'We're not going out until I get that key. I don't care who took it, I'll turn my back, and whoever has it just throw the key on the floor.' Nothing. So, finally, I take this guy named Frenchie aside. He was the leader. That's another thing Mr. Burns had taught me: Every group has a leader, and that guy knows everything. So I said to him, I didn't want any information at all, but I know that you know who has the key, and we aren't going anywhere, today, the next day, whenever, until I get the key back. I told him he had five minutes, or I had to go to the higher-ups."

"Frenchie goes back into the room. I wait. A minute later, I hear the key clattering on the floor."

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you they were all good kids who'd had bad luck. But some of them were. I'd bought a car that year, finally got my dad to give me 100 bucks to get one. It was a Ford convertible [to this day Red drives a convertible]. The radio broke. One of the kids said he could fix it for me, so I said fine."

"I go over to see how he's coming, and the engine's running. He says, 'I didn't want to run your battery down, so I just hot-wired the engine.' He also fixed the radio."

"A lot of those kids got out during the war by volunteering for the service. Years later, I still heard from some of them. If I learned nothing else from Mr. Burns, it was when to trust people and when not to. You look a guy right in the eye and he doesn't look right back at you, you can bet he's lying. He looks back, he's either telling the truth or he's a damn good liar."

Former Celtic M.L. Carr hit the nail on the head when he shared some his Auerbach memories with the Boston Globe Sunday.

"I remember my first year in Boston, we clinched the best record in the division and we were celebrating a little bit in the locker room when Red came in and he said, 'What's all this,' " said Carr, who won titles as a player in 1981 and 1984 and coached the team from 1995-97. "We told him what had happened. And he said, 'We don't celebrate division titles. We celebrate championships.' He set the bar high for everyone."

"This is not the passing of a man, it's the passing of an institution. He came into a hockey town with a 6-9 black guy [Bill Russell] and sold professional sports in a racially charged city. That was one sales job."

"Beyond his incomparable achievements, Red had come to be our basketball soul and our basketball conscience. The void left by his death will never be filled." -- NBA commissioner David Stern.

"Red was a true champion and one whose legacy transcends the Celtics and basketball. He was the gold standard in coaching and in civic leadership, and he set an example that continues today. We all knew and loved Red in the Kennedy family. He joined my first campaign for Senate, and President Kennedy tried never to miss a game. We were so fortunate to be able to go to the Boston Garden in its heyday and watch Red make magic, but more than being a legendary coach and Boston institution, Red was a person of the highest caliber with a heart and generosity that knew no bounds. When my son Teddy was receiving treatment, Red always made the time to stop by and visit him, which meant the world to all of us. With every whistle that blows for the Boston Celtics, Red's spirit is celebrated and his memory cherished. He was loved and never will be forgotten." -- Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts

An era that the sports world will never see again ended Sunday. It was an era that included the NFL’s Vince Lombardi, the NHL’s Toe Blake and the NCAA’s Bear Bryant. With the exception of Basketball Hall of Fame coach John Wooden, the greatest leaders and coaches in sports history have passed away. Their impact wasn’t in the games they won, their impact wasn’t in the titles and in the champions they won but in the examples they set as men and as leaders, in instilling ideals and life lessons.

"Red Auerbach was one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. He did so many things to help improve the game," said Bill Sharman, who played for Auerbach in Boston and went on to become coach and general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I believe he was responsible for making the NBA as popular as it is today by introducing the fast break and making the game more exciting. He was a coach who went out of his way to help his players and it was a privilege to play for him for 10 years and win four championships together. Besides being such a great coach, he was also a great friend and he will be truly missed."

"Nobody has had as much impact on a sport as Red Auerbach had on the game of basketball. He was a pioneer of the NBA," said Tommy Heinsohn, a Hall of Fame player in Boston before becoming a Celtics coach and broadcaster. "He left his philosophy of winning championships, playing hard and playing as a team with several generations of players. ... The game of basketball will never see anyone else like him."

And that phone call, that one time yours truly spoke with Coach Auerbach one-on-one? Auerbach answered the phone sounding as angry as ever, but the second I mentioned Jack Donohue (both men where raised in New York City), Auerbach’s demeanor immediately changed. Auerbach couldn’t make the dinner but what else could he do to help honor Coach Donohue. Within 48-hours Auerbach sent a video tribute acknowledging Donohue’s contributions to basketball (of course he had a cigar in hand). And a few weeks later, a box of Celtics memorabilia arrived for the auction that was a part of that great evening in 1989 with the proceeds being given to Basketball Canada. And Coach Auerbach didn’t forget that 11-year old who wrote his Hebrew school report on Coach Auerbach. The Celtics pennant signed by Auerbach, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish holds a cherished place in the offices of Sports Business News.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The Boston Globe and the Canadian Press

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