10.20.2013

Can Pitino Pull an Auerbachian Coup?

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.

The 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.

It's 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.

But 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.

On 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 decades.

Think about that. One draft, three Hall of Famers, 32 rings with the same team. Let's see Jerrys Reinsdorf and Krause top that.

Auerbach's '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.

The 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.

In 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) selected Russell.

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."

In 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 territorial choice."

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.

One 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.

Auerbach 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 Duncan?

No more. This is 1997 and you can't swap an ice show for the best player in the draft. Too bad.

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