The Celtics' odd couple

Sharing little but drive and basketball, they forged bond

Red Auerbach got some help cooling down from Bill Russell after Boston won its seventh NBA championship. Red Auerbach got some help cooling down from Bill Russell after Boston won its seventh NBA championship. (Associated Press)
By Aram Goudsouzian
May 31, 2009
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My Coach, My Lifelong Friend

By Bill Russell With Alan Steinberg
Harper, 208 pp., $24.99

"We are not particularly friends," wrote Bill Russell about Red Auerbach in his 1966 memoir "Go Up for Glory." In clipped and bitter language, Russell described them both as moody, driven loners. He recalled snapping back at his coach's bossy directives. "As far as Auerbach's attitude towards Negroes," he added, "I feel in all honesty that he can be characterized as a middle-of-the-roader," a supporter of racial justice only insofar as it benefited the Boston Celtics.

Russell has now penned "Red and Me," a warm and thoughtful celebration of their longer friendship. He describes an evolving relationship built on mutual respect. Their journey began with shared appreciation of each other's contributions to winning basketball. It continued with esteem for each other's independent spirits. It finished - in October 2006, after Auerbach died of a heart attack - with the understated affection of two proud, smart men whose partnership laid the cornerstone for one of the greatest dynasties in American sports history.

Both accounts are genuine. The Russell of "Go Up for Glory" was grappling with his own sense of identity amid the political and social upheavals of the 1960s. He challenged the worth of his athletic celebrity. He attacked Boston's often racist, clannish culture. He questioned the nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement. And he skewered any myth that portrayed sport as honorable, heroic, or inherently democratic - including any image of the Celtics as promoters of racial cooperation or of Auerbach as a benevolent father figure.

The Russell of "Red and Me," by contrast, can reflect with pride upon his alliance with Auerbach. The Celtics won their first NBA championship in 1957, Russell's rookie season. Between 1959 and 1966 Boston won eight consecutive titles. When Auerbach left the bench to concentrate on his duties as general manager, Russell became the first black coach of a major professional sports franchise. In 1968 and 1969, he player-coached the Celtics to two more championships. He redefined basketball defense, won five MVP awards, and developed into an icon of African-American achievement and pride.

He has also found peace with himself, both within and beyond basketball. Even amid his tumult, he professed loyalty to Auerbach, who valued his ideas and contributions. Over time, that respect fostered friendship. Russell writes: "Our core philosophies - of how to be men, how to be professionals, how to be friends - were in tune, so we never had to talk about who we were or how to conduct ourselves. We just lived it."

Russell recalls the development of his own value system. His grandfather pushed back against racial oppression in Jim Crow Louisiana. His mother died when he was 12, but not before her doting love inculcated him with self-worth. His father's responsibility, independence, and pride showed him the meaning of manhood.

So in the 1950s, while winning two NCAA championships at the University of San Francisco and a gold medal at the Melbourne Olympics, Russell resented popular expectations that black athletes exude humility and deference. When he entered the NBA, he harbored both piercing sensitivities and ballooning self-confidence.

Auerbach contradicted Russell's earlier experiences with coaches. While others tried reining in his unorthodox leaping, shot-blocking style, Auerbach realized that Russell's talents fueled Boston's fast-break attack. Despite his reputation as a petty dictator, Auerbach solicited his players' input. He encouraged one-on-one conversations. He praised those who shared his obsessive devotion to winning. He tailored his motivational tactics to individual personalities, including his iconoclastic center.

With the Celtics' blessings, Russell loafed through practices or skipped them altogether. His teammates knew how much energy Russell expended during games, and they trusted Auerbach's decisions. Russell appreciated how his coach fostered a democratic culture - even if the outside society remained prejudiced.

Russell relates Auerbach's evolution on racial matters, including some early missteps. In 1961, a hotel coffee shop in Lexington, Ky., refused service to some of his teammates. Russell led the black players in a boycott of that night's exhibition game. Auerbach pleaded that they honor their commitment, but upon grasping the depths of their resentment, he drove them to the airport himself.

"I don't think Red ever had a complete understanding of my views on race, but he respected them because he respected me," writes Russell. Auerbach promoted him to player-coach in 1966 not out of liberal sentiment, but because he trusted Russell's opinions and authority. Auerbach considered it irrelevant that Russell's fearless honesty attracted racist scorn in Boston and beyond. In their new positions, they consulted frequently, enriching their relationship. Auerbach gave advice only in private, never compromising Russell's authority with the players.

Russell retired in 1969 and returned to Boston only sporadically for many years, yet together they reached "a state of serenity." Neither liked revealing his innermost feelings, and neither probed into the other's personal business. They understood each other through subtle gestures. Each man nevertheless accepted the other on his own terms, and they appreciated the fruits of their common devotion.

"Red and Me" lacks the fiery spirit of "Go Up for Glory" or the contrarian genius of Russell's 1979 memoir, "Second Wind." But if it introduces a new generation to the particular talents of Russell and Auerbach, this slim, elegant book serves a valuable purpose.

Aram Goudsouzian teaches history at the University of Memphis. The University of California Press is publishing his forthcoming biography of Bill Russell.

RED AND ME: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend By Bill Russell

With Alan Steinberg

Harper, 208 pp., $24.99

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