The scouting season has started and we will report on our preparations and progress as we hit the trail trying to find the elusive “unknown” which, actually, is not that hard since we have been that way before. But most recent, the NBA and basketball worldwide lost one of the greatest names in the history of the game – Arnold (Red) Auerbach, the coach/general manager/president of the Boston Celtics.
Much has been written of late regarding Auerbach’s coaching and general managership during his long association with Celts. Remember he still was President of Boston when he passed. His career has been certified in virtually every media outlet in the country, make that the world. Why repeat those acclimations?
But the Arnold Auerbach I knew was a totally different person. I guess Bob Cousy and I were only a handful of his friends who called him by his given name. Both of us did this as a mark of respect.
I first knew Auerbach after I joined the Milwaukee Hawks in the summer of 1954, fifty-plus years ago. I had left a baseball position with a public-owned minor league team that was a member of the Class A Eastern Baseball League in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The Cleveland Indians have long associated themselves with the team called the Barons before pulling up stakes in 1952 when most Major League clubs were scaling down their minor league systems.
I had worked in the Indians farm system in a number of capacities. I had a basketball background revolving around two minor leagues, the American Basketball League and the Eastern League, which eventually would become the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), plus an association with Eddie Gottlieb, who was the coach-owner of the Philadelphia Warriors at the time, and Abe Saperstein of the Harlem Globetrotters.
I was originally hired by the Hawks’ owner, Ben Kerner, to be the club’s public relations and publicity director only to find out on arriving in Milwaukee that future Hall of Famer Red Holzman was the coach, Kerner was the owner and the 27-year old new hire (me) was the staff. Hard to believe in this day and age of huge front office personnel. A quick move to St. Louis after another last-place finish in Milwaukee followed in 1955.
Branch Rickey once said, “Luck is the residue of design,” which breaks down to make your own luck. Fate would quickly bring the Celtics and Hawks together to form the dominant rivalry of the late 1950s and early 1960s. A trade involving the two clubs a year later saw Boston obtain the draft rights to Bill Russell and the Hawks obtain veteran Ed Macauley, a St. Louis native and former All-American at St. Louis University, and the rights to two-time Kentucky All-American Cliff Hagan, soon to be discharged from the Air Force.
The deal was originally scheduled to be consummated without Russell’s name entering the picture. Everyone figured that the Rochester Royals would tab Russell with the top pick of the 1956 draft. Boston was expected to tell St. Louis to take Sihugo Green, a defensive whiz from Duquesne University, and convey his contract to him (St. Louis had the second pick that year). A little known fact saw the New York Knicks get involved earlier, offering center Walter Dukes to Rochester for that pick. But the deal fell through when the Royals’ asked for other considerations.
Rochester eventually took Green with the top spot. The Hawks had a done deal with Boston and handed over Russell and St. Louis secured two players who would help them win five straight Western Division titles and an NBA title in 1958. Thus, the Hawks franchise was established and a rivalry was triggered that would become the envy of the other franchises.
Enter Mr. Auerbach.
Much has been written about his belligerent activities on the bench and of his truculent and bellicose attitude towards referees and other teams. Later in the rivalry he would punch Hawks owner Kerner in the face after Ben started yelling at Auerbach for questioning the height of a basket. His intense approach to the game would rub off on other coaches as the Celtics became the most feared (and possibly hated) team of that period.
“Nobody likes Goliath,” the Dipper, Wilt Chamberlain, once told me.
But Arnold must have seen something in a young man handling multiple tasks for the Hawks and a friendship was to come about.
The St. Louis fans were among the most boisterous in the league during their Missouri stay. Sell-outs between the two clubs, even during the season, were the norm, especially in St. Louis, and playoff tickets were hard to get. On court battles between the two clubs often occurred because of instigation by Boston, although the Hawks were not exactly blameless.
Once Auerbach remarked that he was surprised nobody had tossed an egg at him. The next Boston appearance saw several eggs tossed from the upper deck as he first approached the Celtics bench. After the game (which Boston won), Auerbach grabbed me and laughed, “What lousy aim your fans had.”
“Arnold,” I said, “they came a lot closer than they were supposed to.”
In the 1950s we often traveled with the Celtics in preseason playing cities like Nashville and Memphis and college campuses like Bowling Green and Lexington (Kentucky) among others. One year I had Boston on an extended swing which was to end in Alexandria, Louisiana – close by Baton Rouge, the hometown of Bob Pettit.
