This piece comes from Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, and published this week by Twelve.
Jews are known for many things, but strength, swiftness, and agility are not among them. There is one trait, as controversial as it is familiar, for which Jews are above all known, and that is shrewdness in business.
And in the history of sports, there was none shrewder than Arnold “Red” Auerbach, mastermind of the Boston Celtics when they won 16 NBA championships between 1957 and 1986. Auerbach grew up in Brooklyn, the son of an immigrant from Minsk who owned a delicatessen and a dry cleaning store. He won a basketball scholarship to George Washington University, but soon found his calling as a coach, working in high schools, the wartime Navy, and, for a few summers, a Catskills resort (where he coached a waiter named Wilt Chamberlain). In the late 1940s he was named coach of the Washington Capitols and then the Tri-Cities Blackhawks before taking over the Celtics bench in 1950. He became the team’s general manager in 1966 and its president in 1984, holdingthat position until his death in 2006.
Auerbach’s remarkable success as a coach—938 wins overall, and nine championships in one 10-year period—came in equal parts from personality and ingenuity. He was warm but demanding toward his players, belligerent toward the referees, and sometimes obnoxious toward opponents, particularly in his habit of celebrating an impending victory before the game was over by lighting up a cigar. He is credited with several innovations that changed the game forever; each exploiting a blind spot in the adversary. While high scorers fill the seats and please the crowd, Auerbach forced his Celtics to concentrate on defense and team play. (The team had no scorer in the league’s top 10 during its reign as perennial champions.) Other teams started the game with their five best players; Auerbach kept one of his on the bench as the “sixth man,” who came in at the first substitution and made hay against tired or second-string opponents. He also perfected the fast break, in which a rebound or inbounds pass sent a pack of teammates blitzing down the court past backpedaling defenders.
But Auerbach’s greatest impact came off the court. Jerry Seinfeld once observed that in team sports, fans are essentially rooting for clothing: “You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city.” A dynasty therefore depends not on the prowess of the bodies that fill those clothes at any one time, since they churn through team rosters so quickly, but on the cleverness of the mind that repeatedly puts them there. Over the course of four decades, Auerbach outsmarted the rest of the league in drafting, trading, and signing players.
I took special pleasure from watching Auerbach outdeal his competitors, not just as a Celtics fan but as a fellow member of an extended family of small businessmen. I am not the descendant of a long line of rabbis (as an improbably large proportion of Jews claim to be) but of makers or sellers of gloves, neckties, auto parts, and women’s garments; I grew up with the belief that God made the Jews as a light unto the nations and made the Gentiles because someone had to buy retail. I fondly recall the relish with which my uncles and grandfather would retell accounts of getting the better of some slow-witted supplier fair and square. As Canadians they were fans of hockey, not basketball, but they surely would have appreciated the genius with which Auerbach bested other managers.
Among the future greats he picked in the draft after every other team had overlooked them were K. C. Jones, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Don Chaney, Don Nelson, and Dave Cowens. Other bargains came in young players who were clearly destined for stardom but whom other managers had assumed were undraftable: Jo Jo White because he had been conscripted into the Army (Auerbach got him into the Marine Reserves), Danny Ainge because he was under contract to the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team (Auerbach somehow freed him), and, most momentously, Larry Bird, because he was still a junior (Auerbach bided his time and offered Bird a record-setting contract a year later).