By Robert Gluck/JNS.org
At the start of each nationally televised game of the 2013 NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat, ABC aired a film-clip montage of basketball’s great players and coaches—a montage that included Jewish coach Arnold “Red” Auerbach, the mastermind behind nine championship teams for the Boston Celtics.
Red was one of four children of Marie and Hyman Auerbach. Hyman was a Russian-Jewish immigrant who left Belarus when he was 13. The couple owned a deli and later went into the dry-cleaning business. Red spent his whole childhood in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, mostly playing basketball.
Auerbach died in 2006 at age 89. What made him so great? Some say his toughness and his background.
“Growing up in Brooklyn, Red always put a high value on toughness,” David Vyorst, executive producer of the 2008 Jewish basketball documentary “The First Basket,” for which Auerbach was interviewed, told JNS.org. “He always stood up for himself. His daughter got into a fight in school one day and she came home and told Red. He was ecstatic, smiling ear to ear.”
After his playing days were over, Auerbach coached and worked in the Celtics’ front office, and always carefully crafted a competitive team. After he acquired Bill Russell, the Celtics became the most dominant franchise in pro basketball history. From 1950-1966, Auerbach coached the Celtics to nine titles, including eight in succession from 1959-1966. His career record was 938-479 (.662 winning percentage) in the regular season play and 99-69 (.589) in the postseason.
Remembered as a pioneer of modern basketball, Auerbach redefined the sport as a game dominated by team play and defense. The Spurs, already winners of four titles in the Popovich era, are a team whose success has rested on these two values. The defending-champion Heat, meanwhile, with their quick and athletic roster headlined by four-time NBA Most Valuable Player Lebron James, are among the league’s best teams at executing the fast break—an offensive strategy Auerbach introduced to the game.
Auerbach was also vital in breaking down color barriers in the NBA. He made history in 1950 by drafting Chuck Cooper, the first black NBA player, introduced the first all-black starting five in 1964, and in 1966 made Russell the first black NBA coach.
Vyorst said Auerbach had a color-blind attitude about building his teams—an attitude through which his signature toughness was also apparent.
“Red’s attitude was, this guy was the better player, I’m drafting him. You want to start a fight about it? I’m right here,” Vyorst told JNS.org.
Vyorst—whose interview of Auerbach for “The First Basket” was the first time Auerbach spoke on the record about his Jewish background—explained how Auerbach was a brilliant psychologist behind the bench and knew how to get under the skin of his opponents.
“The phrase ‘working the refs’ comes from Red,” Vyorst said. “He was famous for arguing with the referees. This wasn’t accidental, it was calculated.”
Narrated by Peter Riegert, “The First Basket” begins with the statement, “Basketball. Before going global it rebounded off of a few Jewish neighborhoods. Who knew?” Ozzie Shectman, the Jewish basketball player who made the first field goal in what evolved into the NBA, inspired the title of the film.
“The film is about the cultural history of Jewish basketball players, not only of how they contributed to the evolution of the NBA, but how basketball is an essential part of American Jewish history,” Vyorst said.
Auerbach paved the way for other Jews to become successful in basketball, including the current owner of the 2013 NBA champion Heat, Micky Arison. Miami won its second title in a row June 20 with a 95-88 Game 7 win over San Antonio. Born in Israel but brought to America by his father, the late Ted Arison, in the early 1950s, Micky attended the University of Miami. He went on to join his father in his multifaceted Carnival Corporation, eventually taking the role of CEO and helping to build the company into the world’s largest cruise operator. In 1995 he acquired the Heat. Arison’s wealth, according to Forbes, is calculated to be $5.7 billion, making him the 211th-richest person in the world.
Auerbach’s road to glory was a bit different than Arison’s. Auerbach grew up in a Jewish community in Brooklyn where basketball was extremely popular, and being a competitive person, he excelled at the sport, Vyorst said.
“Red grew up amidst the culture where basketball was the biggest thing socially and culturally,” Vyorst said. “One of the main places basketball spread was in New York. It was one of the most prominent institutions in Jewish communities and it’s never been given due credit for the way it shaped Jewish culture. Basketball took off like wildfire among the first generation of Jewish kids. Now it’s everywhere. They wanted to play an American sport, basketball, to assimilate.”
Auerbach is “the greatest coach ever in any sport,” and his influence on the game of basketball is still felt today, socially and strategically, Vyorst said.
In a clip near the end of Vyorst’s film, sitting in his office full of trophies and awards, Auerbach says there is no secret to winning.
“Be prepared and work hard,” Auerbach says. “Play hard and play harder than the other guy and you’ll win.”
That sentiment encapsulates Auerbach’s legacy, Vyorst said.
“He’s the greatest coach ever in any sport,” Vyorst told JNS.org. “The main thing I got from Red, and I like to think this is a Jewish value, was his secret to winning, which was his work ethic. Practice harder and be smarter than the other guys.”
Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.