“Let Me Tell You A Story” is a bit unconventional memoir written jointly by Red Auerbach and sports writer John Feinstein. The story of Red’s legendary life in basketball is told from the perspective of Red’s weekly lunches he held later in life at a Chinese restaurant, China Doll, on K Street in Washington DC. At these lunches, he would banter with friends, discuss the intricacies of the sport and most of all reminisce about days gone by. If Collin Powell’s dictum that ‘great leaders are great communicators’ is correct, then by that test alone, Red was one of the greatest leaders of all times. Red himself says in the book, “Coaching, in the end, is about communicating. If you can’t get your players to respect you and buy into what you’re telling them, you don’t win – with or without talent.”
Actually, while the book is absorbing for anyone into coaching or the sport of basketball, what struck me was Auerbach as an exemplar of the balanced Leader/Manager executive. He was someone who had visionary strategy and made big, bold bets for the unprecedented and since unmatched success he felt he could achieve. At the same time constantly respected the downside risks and masterly managed around them. Red Auerbach would rank in any true sports pundit’s list of top 10 coaches of all time of any sport. His 16 world championships as coach and GM (8 straight in the sixties) may never be equalled. Feinstein describes Red as “the man who, for all intents and purposes, invested professional basketball.’
As a leader Auerbach took astonishing risks that paid out hugely. In 1980, he manoeuvred for a top draft pick only to use it on a player who could not play for him for over a year – Larry Bird. As a result, Auerbach endured an long, difficult season short of a key player as well as risked that his franchise pick could stumble in an Indiana game and have his career cut short completely by an injury. That risky move laid the foundation for the second Celtic dynasty which dominated pro basketball (in constant rivalry with the LA Lakers) in its heyday of the eighties.
“Right from the beginning, Red was an innovator, with a remarkable eye for detail. During the first season, he came up with the idea of a ‘sixth man.’ Nowadays, basketball people take the sixth man for granted…Very few teams start their five best players now, always holding someone back on the bench to give the team a burst of energy early in the game. Almost always, the sixth man is on the court in the endgame, and he is usually one of the team’s three top scorers.”
While many great coaches excelled in the ‘sport’, Red understood the whole ‘business’ of the sport. He understood that without fans and revenue, there would not be the resources to support his visions. He innovated with marketing ideas like give-away promotions and playing special venues. He especially appreciated the idiosyncrasies of people and deftly managed the many personnel challenges that faced a group of high performers with daily stresses on and off the court.
Auerbach demonstrated the savvy of both Leader and Manager in his obtaining and keeping what would become a force in basketball perhaps more dominant than Larry Bird – Bill Russell. In going for the upside, he describes the scale of his ‘big bet’ in an account at China Doll: “I had to decide if I was going to put all my eggs in one basket, because that’s what I was doing…I already had people telling me I was crazy to take Russell, that he couldn’t shoot or score. One, I believed Reinhart [his scout] knew what he was talking about. Two, I believed we needed to change. We were a good team, but we weren’t a championship team.” To compound the risk, when Red finally got a chance to watch Russell in action, Russell had a terrible performance. Renowned college coach Bob Knight commented, “Red loved up-tempo basketball, but he understood he was never gong to win championships without the great defender and rebounder, so he changed the team’s style, risked giving up truly great players for Russell. Most guys in his position, winning consistently every year they way they were, wouldn’t have had the guts to do that.” That move is widely viewed as the key the 8 straight championship seasons the Celtics subsequently enjoyed.
Later in the ‘dynasty,’ Red’s concern focused on the intensifying downsides risks. In a masterstroke he appointed Bill Russell as his successor as coach to the fabled team. The move has been interpreted in many ways such as a bold step for civil rights, but actually it was simply inspired management. Knight describes, “It may have been on of the most brilliant moves ever made. When he [Red] stopped coaching, his biggest concern had to be figuring out a way to keep Russell motivated. Bill respected Red and played for him, but wasn’t necessarily going to do that for the next guy. But you could be damn sure that Russell would play hard for Russell. Red knew that.” Under Russell’s coaching, the Celtics won and further two championships in the ensuing three years.