June 25, 1997
NBA draft day is tomorrow, and the nation is agog. Every amateur player
from Pepperdine to North Middlesex Regional High School has been
measured, tested, probed, dissected, and analyzed. NBA franchises have
spent millions on scouting and surveillance, and team officials are
confident that they know everything about every player.
draft will be televised live across America, and highly paid experts
will provide instant analysis after every selection. Meanwhile, here in
New England, TV satellite trucks already are lining Causeway Street, and
Ted Sarandis is getting more interview requests than Tiger Woods.
all very scientific, high-tech, and thorough. The NBA draft has become
an American sports holiday, not unlike the Super Bowl, the Kentucky
Derby, and, of course, the NFL draft.
it wasn't always like this, folks. Forty-one years ago, a man who served
his team as coach/general manager/marketing director/traveling
secretary/business manager pulled off the finest draft in the history of
professional sports. And the local media gave it far less play than
your average New England Revolution-Dallas Burn game of 1997.
Monday, April 30, 1956, Boston Celtic czar Red Auerbach in one day
acquired Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, and K.C. Jones. All three would
go on to have Hall of Fame careers and become head coach of the Celtics.
Among them, they compiled 32 championship rings as Celtics over three
Think about that. One draft, three Hall of Famers, 32 rings with the same team. Let's see Jerrys Reinsdorf and Krause top that.
'56 draft has been recounted in many videos and books, but it's
stunning to comb microfilm and see what the Globe was writing about
Red's genius in 1956.
In those days, the
NBA didn't really count around here. The league was just 10 years old
and Boston hadn't won any titles. Spring Celtic stories were placed next
to the local college baseball roundup.
NBA of 1956 held its annual meeting in New York, and on Sunday, April
29, the Globe's Jack Barry (writing from Boston and getting information
via telephone) wrote a short NBA notes column, leading with the news
that the 1957 NBA All-Star Game would be held at Boston Garden. Deeper
into the mini-column, Barry mentioned, "The meetings will conclude
tomorrow with the annual draft of college players."
That's it. That was the extent of the Globe's predraft coverage in 1956.
the next day's paper, the inimitable Clif Keane reported that the
Celtics had a chance to get Russell's rights from St. Louis (drafting
second) in exchange for Celtic star Ed Macauley. Keane reported that the
only potential glitch would be if Rochester (which had the No. 1 pick)
In Keane's story, Celtic
official Bill Mokray said that Rochester owner Les Harrison would not
take Russell as his choice: "If Harrison sticks with that statement, the
Hawks will then take Russell and turn him over to us."
the May 1 Globe, Herb Ralby reported that Russell was acquired by the
Celtics, but that Boston might lose him to Abe Saperstein of the Harlem
Globetrotters. In the small type it is mentioned, "In addition to
Russell, the Celtics took K.C. Jones, Russell's play-making teammate at
San Francisco who is credited with setting up the big center. Tom
Heinsohn of Holy Cross, the Celtics' territorial choice, was also
drafted. No other team in either loop of the NBA took advantage of its
At the conclusion of
Ralby's story, Auerbach said of Russell, "He's the greatest defensive
center I've ever seen. Sure he has weaknesses, but they'll be remedied.
He gives me a big man for the future."
There's a prophetic statement for you.
thing about the draft hasn't changed. There's always wheeling and
dealing going on right up until the bell rings. Just ask Rick Pitino
how many calls he's gotten, and made, concerning his No. 3 and No. 6
picks. Everybody wants to know what everybody else is going to do. It
makes the planning easier.
Which brings us
back to May 30, 1956. Heinsohn was a territorial pick (these no longer
exist) and Auerbach jumped at the chance to take a local kid who'd
ranked fourth in the nation in scoring and eighth in rebounding (despite
Russell's impact on the game, Heinsohn would be the 1956-57 NBA Rookie
of the Year). K.C. (picked in the second round) couldn't shoot and had a
service commitment, but that didn't worry Red. Auerbach already had a
pair of All-Star guards in Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman. He could wait.
He'd also scouted San Francisco more than anyone in the NBA and he knew
Jones's defense would make him a force.
But what about Russell? How did Red know Harrison wouldn't mess up the
Russell-Macauley deal by selecting the San Francisco center with the top
pick? Would Pitino
(selecting third) move up and make a deal with Philadelphia (second)
today, in hopes that San Antonio might not take Tim Duncan?
Versions vary. In later years, Harrison claimed that Russell sandbagged
him, playing poorly when Rochester scouts watched him in an all-star
game. But there were other reasons to pass on Russell: Rochester already
had a good big man in Maurice Stokes (Rookie of the Year). Russell's
price tag was going to be hefty. The threat of the Globetrotters loomed,
and everyone knew that Russell's Olympic commitment would tie him up
until mid December. Rochester eventually took Duquesne's Si Green.
But never underestimate the Ice Capades. In 1956, NBA owners cared most
about filling their big barns for winter shows. Boston boss Walter
Brown owned the Ice Capades.
says, "What happened was this: Walter got Harrison the Ice Capades, he
felt indebted to Walter. He said, 'Look, you gave me the Ice Capades,
I'll give you my word that we won't take Russell.' "
Hmmm. Ed Macauley, draft rights to Cliff Hagan, and the Ice Capades for
Bill Russell. Wonder if the Spurs would make a deal like that for
No more. This is 1997 and you can't swap an ice show for the best player in the draft. Too bad.