It’s the end of an era


Last week Rick Carlisle ‘stepped down’ as coach of the Mavs.

And for the first time in the history of the NBA neither Red Auerbach nor a player drafted or acquired by him had a job as a coach or a general manager.

It would be difficult, if not impossible to understate the impact that Red Auerbach had on the National Basketball Association.

For starters, Red was a professional basketball coach before there was an NBA. Red’s first professional gig (prior to that he had only coached two high school teams) was with the Washington Capitols, one of the charter teams of the BAA.

And then there’s the list of players Red coached or drafted who went on to have coaching or executive gigs:

  • Bill Russell
  • Bob Cousy
  • Tommy Heinsohn
  • Bill Sharman
  • KC Jones
  • Larry Bird
  • Kevin McHale
  • Danny Ainge
  • Rick Carlisle
  • Donnie Nelson
  • Paul Silas
  • Satch Sanders
  • Brian Shaw
  • Don Chaney
  • M. L. Carr
  • Paul Westphal
  • Ed Macauley

From the time that Red Auerbach won his first title in 1957 until 2011, the date that the last player Red drafted won a title, there were 45 NBA championships.

Red won 16 as a coach or GM, and those titles include the titles won by Russell, Heinsohn and Jones as coaches.

Bill Sharman won a title as coach of the Lakers (’72), two titles as GM (’80 & ’82), and three as president of the Lakers (’85, ’87, ’88). In fact, in one capacity or another, Sharman was part of the Lakers’ organization right up until their 2010 title.

Danny Ainge won a title as president of basketball operations in 2008, and Rick Carlisle won a title as coach of the Mavericks in 2011.

Of the 45 NBA titles awarded between 1957 and 2011, either Red or a player drafted by him were instrumental in winning 24 of them. Over half the titles won between 1957 and 2011 went to a team coached by Red, managed by Red, coached by one of Red’s players, or managed by one of Red’s players.

Red and players drafted by him, acquired by him, or who played for him have coached 11,375 games, winning 6,430 of them, for a combined career winning percentage of .565. That total represents almost 139 seasons of basketball.

Only five individuals on that list have career losing records as head coaches.

And that’s just the ‘first generation’ of Red’s coaching tree.

Here is a list of current NBA coaches that have a connection to Red Auerbach:

  • Nate McMillan (Played for KC Jones in Seattle)
  • Steve Nash (played for Mike D’Antoni, who played for Bob Cousy in 1974)
  • James Borrego (played for Gregg Popovich, who was an assistant on Donnie Nelson’s staff in 1992/93)
  • J.B. Bickerstaff (hired by his dad, Bernie Bickerstaff, who was an assistant on KC Jones’ staff at Washington in ’75/76)
  • Dwane Casey (hired to his first head coaching gig by Kevin McHale)
  • Steve Kerr (played for Gregg Popovich, q.v., ’98-01)
  • Stephen Silas (hired by his dad, Paul Silas, in 2010)
  • Tyronn Lue (got his first gig as an NBA assistant from Doc Rivers/Danny Ainge, drafted by Jerry West, who played for and worked for Bill Sharman from ’72 to ’91).
  • Taylor Jenkins (Assistant to Mike Budenholzer, who was himself an assistant for Gregg Popovich, q.v.)
  • Chris Finch (Assistant to Kevin McHale in Houston)
  • Erik Spoelstra (hired by Pat Riley, who played for Bill Sharman)
  • Mike Budenholzer (Assistant to Gregg Popovich, q.v.)
  • Tom Thibodeau (worked for Doc Rivers, hired by Ainge, 2007-2010)
  • Doc Rivers (won a championship with Celtics, hired by Ainge in 2004)
  • Monty Williams (played for Gregg Popovich, q.v.)
  • Luke Walton (assistant to Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich)
  • Gregg Popovich (assistant on Donnie Nelson’s staff in 92/93)
  • Nick Nurse (assistant to Dwane Casey, q.v.)
  • Quinn Snyder (assistant to Mike Brown, 2011/12, who was on Rick Carlisle’s staff at Indiana in 2005/06)

There are currently 23 head coaches in the NBA, and of those 23, 19 have a connection to Red Auerbach.

Now the ‘executive’ spots:

  • Travis Schlenk (worked for Chris Mullen, who played for Don Nelson, and also worked for Pat Riley, who played for Bill Sharman)
  • Brad Stevens (hired as coach by Danny Ainge)
  • Sean Marks (played for and was an assistant coach for Gregg Popovich)
  • Mitch Kupchak (played for Riley)
  • Calvin Booth (played for Kevin McHale)
  • Chad Buchanan (worked for Kevin Pritchard, who played for the Celtics in ’91/92)
  • Pat Riley (played for Bill Sharman, coached while Sharman was GM and president)
  • James Jones (played for Erik Spoelstra, who was hired by Pat Riley)

Granted, there are a number of connections up there that are extremely tenuous. For instance, Gregg Popovich was only an assistant on Don Nelson’s staff for one season, and that was neither Pop’s first season as an assistant nor his last. It was just a stop along the way.

And, to be sure, a great many of these connections are there because Red himself worked for an NBA team in one capacity or another from 1949 to 1997. But it is also a fact that Red worked for the C’s as long as he did because of just how good he was.

It would be difficult to find another individual who played a more important role in the development of the league. Sure, people might talk bout David Stern, but Stern was, at best, a meddler. He did nothing to change the way the game is played, he drafted nobody, he recognized no talent, and he gets a pass for doing a lot of stupid and questionable things—like talking the league’s owners into letting Donald Sterling keep the Clippers back in ’83.

Auerbach, on the other hand, bulldozed every single unspoken policy on race in the league. He won, and as the record indicates, he taught guys how to win. Bill Sharman changed the culture in L.A. when he got there. Don’t believe me? Let Fred Schaus, the Lakers’ GM at the time, say it for me: “I have never known a man like Bill. I have done a lot of coaching in my day, but there is nothing to compare with his dedication and drive. He never stops thinking and talking basketball.”

And did the Lakers’ culture need to be changed? Let Schaus answer that question: “Can you imagine that Wilt hasn’t missed a practice session this season? Now that takes convincing.”

NBA history has been dominated by the Celtics and Lakers, and Red Auerbach played a pivotal role in the development of both those dynasties.

As time passes, Auerbach’s influence on the NBA is only going to diminish, and already there are ‘fans’ for whom he is little more than a cartoon character—the same people who dismiss Bill Russell’s skills as a basketball player because he didn’t score many points and who make fun of old footage of Bob Cousy because when Cousy played, you’d get whistled for a travel if your hand was under the basketball for even a split second. There’s not much hope for these people. For them there is no direct path from basketball the way it was played in 1950 to basketball the way it is played in 2021. There is just ‘good’ (i.e. ‘new’) basketball and ‘bad’ (i.e. ‘old’) basketball for them, and therefore they have little regard for a guy who changed the game of basketball and who changed with the game of basketball.

But Red did more than just guide the Celtics to 16 championships. As a coach and a manager, his record of teaching players how to be coaches themselves is absolutely and unequivocally unprecedented in professional sports.

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