"It is far more important to understand than to be understood" (Red and Me by Bill Russell with Alan Steinberg). This sums up who Red Auerbach was as a person, as a coach and as a friend. He didn't care what you thought of him. If you had the opportunity to play for him and had the honour of his friendship, he would walk through fire for you. Red and Me is the fourth book written by Bill Russell, this time with the help of Alan Steinberg, and is by far and large, the best book we've discussed all summer. I took this book personally and it's not too often books do this. As you know from following "Jiggly Bits" and "Basketball Beyond the Floor" here on the DNB, even if I decide a book is unworthy of revisiting, I know there is knowledge gained from spending time with it. This is what makes reading so worthwhile and very important. It helps you think outside the box. Even if you are not a Celtics fan, you need to read this book. It found me through doing this feature and I will be forever grateful. Let's dig in.
Apples and Oranges
When Red Auerbach coached and Bill Russell played for the Boston Celtics, it was a different era in professional basketball. For one thing, Red Auerbach was white and Bill Russell was black. In today's day and age, it's not a big deal if there are friendships between whites, blacks, indians, chinese and the list goes on. But in 1956 when Bill Russell joined the Boston Celtics, he was still dealing with segregation and racism. As Russell describes in the book, he came from the deep south of the 1930s and 1940s, so he grew up in an environment where being friendly to whites was not cool. And all his life he dealt with 'unfriendly coaches', as he puts it. So when he was teamed up with Auerbach, he wasn't expecting much. But how quickly that changed. In the book, he describes the team travelling to Lexington, Kentucky in the early 60s. Russell and some of the other black players on the team tried to get food at the hotel restaurant and as it turned out, the restaurant didn't serve blacks. Red Auerbach called the owner and got them a private suite to eat in. When that wasn't good enough, he called again and convinced the owner to change his ways and the restaurant no longer segregated the establishment. This was huge. This was just a fraction of who he was off the court. After reading this, it makes you glad you didn't meet him on the court. A pretty close comparison? A volcano waiting to erupt.
Go to War with Me
Red Auerbach shows his coaching prowess when he talks about NBA referees: "I can't expect my players to fight for me if I don't fight for them. Besides that, if every time they make a tough call against us I raise holy hell, they might think twice and change their call because they'll know I'll be right up their ass". I don't necessarily agree with this line of thinking regarding referees but the part about fighting for his players, I do. The one thing Red Auerbach had going for him was his sense of respect above anything else. Bill Russell describes in the book what he calls a turning point in his career. It came in the 12th game of his rookie year. Bob Cousy was asked what play to call by Coach Auerbach during some point in the game. Cousy called a play that would get everyone out of position. So during the next huddle, a similar play was called and Russell sat down (Everyone stood in the huddles back then - so this was a way of silently protesting). When someone asked why he was sitting, Bill Russell replies "I play center. Everybody else is playing center tonight. I don't need to be in the huddle to know how to get out of their way". Auerbach then says, "Okay, nobody plays center but Russell". And that was that. This is not to say Russell threw a hissy fit and got his way. He was not feeling like he was a part of the team and voiced his concerns. As a rookie in his 12th game back then, to do that took guts. If that were today, you would get chewed out and sent to the locker room.
Be Careful Where you Tread
"All of us have this dark place inside us where we don't allow anyone else to go. Yet all our lives, we seek to let someone get a glimpse of that place and maybe reach inside and touch us. Just a touch - anymore than that would be too much to bear. The closer the friendship, the more often they get a glimpse, but it always remains our private sanctuary" (Bill Russell in Red and Me). Red Auerbach died on October 28, 2006. Bill Russell describes in the book, first hearing the news and later attending the funeral. He really had an interesting way of looking at life and death, I think. In Russell's eyes, a funeral is meant to celebrate the deceased person's life. He says he tried to be strong for Red Auerbach's children but when you loose someone that close to you, it's hard to prevent the tears from falling. In the days after, Bill Russell played golf and tried to do everything that he normally would have. I need remember this philosophy for next funeral I need to attend. My defense mechanism is joking around. I was at a funeral once and made a comment about someone who should clearly not be wearing leather pants (sorry, not a fan of them). I was quiet and the ceremony hadn't started yet, but a family member felt the need to remind me it was a funeral and I need to show respect. True. But it's not as if I took the microphone from the priest during the ceremony and called out Miss Leather Pants. My sister defended me by saying everyone deals with death in different ways. So there. I took a page out of the Bill Russell book of philosophy and showed you a glimpse of the dark side. If you wear leather pants, my apologies and I hope I didn't offend. I was grasping at straws then, in more ways than one.
What Bill Russell and Red Auerbach accomplished as colleagues and friends, transcended basketball. I don't think I will ever see another tandem like this in professional sports in my lifetime.
Flick Pick of the Week
This weekend, look up "Amazing Grace and Chuck". It's a movie about a boy quitting little league to protest nuclear weapons. NBA star Alex English who plays a fictional Boston Celtics Star, Amazing Grace Smith, joins him in protest by quitting basketball. I picked this one because of the Celtics connection and Red Auerbach makes a cameo.
Next Thursday, we will be discussing The Gold Standard: Building a World-Class Team By Mike Krzyzewski with Jamie K. Spatola. Some inspiring words from another great coach? I hope so. See you on Tuesday for another serving of "Jiggly Bits" and until then, happy reading.