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Celtics Need Auerbachian Lift

Back in Boston and down 2-0 to the Cavs, the men in green should draw inspiration from the man who took the Celtics franchise to the apex of the NBA

Jonathan Zalman
April 23, 2015
(Red Auerbach and Bill Russell)
(Red Auerbach and Bill Russell)

After losing the first two games of its opening round playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Boston Celtics are in dire need of a win tonight in Beantown. And though the Celts are giving the LeBrons all they’ve got, I’m afraid—and I write this having grown up rooting for every three-ball Antoine Walker chucked up to hit the nylon aflush—that it won’t be enough. The Cavs, simply put, have far too much talent to fall.

And yet, the green blood of the Celtics flows through veins of gold, pumping oxygen back to the heart of the NBA’s winningest franchise.

This year’s team, led by coach Brad Stevens who has inspired his players into a brooding belief-storm, should continue to reach into their beautiful lineage, all the way to the spirit of the man who built the Celtics elite: Arnold “Red” Auerbach.

A Brooklyn-born Jew, Auerbach, who died in 2006, took the Boston Celtics on an all-time run: as the franchise’s coach, general manager and president, the Celtics won 16 NBA championships between 1957 and 1986.

The current GM of the Celtics is Danny Ainge, whom Auerbach drafted in 1981 even though he was committed to playing baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays. The day after Auerbach passed away, Ainge recalled his first few days as a Celtic:

“I remember when Red first picked me up at the airport when I was drafted by the Celtics. He picked me up in a limo, and we went out to eat and we just talked about basketball and the Celtics. And then my wife was coming in to the airport shortly there after, and Red says, ‘How many wives do you Mormons have, anyway?’ He was fun that way. He always had a light heart.”

Writer Steven Pinker took on the legacy of Auerbach in Jewish Jocks, a collection of essays about Jews in sports edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, the inaugural editor of The Scroll. Pinker’s essay, entitled “The Coach Who Never Paid Retail,” examines Auerbach’s “acumen in wheeling and dealing.”

Though a “touchy subject,” Pinker writes that “commerce is a noble profession, and Jews should get over any self-hatred they might harbor from contemplating the capitalist spirit of diaspora Judaism.”

And Auberbach’s shrewd business moves were colorblind, a “signature virtue:”

Auberbach famously drafted the first African-American player back in 1950, years before the civil rights movement took off. In 1964 he sent the first all-African American starting lineup onto the court. And in 1966, he named Bill Russell as his successor, making his longtime star center the first African-American coach in American professional sports. Auerbach allowed Russell to coach and play at the same time because he thought that Russell, still in his prime, could not be properly coached by anyone else. It was a sign of the intense respect in which the two men held each other, perhaps the deepest between coach and player in the history of professional sports.

Tonight, as the Celtics take the court to a warm and hungry home crowd, Russell will be sitting courtside, imbued by the spirit of his brother-in-dynasty, Red Auerbach. And as the 6’10” center with the salt-and-pepper goatee shines his huge smile onto the parquet floor, let’s hope that the Celtics can catch some of those winning rays.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.

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