BOSTON -- He stood just 5 feet and 10 inches off the ground, but make no mistake about it.
Arnold “Red” Auerbach, the architect who shaped the Boston Celtics into a dynasty of the likes the NBA has not seen before or since, was a basketball giant who still casts a tremendously large shadow over the league.
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Today marks what would have been Auerbach’s 100th birthday, a milestone worth noting for a man who did so much for the game.
Auerbach, who passed away on October 28, 2006, did more than make the Boston Celtics a household name.
His up-tempo brand of play made the Celtics -- and the NBA, for that matter -- must-watch basketball at a time when the league was still establishing itself.
But the true measure of Auerbach’s worth goes far beyond the 16 NBA championships (nine as a head coach, seven as an executive) or the countless Hall of Famers who played for him.
His greatest accomplishments can be seen in the lives he impacted, the players who got to know him beyond as a head coach, and the opponents who had little choice but to respect him for what he accomplished.
“As I reflect on when I was playing . . . I completely trusted Red Auerbach,” Bill Russell said in an earlier interiew. “That he would not do anything at my expense to make himself look better. I had that trust and it was a bond. So whenever he said something to me, I took it that he was trying to help. And that’s very difficult to get with players and coaches.”
Russell shared a story about Auerbach wanting to talk to him after a team dinner shortly before the start of the 1958-59 season.
“So we go up to his suite and [Auerbach] says, ‘Listen, tomorrow morning, when we start practice I’m going to be all over you,’ ” Russell recalled. “ 'Don’t pay any attention to it. If I can’t yell at you, I can’t yell at anybody. I’m yelling at you, but it’s not really aimed at you. It’s for the other guys.' ’”
Russell went along with it, but he acknowledged it wasn’t easy.
“So the next day, it’s like I gave him an unlimited budget and he went over it,” said Russell who immediately broke out into laughter.”
A few years later, Auerbach thanked Russell for allowing him to do that.
“I said, ‘Red, I came this close to attacking you,' ” quipped Russell.
Auerbach’s players weren’t the only ones who held him in high esteem.
“Red Auerbach helped the Celtics to win, immeasurably,” Los Angeles Lakers great Wilt Chamberlain said prior to his death in 1999. “I’ve never been a huge Red Auerbach fan. He was the adversary and sometimes he really ticked me off. [But he] was able to do things with his team that no other coach didand he helped to make them the best franchise in sports. Just like [John] Wooden did for UCLA . . . Red did so in spades in basketball professionally.”
The NBA logo himself, Jerry West, also had high praise for Auerbach.
“He was one of the first coaches that commanded a lot of attention,” said West, now a consultant to the Los Angeles Clippers. “The thing that was most noticeable in my mind was how hard he got the players to play for him every night. His players played so hard, it was unbelievable. His teams played a very aggressive kind of game, both offensively and defensively. They played with a confidence that was hard to believe sometimes. You’d have some guy come down and shoot one on four. He encouraged that style of play. He wanted an open game. He knew how to play with the officials. His demeanor on the sideline was very interesting. He knew how to motivate his players and he was just one of those people, sometimes they’re hard to describe how they get the most out of people. He had a skill very few coaches have been able to emulate.”
Added former Celtic Bill Walton: “There is no franchise that has contributed more to the NBA than the Boston Celtics. And to me, that all comes from Red Auerbach. Red’s ability to identify the talent to put the team together.”
But as much as Auerbach embraced the spotlight that shined so brightly for so many years on him and his players, it was those quiet moments to himself, when the final ashes of yet another victory cigar have smoldered down, that were times to reflect on what was an amazing basketball journey that took this scrappy kid from Brooklyn to the highest of heights in professional basketball.
“The best moment was when you win your first championship,” Auerbach recalled in an interview prior to his death. "And after the game I went home, I sat in a room, a chair, ‘you’re one lucky S-O-B,' talking to myself. 'Imagine a guy like you, what you did, your background, you’re the coach of the greatest basketball team in the world. How good can it get? You’re one lucky guy.' ”
But Celtics fans and the NBA are the really lucky ones who have benefited greatly from this 5-foot-10 basketball giant.
“His legacy," said West, "will be there forever."