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Tuesday, May 5, 2009
When Bill Russell Writes About Red Auerbach


One of the most examined relationships in basketball is the one that resulted in the sport's greatest dynasty -- that between Red Auerbach and Bill Russell. Bill Russell just published a book describing that relationship from the inside, remembering his days with Auerbach, who died in 2006. This review is by Zach Lowe of CelticsHub.

The paradox of Bill Russell's tender little book "Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend" (written with Alan Steinberg) about his 50-year friendship with Red Auerbach is that you don't learn many new facts about either man. There's a chance that Russell doesn't know very many details of Auerbach's life that aren't already in the public domain. And in a way, that's one reason the two men were able to be friends for so long. In their time together, they were both stubborn men who cherished their privacy, and so they each respected the other's right to be stubborn and private. As Russell puts it: "We didn't know much about each other's private life. Neither of us knew if the other was a Republican or a Democrat. I didn't know if he went to synagogue, and he didn't know if I went to church. To most people, that might sound strange, but for us, it was routine. That was how we were, and we liked it that way."

If you've read any of the major books about the Celtics dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s -- Jeff Greenfield's "The World's Greatest Team" or John Taylor's "The Rivalry," for instance -- you're not going to find any new basketball anecdotes here. Russell's best Auerbach coaching stories are ones we've read before -- Red screaming such foul-mouthed digs at Wilt Chamberlain that the Dipper confronted him during a game, forcing Russell to shoo Auerbach out of Wilt's reach; Auerbach's insistence that a different set of rules applied to Russell, including that Russell could sip tea in the stands during scrimmages and leave the team for days at a time; Auerbach intentionally chewing on a cigar right before confronting a referee, so chunks of cigar would fly from his mouth into the ref's face during his tirade. All of this stuff has been written before, but it's nice to read these anecdotes again and to have them all included in a quick, 180-page read.

But there is value in having Russell tell this story from his perspective and his alone, without other sources chiming in with their views on the Celtics coach. Russell softens Auerbach without uncomplicating him too much. The most common image we have of Auerbach is of a profane, authoritarian coach. Russell doesn't ignore that side of Auerbach; in fact, Auerbach's sideline antics, so infuriating to everyone but the Celtics, drew Russell closer to his coach. Russell cared about little other than winning, and he understood that Auerbach's nasty sideline demeanor was an act designed to intimidate the officials and upset opposing coaches. It was meant to help the Celtics win, and Russell wasn't above using some unpleasant gamesmanship to achieve that goal.

Russell reminds us that Auerbach was also a calm man who dealt with players in a way that is not so different from how Phil Jackson treats his players. That comparison -- unlikely as it may seem, given the cliched image of Jackson as laid back Zen Master -- has been made before, but I'm not sure its ever been spelled out as completely as it is in Russell's book. According to Russell, Auerbach gave his players wide authority to suggest new wrinkles on the team's famous six plays or change strategies during a game. He never screamed at the team after losses, because he knew the players were already down and that his words wouldn't sink in. There are echoes of this in Jackson's book "The Last Season," in which he writes about the importance of players proposing strategic adjustments and not over-practicing or hurting a player's self-esteem.

In the twelfth game of his rookie season, Russell became enraged because Auerbach had Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman trying to post up on offense while Russell stood around, out of position. Auerbach called timeout, and as the other players stood around the coach, Russell sat on the bench, disgusted. Auerbach asked Russell why he wasn't in the huddle. "Everybody else is playing center tonight," Russell recalls complaining. "I don't need to be in the huddle to know how to get out of their way."

This was a rookie talking back to Red Auerbach, though Russell was an outstanding rookie and Auerbach hadn't won an NBA title yet. But still. A rookie can't talk to a coach that way in his twelfth career game. Auerbach thought for a few seconds and then said, "Okay, nobody plays center but Russell." For Russell, a man who disliked authority figures to that point, it showed Auerbach was willing to listen -- and that he would coach to win, not to feed anyone's ego, including his own. It was the same reason why Auerbach didn't try to change Russell's then-revolutionary shot-blocking game when some of his other coaches had urged him to stay on the ground on defense. The shot-blocking worked, and Auerbach understood that. Russell admits that he was too stubborn -- and perhaps too suspicious of white authorities as a relatively radical young black man -- to have gotten along with Auerbach had the coach been an unreasonable tyrant.

To read stories like that for 180 pages is a useful antidote to the more popular -- and just as valid--image of Auerbach. This is not a complete, unbiased biography of Red Auerbach, and it is not meant to be. That's not to say that Russell is sugar-coating. He discusses a couple of Auerbach's careless race-related remarks, such as when Auerbach assumed Russell must have known about Sam Jones, then a college player, because both men were black. And he stresses that Auerbach had no intention of being a civil rights crusader in becoming the first pro coach to start five black players in the early 1960s. They just happened to have been the best players on the team.

Even though this is familiar ground, there are some moving new tidbits here. Russell writes about how he felt sitting one seat behind (and above) Auerbach at Celtics games late in Red's life, an arrangement they preferred because they could chat without turning their heads and missing the game. "I had the sensation that my presence made him feel safe," Russell writes. "And I admit that, for that one instant, I felt that I was still protecting him, the way I always had as a player."

That simple, evocative prose is typical of Russell's writing style. The last scenes, in which Russell describes his final conversations with Auerbach and Auerbach's funeral, are sincerely moving, and I won't ruin them by excerpting them here. But it's wonderful to see the gentle side of the two of the game's fiercest competitors.