Emperor of the Celtic Dynasty
This is one of two best sports biographies that I have read in recent years, the other being Jeff Davis’ Papa Bear: The Life and Legacy of George Halas. Both Auerbach and Halas were obviously great coaches but also outstanding CEOs, each building a successful and profitable franchise while playing a key role in a multi-billion dollar professional organization. In this instance, the National Basketball Association.
Although generally viewed as a sportswriter, Feinstein has always seemed (to me, at least) to be a cultural anthropologist who works very hard to understand not only major sports figures and events but also their social context. This is especially true of A March to Madness: A View from the Floor in the Atlantic Coast Conference, The Last Amateurs: Playing for Glory and Honor in Division I College Basketball, A Civil War: Army Vs. Navy (A Year Inside College Football’s Purest Rivalry), and A Season on the Brink, a detailed account of the Indiana University men’s basketball team’s 1985-1986 season.
What we have in this volume is Feinstein’s account of his close association with Arnold (“Red”) Auerbach over a four-year period during which Feinstein was included among a select few who regularly met with Auerbach for lunch almost every week at the China Doll restaurant in Washington (DC). What emerges is a multi-dimensional portrait of Auerbach as revealed by his and others’ reminiscences and observations. Feinstein also includes relevant information from his extensive research on Auerbach, the N.B.A., the Boston Celtics teams Auerbach coached, and their opponents.
By all accounts, he was a ferocious but highly-principled competitor. Agreeing with Sun Tzu that every battle is won or lost before it is fought, Auerbach drove his carefully selected players hard during the pre-season (and whenever the N.B.A. schedule allowed a practice) but then allowed them to play to their individual talents while insisting that they do so as a team. He expresses contempt for coaches who draw attention to themselves during a game in progress as well as for selfish or lazy players. All of his favorite coaches (notably Dean Smith, Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, and Morgan Wootten) were/are dedicated teachers as well as strict disciplinarians and relentless taskmasters, renowned for developing individual talent while never allowing team integrity to be compromised. It is no coincidence that these same coaches are also among those whose teams have won the most games as well as numerous conference and national championships.
Of greatest interest to me are Auerbach’s self-revelations, most of which preceded by “Did I ever tell you about….?” or “Let me tell you about….” He seems eager to share stories about everyone he has known, with two exceptions: Len Bias, the University of Maryland All-American who died of a drug overdose immediately after being drafted #1 by the Celtics, and, Reggie Smith who was the Celtics captain when dying of a massive heart attack during a pickup game. “Both names bring a cloud to his face, a look of sadness. They are, without question, the two most tragic figures in the history of the Celtics.” Feinstein provides a wealth of information about the sad circumstances in Chapter 8, “Dark Days.”
Auerbach continues to have many close friends and countless admirers, not only in basketball or even in the sports world but throughout almost all elements of American society. For whatever reasons (Feinstein suggests several), he retains a certain mystique…especially for those who recall all the great Celtics teams and their N.B.A. Hall of Famers which include Auerbach; also Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Frank Ramsey, Bill Russell, and Bill Sharman.
Perhaps Auerbauch’s closest personal friend in the media, the Boston Globe‘s Will McDonough offers these comments about him. “First, he’s smarter than you, he’s smarter than me, he’s smarter than just about all of us. He’s got an amazing feel for people. That’s what made him a great coach. People say he had great players. Who do you think chose those players? [Auerbach’s Celtic teams won nine league championships in ten years with talent which he fully developed.] Every one of those guys is in the Hall of Fame. But every one of them listened to Red and did whatever he told them they had to do in order to win. That’s why he always said that he never `handled’ players. He never tried to handle anyone. He was completely honest with them, told them what was expected of them, and gave them a choice: my way or the highway. There was never any ambiguity.”
Many of us who read this book will be somewhat envious of Feinstein because he was able to have lunch almost every Tuesday with Auerbach and his cronies, privy to what must have been exceptionally lively, often confrontational conversations. But we are also grateful that he shares so much of those conversations as well as much of what was revealed to him during interviews of hundreds of others who also had a close association with Arnold (“Red”) Auerbach, arguably the greatest basketball coach ever and without doubt one of the most interesting human beings I have as yet encountered.
Note: Feinstein’s latest and, in my opinion, his best book thus far, One on One, has just been published. For those of us who cherish sports journalism of the very highest quality, it is a “must read.”