Clichés are generally lame and boring, but when discussing the likes of Arnold “Red” Auerbach, clichés are a straight-up insult. To describe any aspect of Red’s legacy with anything less than awe is like smothering Hunt’s Ketchup all over a Kobe beef rib-eye, or taking in the new Star Wars movie on a black-and-white Sony Watchman.
Red deserves better than cliché.
He’s been gone for almost 10 years but he still -- and always will -- commands that respect.
That’s because Red Auerbach was an innovator unlike anything the basketball world has ever seen. James Naismith may have invented the game. Maurice Podoloff may have lifted the NBA off the ground. But Red transformed professional basketball into the cutthroat arms race that it is today. He forced its evolution from a game into a multi-layered, tactical machine. Along the way he drafted the NBA’s first African-American player and hired the first African-American coach. He was the first to truly embrace the fast break and utilize the concept of a “sixth man”. On the flip side, Red’s penchant for lowball contract offers helped birth the players’ union. He was also often suspected of screwing with the visitors’ locker room and team hotel, and he’s still the only coach in history to get ejected from an All-Star Game.
But as you consider the full scope of Red Auerbach’s legacy -- the good, the bad and the ridiculous -- just know that Red didn’t do the things he did to champion civil rights, or promote social progress, or screw over his players, or drench his opponents in public embarrassment. He did it all for one reason: He was trying to win basketball games. And year after year he tried harder than anyone else. He was always looking for an edge, pushing the envelope, turning over stones that most people didn’t even know were there. Like Bill Belichick today, Auerbach lived to expose loopholes within the loopholes underlined in the tiniest, finest print. He was like a computer hacker with access to the NBA motherboard and the patience to sit there for hours upon days, looking for weaknesses and ways to exploit them. Like Belichick, the rest of the league resented Auerbach for this. Like Belichick, Red resented the league right back. And that resentment only fueled his obsession on the way to hoisting 16 banners over a 30-season stretch from 1957-1986.
Now here today, another 30 years later, we begin a celebration of the last and perhaps finest of Auerbach’s championship squads: The 1986 Celtics. A team considered by many to be the greatest of all time. A team that won 67 games, and went an all-time best 40-1 at home. A team that posted winning streaks of 8, 9, 13 and 14 games. A team that only dropped one game in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket on its way to knocking off the Rockets in six for yet another Larry O’Brien Trophy. But while you can argue about their place in NBA or even Celtics history, the 1986 team was the perfect example of Red Auerbach’s relentless innovation and mastery of basketball, business, life and the human condition. The starting five alone featured four Hall of Famers, and while amassing that talent in general was its own extraordinary accomplishment, the way that Red did it defied convention, lacked precedent and will never ever be replicated.
Not even by Billy King.
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First there was Larry Bird. Obviously. He was the cornerstone of everything, one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived . . . and a guy who Red famously selected with the sixth pick in the 1978 draft.
This despite the fact Bird was already committed to another year at Indiana State.
The rule said that Bird was eligible because he was four years removed from high school, but Red wasn’t the only one who realized this. Every team ahead of the Celtics -- Portland, Kansas City (now Sacramento), Indiana, New York and Golden State -- at least considered using its pick on Bird. But they all ultimately decided they didn’t want to wait a full year, or couldn’t afford to wait a full year, or just had someone else in mind.
When the sixth pick rolled around, Red’s the one who took that leap of faith. And, well . . .
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Dennis Johnson was the starting point guard for that 1986 team, and here’s all you need to know about DJ: Only eight players in NBA history have made five first-team All-Defensive teams, at least one first team All-NBA, and also won a Finals MVP. They are John Havlicek, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James . . . and Dennis Johnson. And not only is DJ part of that exclusive club, but it only took him seven seasons to get there. And after that seventh season, in June 1983, when Johnson was still 29 years old and in the prime of his Hall of Fame career, Red Auerbach acquired him from the Suns for Rick Robey. Yes, Rick Robey, the 27-year-old, already-breaking-down center who averaged 19 minutes, 8.5 points and 5 rebounds a game over four-and-a-half seasons in Boston.
This is like if you woke up tomorrow and found out the Celtics traded Amir Johnson straight up for Kyle Lowry, except that DJ was better than Lowry, and Amir is better than Robey, and -- seriously, how did this trade even happen?
They say it’s because DJ couldn’t get along with longtime Suns coach John MacLoed, and that makes sense because DJ only ended up in Phoenix after he couldn’t get along with Sonics coach Lenny Wilkens. But the Suns knew they were allowed to shop around, right? They knew they could’ve called up any number of other teams and just kind of thrown it out there like “Heyyy, so we’re looking to trade our 29-year-old combo guard with five straight first team all-Defensive awards and a Finals MVP to his name. The current high bid is, uhhh, Rick Robey. Whaddaya think?”
Who knows, but as weird and unlikely as Red’s road to acquiring Dennis Johnson was, it was nothing compared to what he went through to procure the services of DJ’s backcourt partner.
