But it was Auerbach’s trades that became the stuff of legend. Over and over he exchanged has-beens, head cases, and who-the-hells for future Hall of Famers and good team players who would lead the Celtics to strings of NBA championships. In 1956 he swapped Ed Macauley and the rights to Cliff Hagen to St. Louis for the draft pick that would become Bill Russell. He traded Charlie Share for Bill Sharman, Charlie Scott for Paul Silas, and Mel Counts for Bailey Howell. Best of all was a pair of deals in which Auerbach sent Bob McAdoo (whom he would happily have given away) to Detroit for M. L. Carr and two draft choices, which a year later he traded to Golden State for Robert Parish and a pick that would become Kevin McHale. (Golden State coveted Boston’s higher pick because they had their hearts set on Joe Barry Carroll, a center who went nowhere.) At other times, Auerbach convinced various general managers to trade him Dennis Johnson for Rick Robey, Bill Walton for Cedric Maxwell, and Quinn Buckner for Dave Cowens—who had been retired for two years. Goyishe kop!
Acumen in wheeling and dealing is, to be sure, a touchy subject. On top of the contempt with which the literary intelligentsia treats the world of commerce, there is the obvious fear that any such association could only reinforce ugly stereotypes and vicious conspiracy theories. Yet to ignore Jews’ success in the art of the deal would be to deny what made them historically distinctive. Jews are not so much the people of the book as the classic middleman minority—retailers and moneylenders who are not tied to the land or a guild, who instead cultivated mobility, occupational flexibility, family ties, cultural distinctiveness, and human capital, including numeracy, literacy, and intuitive psychology. This profile of skills may help explain the Jews’ longevity as a diaspora people, their financial and professional success in many parts of the world, and even, according to a controversial theory, their high intelligence. It also explains the other common fate of middleman minorities—resentment, oppression, expulsion, and occasionally genocide by economically ignorant majorities who see middlemen not as essential contributors to general prosperity but as parasites and exploiters.
Commerce is a noble profession, and Jews should get over any self-hatred they might harbor from contemplating the capitalist spirit of diaspora Judaism. Great thinkers of the Enlightenment, including Montesquieu, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, and the framers of the American Constitution, extolled commerce as a force for peace, because an infrastructure of trade makes it cheaper to buy things than to plunder them and makes other people more valuable alive than dead. Today’s political scientists have analyzed large datasets and shown that the Enlightenment exponents of the theory of gentle commerce were correct: countries that are open to the world economy have fewer wars and genocides.
The humanitarian benefits of voluntary deal-making bring us to another signature virtue of Red Auerbach. Auerbach famously drafted the first African-American player back in 1950, years before the civil rights movement took off. In 1964 he sent the first all-African-American starting lineup onto the court. And in 1966, he named Bill Russell as his successor, making his longtime star center the first African-American coach in American professional sports. Auerbach allowed Russell to coach and play at the same time because he thought that Russell, still in his prime, could not be properly coached by anyone else. It was a sign of the intense respect in which the two men held each other, perhaps the deepest between coach and player in the history of professional sports.
Auerbach’s progressive attitudes on race were emphatically not a reflex of political correctness. (When Russell contemplated leaving the NBA for a career in Hollywood, Auerbach teased him, “Russ, how many roles do you think there are for a six-foot-nine schvartze?”) Nor was it affirmative action: In the 1980s he assembled a championship team that defied the league’s racial statistics by having Bird, McHale, and Ainge in the starting five and Walton as the sixth man. Auerbach’s color-blindness surely came in part from principle and integrity, but it just as surely derived from one of the great virtues of the commercial spirit. Racism, because it favors color over talent, is bad for business.