Before we started that tour, Red had told me that the Celtics and Philadelphia Warriors with Wilt were to play a preseason game in New Orleans immediately after the Alexandria date and asked if I would take a day off from our preseason schedule to help run the game. Along on that trip was Purcell Johnson, an Army buddy of Lenny Wilkens (both were officers at Fort Lee, Va.), and an avid hoops junkie who lived in St. Louis and often made trips with our team. Purcell and I filled up the Boston chartered plane (I also had to arrange travel schedules for lots of teams that played us) with game balls, the two 24-second clocks (cumbersome units unlike the streamline version teams use today), stats info and other items.
When we landed in New Orleans following the Alexandria game, Auerbach took me aside and mentioned that I had to dig up a stats crew and asked if I would handle the 24-second clock and the public address announcing that night. It seems that the game was Boston’s and the owner of the Celtics at that time, Marvin Kratter, had a huge real estate development in that city.
Naturally, the game was a sellout at Loyola University which seated around 6,000, but probably more people than that attended the game. Arnold handed me a credit card, explained that his owner was probably not going to pay me anything, and told me to charge everything to him and that he would take care of it. Boston had arranged a suite and a rental car for Purcell and I. In the company of Cliff Hagan, one of our payers who was going to take in the game the next day (St. Louis was off before moving over to Shreveport to play another NBA team), and one of the NBA referees, or maybe both of them, we headed for the French Quarter.
Anyone who has visited New Orleans knows that Felix’s, a local fish emporium, stays open until the wee hours.
“I’ve got Red’s credit card,” I explained and the four of us had a rather memorable late evening meal.
Auerbach’s last words to me were to get a tux because “Marvin wanted a big show.”
I remember getting up early, calling Loyola to arrange practice times (Boston had already done that) and asking them to put together a stats crew. Resplendent in a new tuxedo, I took nearly 10 minutes introducing both teams, much to the delight of Kratter who must have had the whole first row jam-packed with his customers.
Purcell and I barely made the plane the next morning. Grabbing the clocks and assorted balls and equipment, we commandeered two huge baggage carts and rushed to our gate. The best thing we did was hand our car keys to a startled policeman who was directing traffic in the street in front of the baggage line. We explained that we had to rejoin our team and asked if he would call the rental company and give them our keys and billing. He must have done it since I never heard from anyone after that.
When I returned to St. Louis after our next series, Hawks owner Ben Kerner said Auerbach had called and asked him to give me $500 off their end. It must have embarrassed Kerner because he started to cut me in on our preseason profits from then on.
Some years we played 20 preseason games all over the country, usually with Boston, Syracuse, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and the Lakers among others. We were to open the West Coast to pro basketball and Las Vegas and Phoenix as well. Arnold was his own player personnel man and his own scout and in later years we would often hook up on scouting trips even when he was coaching. Renting a car was not on my agenda so Arnold would arrange the transportation. After many a game on the road, he would take me to a Chinese restaurant for a postgame meal, even in cities so small you would think none existed. He loved Chinese food and he even owned a couple of Chinese restaurants in the Boston area I’ve been told. But on the West Coast, none.
Many a night we would drive up into the heart of Beverly Hills where he had a favorite delicatessen or two that stayed open late. He thought a meal of chopped liver and hot pastrami was just the ticket to end the day or start the morning. Everything Arnold did was first class.
After he gave up coaching, we saw each other frequently, usually in Washington, D.C. when I attended games involving Georgetown, George Washington or even Maryland, or on the road whenever he would hit the scouting trail. When he found out our oldest son, Eliot, was attending Georgetown, he kept insisting that I call Eliot and offer the use of one of his cars.
The last time I saw him, he invited me to lunch prior to a GW game. I got to the press entrance early to meet him. He drove up to the front of the entrance in a big new Lexus, tossed the keys to a nearby policeman, introduced me to the Colonials long-time athletic director Jack Kvancz, then grabbed my arm and off we went.
Space restraints prevent me from listing a couple of dozen other instances in which he took me under his wing, especially in 1970 when I left the Atlanta Hawks shortly after we signed our top draft pick that year, Pete Maravich. The Pistol received a five-year deal for $400,000 per and I had little to do with that signing. When I started my scouting service, he was one of the first to sign on (as were the Hawks). He always said, “I know this is what you love to do but don’t forget where I am if you ever need anything.”
I never told anyone about that conversation.
I can’t say enough about the real Arnold Auerbach, a most misunderstood individual who taught all of us about basketball and life and who will remain a part of our lives forever.