9.15.2016

Red was Special

June 8, 1986

To an NBA draft list already deep and dazzling, one more name should be added. He's not that much taller than Spud Webb and couldn't shoot a basketball if somebody provided the gun. He'd have a terrific impact on whichever team selected him, however, maybe more than anyone after the lottery choices.

My special guy isn't a player, you see; he just plays his game better than almost anyone in sport ever has. My guy is 68 years old and hasn't been on the court since he was about to punch somebody for being mean to one of his Celtics awhile back. Yep, my guy is Red Auerbach, and wouldn't it be a blast if one of the NBA's sad sacks had a chance to get him?

Think Auerbach wouldn't make a difference in Cleveland? Or Indiana? If anyone could get the Clippers sailing smoothly, it would be him. The Knicks surely need his knack. It often takes Auerbach's Celtics three seasons to lose as many games as some teams do in one.

This is whimsy. A Shetland pony will win the Kentucky Derby before Auerbach plots against the Celtics. But it illustrates a couple of points: Auerbach runs contrary to most of the laws of professional team games and most professional team games don't allow enough people in their drafts.

The Celtics lead the Houston Rockets, 3-2, in hopes of hoisting their 16th NBA championship flag among the rafters in Boston Garden. Same as always, the reason is the cigar-toting fellow who was coaching in the league at age 24. In his way, Auerbach knows chemistry better than anybody at Harvard and his town better than any Beacon Hill politician.

The Celtics Auerbach coached in the '50s included the first black player in the NBA, Chuck Cooper, and the man who would become the league's first black coach, Bill Russell; the Celtics Auerbach created in the '80s are dominated by white players. Better than everybody, he knows who can play and what sells. But the race that concerns him most is for first place.

It became fashionable to snicker at Auerbach in the late '70s, because the Celtics only won two NBA titles in that decade. This happened to be twice as many championships as several other teams combined, but nine fewer than he'd produced in the '60s.

Besides, Auerbach's drafts had been abominable. Clarence Glover (1971), Steve Downing (1973), Glenn McDonald (1974), Tom Boswell (1975), Norm Cook (1976) and Wayne Kreklow (1979) were Celtic first-round draftees. Nobody could win regularly with that collection of pro bodies -- and the Celtics didn't for a couple of seasons.

With no other choice, Auerbach gambled. Heavily. And won.

On draft day in 1978, five general managers had a chance to say "Bird" before Auerbach did. Everybody but Auerbach had a chance to make a deal with Golden State two years later that might fetch a moody center, Robert Parish, and the draft rights to a forward built like a stalk of straw, Kevin McHale.

It's become a pattern. Auerbach makes a move and the rest of the league says: "Why didn't I think of that?" Same as the '50s and '60s. Auerbach gets a very useful player (Danny Ainge) with a fairly low choice; Auerbach trades someone expendable (Rick Robey) and acquires someone quite valuable (Dennis Johnson).

Also, Celtics don't seem to suffer long-term injuries the way the opposition does. The Bullets and 76ers bowed their heads in frustration the last year or so over their severe manpower losses; Boston's occasional scare turned out to be a hangnail. Watching Bill Walton in his limited role this season, you would scarcely sense that he limped all over the West Coast the last several years.

Even though the Celtics media guide says Jan Volk "took the reins from Red Auerbach and assumed the position of general manager . . . on July 10, 1984," it was Auerbach who represented the Celtics at the recent draft lottery.

For your NBA franchise, you would hire Auerbach as architect. He and several others are reasons why disparity remains rampant in our major team sports. The same teams win routinely, year after year, because they have executives with Auerbach-like skills.

If the worst team in the NFL had the choice between Don Shula and the best collegiate player in the country, the decision would be obvious. A smart owner would trade his entire draft for two years to get Shula. Or Bill Walsh. Or a few others. Baseball and hockey also have several invaluable thinkers. For the sort of occasional prosperity pro sports promises but all too rarely delivers, those guys should be spread around the league.

Oh, yes, Auerbach and Pat Williams of the 76ers have slickered the NBA again. They built very good teams for the present, then found the means to keep them at an exceptional level for a good deal of the future. Publicly, Williams says he quakes in Auerbach's presence. Yet he has been nearly as successful the last seven years.

Williams' brilliance can be seen in the last line of the biography of one Joe Bryant in a yellowing brochure: "Came to Clippers October 6, 1979, in exchange for San Diego's first-round draft selection in 1986." Bryant is long gone from the NBA; the Clippers aren't even in San Diego now. Unwittingly, they gave Philly the top pick in the June 17 draft.

Auerbach was just as clever. To Seattle two years ago, a regular guard from the NBA champs (Gerald Henderson) seemed worth a first-round choice in 1986. Seattle stayed bad; Boston stayed excellent.

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