By: Reagan Berube
Red Auerbach ran a major risk. His decision could have angered the NBA, ticked off the media and very possibly alienated the Celtics from their lifeblood - their fans.
One might think such a decision would take days of thought, weeks of reflection.
But not for Auerbach. His decision to use the first-ever all African-American starting five in NBA history had nothing to do with his conscience or the civil rights movement that was beginning to swell in the United States. It had everything to do with winning.
"First of all, I had no idea that I started five black players until a writer pointed it out to me a few weeks later," said Auerbach. "It didn't make a difference to me what color any of my players were. I was putting the five best players out on the court so that we could win."
The 1964-65 season was a crucial one for the Celtics. Bob Cousy, who led the Celtics to their first seven titles, retired at the end of the 1963-64 season. As a result, the Celtics were left without their largest offensive threat and biggest drawing card at the turnstiles.
In an attempt to continue the Celtics championship streak, Auerbach reverted to a team that relied not on scoring, but rather on defense. Bill Russell remained the centerpiece, while Satch Sanders and Tom Heinsohn manned the forward positions. K.C. Jones took over for Cousy at the point guard spot, forming a staunch backcourt unit with Sam Jones.
The Celtics got off to a fast start, winning their first 11 games. They went on to compile an impressive 27-7 mark when an injury that would forever leave its mark on the game struck the team.
"I injured my fascia and couldn't play," said Heinsohn, the only white starter in the Celtics first five. "So Red inserted Willie Naulls in my place. It turned out that Willie fit in well."
For a 12-game span from December 26, 1964 through January 20, 1965, Naulls, a veteran Auerbach had acquired the year before, started in place of the injured Heinsohn, completing the first-ever all African-American starting five in league history.
Boston went unbeaten with Naulls in the starting lineup. Heinsohn returned to the first five when he was fully recovered. But by then the Celtics had already made history and were well on their way to recording their eighth consecutive title.
Although they recognize the problems the move could have caused in a largely white league, at a time when social unrest was on the immediate horizon, those involved cannot recall any ill will from fans or media in Boston.
It proved Auerbach correct, again. Winning is, in fact, a cure-all.
"Red is a genius," said K.C. Jones, who pointed out that Auerbach was also the first man to draft an African-American (Chuck Cooper) and the first man to hire an African-American Head Coach (Bill Russell). "He had such a high degree of intelligence. But at the same time, he just wanted to win. It didn_t matter if it was at basketball or anything else. We used to play racquetball and he would cheat and be foaming at the mouth. He did whatever it took to win."