LIANE HANSEN, host:
The world of professional basketball has lost one of its brightest lights. Red Auerbach, the legendary coach and general manager of the Boston Celtics, died yesterday of a heart attack. He was 89 years old. Born in Brooklyn, Auerbach played college basketball. He was adequate, but no star. That changed when he became a coach. In his first year with the Washington Capitals in the late '40s, the team had a 49-11 season and made the playoff semifinals. In 1950, Auerbach took over the helm of the Boston Celtics and began to build a dynasty. The Celtics never had a losing record during his 16 years as their coach. In 1966, he became general manager of the team and hired player Bill Russell as coach.
Auerbach stepped down as general manager in 1984, but retained the title of team president. Under his leadership the Celtics won 16 national championships. Red Auerbach lived in Washington, D.C. During his last years, he would meet at a local restaurant every week with a variety of sports buddies. One of them was author and NPR commentator John Feinstein, who wrote a book with Auerbach called Let Me Tell You a Story.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: He put together one of the great dynasties in the history of sports. You talk the Yankees, you talk the Celtics, you talk the Canadians, maybe Notre Dame Football. But Red was responsible for the Celtics dynasty. He got there in 1950 when they were about to fold, ended up coaching and being a general manager for 16 NBA champions. But I think maybe the less obvious part of his legacy is he was the first coach, I believe, in sports who completely transcended the question of race. He could care less if you were black, white blue or green. He was the first guy to hire an African American to be a head coach, Bill Russell, in 1966. And the last thing he wants you to do is say, you know, you were a great civil rights leader. He'll tell you he did it all because he wanted to win.
HANSEN: Two years ago, NPR's Steve Inskeep went to one of those lunches and asked Red Auerbach if star players making millions of dollars with no-cut contracts made life more difficult for the coach.
Mr. RED AUERBACH (Boston Celtics): Well, players get complacent. In other words, if a guy's guaranteed 100 million dollars for seven years, how do you discipline that guy? How do you motivate him? It's very difficult.
(Soundbite of broadcast)
Unidentified Man (Sportscaster): Greer is putting the ball in play. He gets it out. (Unintelligible) steals it (unintelligible) stole the ball! It's all over! It's all over!
STEVE INSKEEP: Auerbach says he won by picking team players and by teaching. He was a schoolteacher before he went into coaching.
Mr. AUERBACH: A good coach will tell you what to do and everything like that, but a great coach will tell you what to do in such a way that you will absorb it and you will react. See, it's not what you say; it's what they hear.
INSKEEP: I'd love it if you can remember an example of that, where you feel like you delivered a very small specific message to somebody in a way that the player really understood it immediately, and it changed things.
Mr. AUERBACH: Well, the main thing you do is you don't talk too much. You try not to over-coach. I remember in a playoff game one time, we went in there and the guys were sitting around, they were all tensed up. I says, your palms are wet, you're nervous; I said, what are you nervous about? I say, think how nervous they are knowing that they have to play you. So just go out there and get the job done and do what you did to get here. That's a pre-game speech. And none of this win one for the Gipper stuff.
INSKEEP: Just keep people loose.
Mr. AUERBACH: Right. It all boils down to did the shot go in. I remember Cardinal Cushing, who was a friend of mine, I said to him, what about these Catholic boys, they get up on the foul line and they make a little cross on their forehead before they're shooting a free throw. I said, Cardinal does that help them? He says, yeah, if they can shoot. That's a true story.
HANSEN: Red Auerbach. The legendary Boston Celtics coach died yesterday at the age of 89.