CHICAGO – The cigar has gone out. But the flame of Red Auerbach, who brightened and illuminated the NBA for 57 years, will never be extinguished.

Auerbach, the greatest non-playing figure in professional basketball history and likely the most successful coach and team executive in NBA history, died Saturday at 89.

An NBA official said Auerbach died of a heart attack near his home in Washington. His death was announced by the Boston Celtics.

Tributes poured in from the sports world for the feisty, competitive Hall of Fame coach and general manager, who went 938-479 primarily coaching the Celtics and building championship teams for four decades. He was the winningest coach in NBA history until Lenny Wilkens overtook him in the 1994-95 season.

“I never thought he’d die,” author John Feinstein told the Associated Press. “He was a unique personality, a combination of toughness and great, great caring about people. He cared about people much more than it showed in his public face, and that’s why people cared about him.”

Known as much for his familiar cigar, which began the trash-talk era decades before it was named, Auerbach was a solid, fundamental coach and brilliant talent evaluator. But he was also an innovator and visionary who popularized the sixth-man role, played the first all-black starting team in major pro sports and hired the first black coach in longtime star Bill Russell.

Cocky and confident and rarely afraid to voice his opinion, Auerbach still was the Celtics’ president at the time of his death.

Though barely 5 feet 10 inches as a spunky guard at George Washington University in the late 1930s, Auerbach became perhaps the most towering figure in the NBA for decades. He drove his Celtics to dynasties never imagined in professional sports and certain never to be repeated.

He coached the Celtics to eight straight NBA titles and nine in 10 years. Then he turned the team over to Russell, who won two more as player-coach with Auerbach’s players.

Auerbach’s teams won twice more in the 1970s and three times in the “80s with players such as Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Dave Cowens. His successes were so feared and resented in the NBA that teams started to avoid dealing with him.

If his coup was stealing Russell in 1956 in a clever trade in which his owner promised the Rochester Royals they’d get the Ice Capades for their arena if they let Russell fall to the Celtics, Auerbach coached a beautiful fast-breaking style featuring unselfish play and rugged defense that remains the model even today.

His teams rarely had league-leading scorers or even many plays. One of his players once said the opponent would know their plays because there were only six. But Auerbach said it was one thing to know them and another to stop them.

Fifty years before there was talk of playing the right way, Auerbach’s Celtics were running, finding the open man, making the extra pass and playing aggressive defense. Simple game, he liked to say.

Frank Ramsay, John Havlicek and McHale, all Hall of Famers, became the models for the modern-day sixth man. Before anyone thought of it, Auerbach reasoned that his teams would get a boost from a top player coming in when the other team’s starters were tiring.

Auerbach always searched for the edge. So he turned up the heat in the opponent’s dressing room in the old Boston Garden or closed down the showers. Anything to annoy and distract the opposition.

Auerbach’s competitiveness was a white-hot poker.

He shunned Alex Hannum, coach of the great 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers, who denied Boston 10 straight titles. Auerbach never acknowledged Hannum’s coaching ability, though Hannum was perhaps the only coach to rival Auerbach in his era.

More recently, Auerbach questioned Phil Jackson’s credentials as Jackson tied him with nine NBA championships. Auerbach possessed the legendary drive seen in just the great ones, such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bird and, of course, Russell.

Though hardly popular among his peers and every bit the curmudgeon, Auerbach had a legion of coaching admirers and proteges such as Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and Morgan Wooten.

Auerbach’s style was not unlike the only other American coach to rival him, John Wooden.

They coached. They didn’t perform. Both eschewed histrionics of sideline activity. They taught in practice and believed in leaving the game to the players. They didn’t use intricate plays or prowl the sideline to make it look like they were working harder. They respected and supported their players and, despite their fame, always had time for those interested in the game.

Even the famous cigar was a commentary. Auerbach had become uncomfortable and angry watching coaches pry extra time out of one-sided games to nourish their egos. So what was his way? Light up a cigar to symbolize it was time to relax, the game was over.

The act infuriated coaches and fans around the NBA. The frustrated Cincinnati Royals of Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas once handed out cigars so fans could blow smoke in Auerbach’s face.

Arnold Jacob “Red” Auerbach was born Sept. 20, 1917, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of Russian immigrants who eventually owned a delicatessen. He was an average student, attending junior college before going to George Washington.

Even when he moved to the Celtics in 1950, his home remained Washington. He became a high school coach and teacher after college, and he served in the Navy in World War II. When he went home, he played ball with several members of the Washington Redskins and ended up coaching the pro football players in games against football players from other NFL teams.

In effect, the NBA was born when owners of NHL teams wanted more business for their arenas. Washington owner Mike Uline had an ice arena and a minor-league team playing there. He saw Auerbach coaching his NFL players and hired him as the first coach of the Basketball Association of America Washington Capitals.

Auerbach recruited players he knew from the Navy and went 49-11 his first season and 115-53 for three years. He coached briefly as an assistant at Duke and then for the NBA Tri-Cities Blackhawks (now Atlanta Hawks) for one season before the Celtics.

He admits not pursuing Bob Cousy, whose fast-breaking, dribbling style fit Auerbach’s philosophy. But he became famous for turning role players into championship pieces, among them Don Nelson, Tom Sanders, K.C. Jones and Dennis Johnson. Even his stars, such as Sam Jones, Robert Parish, Bird, Cousy, Cowens and McHale, were not No. 1 or No. 2 draft picks or were acquired in trade to form the best teams even to play in the NBA.

There were regrets too. Like most driven leaders, Auerbach didn’t pay as much attention to his children as he should have, though their relationships remained strong and close throughout his life.

When he retired as coach, he had many years left. Likewise, when he left as full-time general manager in the mid-1980s.

He abhorred the three-point shot and baggy shorts, the celebrity culture, not hustling. Auerbach had his sideline tantrums and referee baiting and never backed down from a fight. He wasn’t perfect, but no one has done it better.

Auerbach said he never considered himself special, and he detested those who sought fame. He liked to say he believed in principles and values and having the courage of his convictions to stand for them. Asked about a legacy, he mentioned integrity, loyalty, pride, dedication, tenacity. Oh, yes, and winning.


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