Winning Still His Business

Around the league, he was the man you love to hate. Donald Duck in the NBA.

He was cantankerous, combative, contentious, controversial, even contemptuous. He loved a brawl. The eyes were bold, unyielding. He never ducked a fight. He could be as sarcastic as a Marine sergeant.

He didn’t care if he antagonized you. Popularity bored him. He wanted to beat you, not charm you. He didn’t much care how he did it. The more contumely, the better. He relished argument.

But he was the best in the world at what he did. What Vince Lombardi was to pro football, Casey Stengel to pro baseball, General Patton to war, Red Auerbach was to pro basketball.


Other coaches built championships. Auerbach built dynasties. The Boston Celtics, under Red Auerbach, became the definitive franchise of the game. What the Yankees were to baseball, Notre Dame to football, the Celtics were to basketball.

Auerbach made them that way.

Red never bothered to add the grace note. There was no “side” to Red Auerbach. What you saw was what you got. He had the nice even disposition of a Times Square traffic cop whose teeth ached.

He was impatient, discourteous, at times. He battled the fans, referees, owners and the league with the same degree of skill and enthusiasm.


You were either for the Celtics or against them. There was no middle ground with Red. Neutrality was for the Swiss. Red liked people involved.

The year before he joined the Celtics, their record was 22-46. Under him, as coach, they never had a losing season. In his 40-year tenure as coach or general manager, they’ve had only three.

Bill Russell made the Celtics originally. But it was Red Auerbach who flimflammed the league and got him. Just as it was Red Auerbach who later got John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Robert Parish, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. Like Branch Rickey in baseball, Red Auerbach could spot a winning player from the window of a moving train.

He was more than a mentor. Other men looked at stats. Auerbach looked at the man. He didn’t want stars. He didn’t even want starters. The “sixth man” concept originated with Auerbach. He made Havlicek the greatest man to come off the bench since Oliver Wendell Holmes.


Ordinarily, when big business wants to find techniques for success, it turns to its own, to the marketplace.

But business has always been envious of the success of its brethren in the sports industry. It has marveled at the ability of some to repeatedly out-perform their competition and inspire a loyalty and productivity on the part of their work force that translates into riches. If you can beat the Detroit Pistons at their own game, why not the Japanese? If you can keep ahead of the NBA, why not Germany? If you can sell basketball, why not refrigerators?

So, Red Auerbach was in such demand as a motivational speaker, he has now undertaken to bring out a book that will sell his secrets of success to the world.

It’s called “MBA” but that’s not something out of the Harvard Business School. It stands for “Management by Auerbach.”


Red thinks that his methods are as applicable to running an auto plant as they are to running the fast break.

Red’s tactics might not make the bulletin board at the Wharton School of Finance. But maybe they should. A few of them:


Auerbach: “I could give you the whole speech in a word-- cheat ! Now, what I mean is, in hockey, if you play a fast team, you have slow ice. You melt it a little. If you have a team with ground-ball pitchers, you let the grass grow. When you’re facing a team with a fast break, you put up new netting, which will slow the ball coming down through it. You magnify your advantages, real or imagined.


“Teams came into Boston Garden grumbling because it wasn’t air-conditioned. God! It’s just as hot on our side of the floor. But if that bothered them, we took advantage of it. They worried about our parquet floor. Good! Let ‘em worry! Keep your competition nervous.”


Auerbach: “You motivate by three things: 1) fear; 2) money; 3) security. Business uses the first two. Business doesn’t use the third. Business expects loyalty, but is not prepared to give it. The Celtics drafted more guys who played their entire career in Boston than any two teams. Every Celtic coach but one was a former Celtic player.

“We don’t forget who made us. Business often does. Business discards people. ‘Reductions in force,’ ‘downsizing,’ ‘efficiency programs’ all seem aimed at getting rid of the older worker. They offer generous retirement programs to get rid of them. You can guess what happens. Some of their best people grab the money and ran.


“The company shot itself in the foot. Does a company really think it can save money by dumping its most experienced personnel? We would have gotten rid of Bird five years ago, by that reasoning.”


Auerbach: “I learned a trick from talking to Joe DiMaggio about the Yankees. He told me the Yankees always dressed in a coat and tie and shined shoes because they wanted to look and act like champions. I wanted the Celtics to do that, too. I never wanted them to look like they fell off a truck.

“And then when the team would seem to go flat, or get bored out there, I would deliberately seek the technical foul that would get me thrown out of the game. Bob Cousy would rush over and pull me off the ref--or Bill Russell would lift me up, kicking and screaming. I would want the guys to think I had an ungovernable temper.


“But, by now, the team was fired up and alert. I would make them think we were surrounded, fighting for our lives. Eighty percent of the games I got thrown out of, we won. You can’t let your work force get lethargic, complacent. You find ways to keep them stimulated.”

Well, the Auerbach formula for how to succeed in business by really trying goes on like that. But, lest anyone think the Auerbach formula calls for turning the business over to the workers, Red wants you to know he was boss.

“I came down to the coffee shop on the road once before a game,” he recalled as he came through here on a book tour last week. “I found Sam Jones eating a stack of hot cakes. I told him, ‘That’ll cost you $50! Pancakes before a game!’ So, Sam shrugs and says, ‘Well, I have to pay $50, might as well finish them.’ So I says, ‘Fifty dollars a bite!’ ”

The Auerbach formula called for the workers to go into battle a little more afraid of the general than of the enemy. The officials weren’t the only ones who thought he had an ungovernable temper.