Innovative thinking set Auerbach apart

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So it was that in late 1977, I had a little disposable income, and so decided to look into getting season tickets for the local professional cagers, also known as the Boston Celtics.

This was well before the Larry Bird era, obviously, and frankly, we used to call the Celtics the "Suck-tics", because they weren't so good.

So I call. Get some guy on the line who is dying to sell me a season ticket, or two, if I'm married. (Wasn't.) The thing was, although I didn't know it at the time, that pre-Larry Bird, the Celtics' season ticket totals were in the hundreds. Seriously. Someone actually buying a season ticket for the Celtics probably happened maybe two or three times a week in those days.

The price was, for me in 1977, a little too steep. The funny thing is, when I started to say, "thanks but no thanks", I think the guy believed I was holding out or something. So he threw out the ultimate bone: If I signed up for a season ticket right now, general manager Arnold "Red" Auerbach would personally show me where my seat would be.

Well, it was tempting, but what would have happened if I had gone down to Causeway Street (the site of the former Boston Garden), met Red and then, after walking into the Garden to see my seat, told him I wasn't interested? Ah, he'd have gone nuts. But it would have been an interesting walk, I think.

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Red died Saturday, and lots of people will fill lots of space explaining his greatness. But here it is in a nutshell: His entire career, he thought outside the box. And when he teamed with an owner, Walter Brown, who wasn't afraid to let Red think outside the box, the result was the greatest dynasty in pro basketball, maybe all of pro sports.

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Hall of Famer Arnie Risen told me a few years ago that Red's biggest strength was in building teams. And, Arnie pointed out, Red did it several times. First with the old Washington Caps, then with the Celtics. And within the Celtics, he built and rebuilt championship teams over the course of 40 years.

Consider the first champions. Red trades All-Star Ed Macauley and the rights to future Hall of Famer Cliff Hagan to St. Louis for Bill Russell. He signs K.C. Jones away from the Cleveland Browns. He drafts Sam Jones, a guy nobody has ever heard of, from North Carolina College. He drafts John Havlicek, the third-leading scorer on his college team (albeit a great team, Ohio State). He drafts Tom Sanders from NYU. He signs Don Nelson for the $50 waiver price, which was actually nothing, because Red was feuding with NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy at the time and didn't pay up. And when they made up, Kennedy never asked him for the dough. The result is 11 championships in 13 years. Amazing isn't really a suitable word here.

Then, when Russell retires, Auerbach drafts David Cowens, JoJo White and Don Chaney. Two more titles in the 1970s. And, of course, in 1978, he drafts Larry Bird (whose class had graduated, making him eligible for the draft as a junior) and picks up Kevin McHale and Robert Parish for essentially nothing. Well, Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown, which is close to nothing.

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Red was an incredible wheeler and dealer, and a man many other GMs greatly feared, because he was also an exceptional judge of talent. I honestly don't know if any team can claim this: From the 1963-64 season, the year after Bob Cousy retired, until the 1965-66 season, every starting player for the team was someone whom the Celtics had drafted or acquired the rights to before the draft (Russell), which, of course, translated into three championships. And a vast majority of the guys on their bench were draft picks, as well. That is an amazing statistic.

OK, one final story. Red was a pioneer in drafting black players. But that would have happened sooner or later. But when Boston made Duquesne's Chuck Cooper the first black player to be drafted in the NBA, the other owners held their collective breaths. These guys weren't, for the most part, racists, but they were businessmen. And Abe Saperstein, the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, was a colleague. The unwritten law was, "Abe gets the black guys."

Why? Well, understand that the Globies were, by far, the biggest basketball draw in the world. It is not a myth that the NBA would schedule doubleheaders to include the Globetrotters in the 1940s and 1950s, and after the Globie game, the arenas would clear out. (In the interests of clarity, the marketing of the NBA in those years was dismal. In New York, the Knicks were consistently outdrawn by pro wrestling, cycling, boxing, and hugely outdrawn by roller derby.)

When Boston drafted Cooper, the backlash was immediate. Saperstein swore he would never play a game in the Boston Garden again. And as long as he was alive, that was true. But Red was thinking outside the box. In the short run, yes, the drafting of Cooper hurt the Celtics, because they couldn't count on a Globetrotter gate three or four times a year. But in the end, Auerbach clearly made the right move, as 16 championships would show.


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