Red Auerbach Recalled by John Feinstein

Basketball legend Red Auerbach has died. He was 89. Auerbach coached the Boston Celtics to nine NBA titles, creating one of the greatest dynasties in sports.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

You might have read over the weekend that basketball coaching legend Red Auerbach has died.

(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)

Mr. RED AUERBACH (Former Coach, Boston Celtics): A good coach will tell you what to do and everything like that. But a great coach will tell what to do in such a way that you'll absorb it and you will react. See, it's not what you say, it's what they hear.

MONTAGNE: That is, of course, Red Auerbach. He was speaking to NPR two years ago. He began coaching in the NBA in 1946, and later he led the Boston Celtics to 16 championships as coach and general manager. Commentator John Feinstein was a close friend, and he joins us now. Good morning.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Eighty nine years old, and most of those years it seems in basketball. It's hard to know where to begin when considering Red Auerbach's legacy.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: You're right. He essentially invented the NBA. As you said, he was there when it started in 1946. He took an almost bankrupt franchise in the Celtics in 1950 and turned them into the greatest dynasty certainly in basketball history with those 16 titles, including eight straight at one point. No one else in sports has ever won eight straight titles that way.

But he was so much more than that, Renee. He drafted the first African-American player in 1950, was the first to start five African-Americans in 1963, made Bill Russell the first African-American coach of a major sports franchise in 1966. He was, as you heard in that bit of tape, a great communicator. When he talked, people did hear. Not just players, but everybody in his life. He was an extraordinary man, not just an extraordinary coach.

MONTAGNE: And of all the moves he made, I know one stands out for you as particularly important.

FEINSTEIN: Well, in 1956 he knew he wanted to draft a player named Bill Russell out of the University of San Francisco, but the Rochester Red Wings had the first pick in the NBA draft. And so Red went to his owner, Walter Brown, who owned the Ice Capades, and got him to convince Les Harrison, the owner in Rochester, to not take Russell in return for the Ice Capades going to Rochester for a week. Rochester took Sihugo Green, Red took Bill Russell, the Celtics won 11 of their next 13 NBA titles. And, you know, as they say, the rest is history.

MONTAGNE: I'm wondering if there was a secret, if you will, to his success, I mean something people don't actually understand.

FEINSTEIN: He was unique in his ability to get people to understand why he was telling them something, even if it was negative. I remember Morgan Wootten, arguably the greatest high school coach of all time, who Red was very close to, talking about a game he had lost and Red telling him: I heard you in every time out, all you talked about was your offense; you weren't having trouble scoring. You never talked about your defense; you've got to feel the game better than that. Morgan said it was the most important coaching suggestion he ever got. And he always had a way of getting people to be better at whatever they were doing.

MONTAGNE: Now even in retirement he was still involved with the team. But, John, you were very close to him, do you have a personal memory that you'd want to share with us?

FEINSTEIN: I've got a bunch of them. But, you know, Red adored children, and he became very close to my son Danny, who's now 12. And we would sit together at basketball games and they would talk hoops all the time. And we were having trouble getting Danny to get up for school a few years ago in the morning, like many parents. And I went to Red, because I knew how much Danny loved him, and said, could you do me a favor and give Danny a call, tell him he needs to get up in the mornings and get out to school? And Red said, no way. I said, what do you mean no way? He said, I don't want Danny to ever think that I'm on your side and not his.

MONTAGNE: John, thanks very much

FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGE: John Feinstein speaking about Red Auerbach, who died Saturday at 89. John is the author of Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game with Red Auerbach.

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