NBA Finals Revisited

By Harold Bell
Updated: June 11, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The NBA’s Boston Celtics and Red Auerbach are the most successful team and coach in team sports history. The 2008 NBA Finals have carried us into June and we can now officially call the Boston-Los Angeles match up “The Boys of Summer.”

While America is seeing Black for the first time (Presidential nominee Barack Obama), the city of Boston is seeing Red as in Auerbach. It has been 21 years (1987) since these two teams last met in an NBA final. Red Auerbach was still the Godfather and President of the franchise.

The World of sports lost a true giant when Red died on October 28, 2006. He died of a heart attack at the age of 89. He was born in Brooklyn, NY but his hometown was Washington, DC.

We all know that Red Auerbach was the greatest coach in the history of team sports. He had a better won-lost record in Human and Civil Rights — he was undefeated.

It is not by accident that Doc Rivers is the head coach of the Boston Celtics or Danny Ainge is the team’s General Manager. Thanks to Red, the Celtics were the first equal opportunity employer in the NBA.

In 1950, Chuck Cooper of Duquesne University and a second team All-American would be drafted by coach Red Auerbach and owner Walter Brown of the Boston Celtics.

Cooper would become the first black player drafted and signed by an NBA team. The NBA is now the most integrated pro sports organization in America. The NBA’s plantation mentality is no longer implemented by whites, it is now implemented by brothers.

Red was not a big fan of David Stern or Wizard owner Abe Polin.

Red was the first coach to play five black players at the same time. He was first to hire the first black coach when he hired Bill Russell and the first to hire a black General Manager with same name — Bill Russell.

During the tenure of owner Walter Brown and Red Auerbach the Boston Garden was a “Racial Free Zone.” The stifling racial strife in the city of Boston for the past several decades was not allowed in Boston Garden the home of the Boston Celtics. KKK robes and hoods were checked at the gate and replaced with shirts and ties when games were played in the garden.

When the basketball hall of fame had forgotten the contributions of Earl Lloyd the first player to ever play in a NBA game in 1950, he reminded them. Earl was finally inducted into the Naismith Basketball of Fame in 2001 fifty years later.

Thanks to Red Auerbach, it was better late than never.

This year’s NBA final match up brings together one of the NBA’s most heated and hated rivals, the Lakers and the Celtics. The match up lacks the marquee appearance of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, but it will not lack the mental and physical intensity that this rivalry has known for decades.

The only other major sports franchises that come close to this rivalry in intensity is the match up of Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

This marquee match up is one the brain-trust in the NBA offices had hoped for. Some think it was planned by Stern. I think he is capable, but there is no way anyone could have planned that last year’s worst team in Boston Celtic history would go from last place to first place.

Former Boston Celtic player Danny Ainge (NBA Executive of the Year) is now the team’s General Manager. He pulled off a Red Auerbach heist. The acquisition of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen was a stroke of genius.

Add holdover Paul Pierce and it brought back memories of Celtic pride with Auerbach, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, K. C. Jones, etc leading the charge against Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the incomparable Wilt Chamberlain.

I am still trying to figure out how the Celtics pulled that one off. The answer could easily be — Red Auerbach.

Doc Rivers is no Red Auerbach. I think D.C. fearless sports talk show host Butch McAdams said it best on a recent show. He said “Doc Rivers as a basketball coach, he makes a great television basketball commentator.”

In defense of Doc, I have often thought coaching is overrated when it comes to pro sports. The best example is; NFL Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins. I watched for years as Gibbs sleep walked his way into the hall of fame. Many of the plays he called during games and untimely timeouts he never called were not taught in a NFL 101 class room for coaches.

Coach Gibbs’ second tour with the Redskins he realized he should have never left NASCAR. There was no talent on his NFL roster to make him look like the smart coach the fans once thought he was. They kept waiting for a return to the glory days until Joe finally said “I had enough.” Talent can often make one look like a genius.

Red Auerbach was a genius. If you are looking for the definition of coach in Webster’s Dictionary it is spelled, A-U-E-R-B-A-C-H. Red could X and O you to death (chalk and black board). He was a psychiatrist, motivator, pr man and an intimidator.

The league’s referees, coaches and players were often the target of his wit and sharp tongue. He stood 5-foot-7 and I clearly remember watching a game on television with him challenging the 7-foot Wilt Chamberlain to a fist fight. Red would later tell me on my talk show Inside Sports, “I should have gotten an Academy Award for that performance.”

Talking about getting under an opponent’s skin, when he was sure that victory was in hand he would light up his famous cigar on the bench. There were several occasions he would light the cigar up too soon and the opposition got the last laugh. Those laughs were far few and in-between.

I met Red and his wife Dotie on a playground in the Maryland suburb of Chevy Chase outside of DC in the late 60’s. They were hanging out watching Summer League Basketball. When I met them Dotie was sitting alone outside the fence watching the hoop action. We struck up a conversation about one of the players. I thought “This little white lady knows a lot about the game of basketball.”

We would talk basketball for the next 30 minutes when suddenly Red shows up with cold drinks for them. She introduced us to each other and Red growled something sarcastic and Dotie said, “Arnold, stop acting up.”

Red had a demeanor AND THE growl of a tiger when he didn’t want someone getting too close, but in reality he was nothing but a pussycat. For the next 30 years Red and Dotie would treat me and my wife Hattie like we were family.

My unique relationship with Red and Dotie brought me in contact with some guys I would become great friends with, Hymie Perlo, Sam Jones, K. C. Jones and the late Dennis Johnson.

Like Red, they had integrity and their word you could carry to the bank.

The Boston Celtics are the underdogs in this year’s series and are being picked to lose to the Lakers in six games by the so-called experts. The experts can be found sitting at NBA press tables around the league during the regular season.

Many would not know the difference from a left hook and a hook shot, but they are the experts never the less.

This is the 12th championship final between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. The Celtics lead the series 8-3. The most important statistic is the one owned by the coaches, Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson.

Each has won nine NBA Championships. A win by the Lakers would give Phil Jackson the outright lead. Please don’t think this is lost on the city of Boston, the Celtic organization, the players or the coaches.

The city of Los Angeles, the Lakers’ organization, the players and their coach are also caught up in this historical footnote in NBA history. More than bragging rights are at stake.

Check out Bill Russell and Magic Johnson lurking in the arena, behind closed doors, in locker rooms and in bath rooms if necessary reminding the players not to let them down and what is really at stake.

Phil Jackson has not forgotten that when his record was compared to the great Red Auerbach, Red made it known that Phil was an NBA opportunist. Red amassed his incredible record with just one team — the Boston Celtics and Phil was an NBA vagabond. Red said, “Phil Jackson is the television version of Monte Hall as in “Lets Make A Deal.”

Bill Russell has taken a page out of one of Red Auerbach’s chalk talks and promised Kevin Garnett one of his championship rings if he does not win a championship during his stay in Boston.

Bill is depending on the pride of Kevin being man enough to go out and earn his own ring. I can see Red smiling and reaching for his cigar.