It all started in June 1981 when 22-year-old former college basketball star Danny Ainge was a struggling third baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays. Over parts of three seasons, Ainge had a .220 batting average with two home runs -- and he was frustrated. There were rumors that he might be ready to come back to basketball. However as the NBA draft approached, the Blue Jays sent the entire NBA a little note with a very clear disclaimer:
Don’t draft Danny Ainge. We have him under contract.
So, naturally, Red Auerbach said screw it and drafted Ainge in the second round anyway. Three months later both Red and Danny found themselves in a New York City courtroom, taking the stand for testimony in the case of Boston Celtics v. Toronto Blue Jays.
Ainge claimed he’d told the Blue Jays he wanted to quit, and was willing to surrender his signing bonus to escape the contract. Blue Jays president Peter Bavasi and GM Pat Gillick claimed they still wanted Ainge to play baseball, and made it clear that they never had any intention of letting him go. Meanwhile, Red didn’t care that he was sitting in Federal Court, he was pissed and (according to the New York Times, ran his mouth so much to the Blue Jays lawyers that the judge finally ordered him to “respond solely to the questions put to you”. Things got so heated that when the jury eventually ruled in favor of the Blue Jays, Bavasi lit up a victory cigar just to mock Red and rub it in face. Then he told reporters: “I have absolutely no intention of speaking to Red Auerbach again.”
Of course the ruling angered Red, but of course he was also undeterred. The verdict was handed down in early October, at which point the Celtics and Blue Jays compromised a buyout, and Ainge made his NBA debut at home against the Nets on Dec. 9, 1981.
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And finally there’s the big one. Or the big two of the Big Three. We’re talking about the deal that everyone talks about when they talk about Red Auerbach’s genius. And really it’s almost awkward to even think about. You might want to read this section through the cracks in your fingers because it’s just so unbelievably one-sided and masterful that . . . well, okay, here we go:
1. In July 1979, M.L. Carr left the Pistons to sign a free-agent deal with the Celtics, and as a result (because there was no unrestricted free agency back then) the Celtics and Pistons had to work out compensation. At the suggestion of Detroit head coach Dick Vitale (yeah), the Pistons asked for former scoring champ/recently-injured power forward Bob McAdoo. The Celtics said, “Sure, but you have to give us two first-round picks.” The Pistons said “Okay.”
So if you’re keeping track at home, the Celtics signed a free agent from the Pistons and used the required compensation to unload a guy they weren’t that keen on in exchange for two first-round picks.
2. Vitale and the Pistons were absolutely awful that next season. In fact, Vitale was fired after 12 games. They finished with the worst record in the NBA, and after a coin flip the Celtics were awarded the No. 1 overall pick in the 1980 draft.
They had also acquired the 13th pick in another trade.
3. And you know what happened next: Red Auerbach wanted to draft Kevin McHale, and he knew the Golden State Warriors were desperate to draft Purdue center Joe Barry Carroll. He also knew McHale would still be available when then the Warriors picked at No. 3. So Red called up Golden State and said: “Listen, you guys want Carroll. So take the No. 1 pick and guarantee that you’ll get him. In exchange, we’ll take the third, we’ll also give you our 13th pick, and you know, since you’re drafting a center and don’t need the center you have now, why don’t you just throw in Robert Parish and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
And that was that. The Big Three was born. The foundation for the 1986 Celtics and one of the best teams in NBA history was set into the parquet. Red’s genius. Everyone wins. And it’s that easy right?
Well, the thing is that there’s actually an additional step between “2” and “3” on the list above. There’s something that happened between the Celtics winning that coin flip and Red making the trade that would change the course of NBA history. What happened was that when the Celtics initially landed the first pick, Red only had one player on his mind: Virginia freshman Ralph Sampson. In fact, one of the first things he did after the coin flip was fly down to Virginia with Celtics owner Harry Mangurian, meet with Sampson and his parents and try to do what Red did best -- convince people to do exactly what he wanted them to do. He sat across from Sampson and promised an unbelievable contract. He promised him Larry Bird money. Over and over he promised what a great situation Sampson was guaranteed to find in Boston, alongside Bird, and playing for the historic Celtics franchise. Red warned Sampson of the injury risk that came with going back to school, not to mention the danger of ultimately getting drafted by one of the dregs of the NBA -- a typical No. 1 pick-worthy team.
Per usual, Red was sure that his pitch would work . . . except in this case it didn’t. Sampson had no intention of leaving school, and he backed that up by staying all four years. He was selected No. 1 overall in 1983 by the Houston Rockets, and just so happened to be in the starting lineup when Boston and Houston faced off in the 1986 Finals -- but we’ll get to that later. We’ve got months left to celebrate the 30th anniversary of that historic season. In the meantime, it’s fair to wonder: What if Sampson said yes? What would’ve become of, well, everything?
At the very least it’s crazy to think that one of the biggest heists in NBA history was actually Plan B. And in that case, after 2,000 words spent gushing over Red’s magic touch, maybe it’s acceptable to drop just one cliché, and concede that even when you’re Red Auerbach, sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make.