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Kevin Cullen

Letting Red have his way

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / March 27, 2008

So I'm sitting in one of the city's finest establishments, C.F. Donovan's of Savin Hill, enjoying perhaps the greatest shepherd's pie ever prepared, when one Thomas M. Menino passes and pauses just long enough to ask, "Did you hear that some people want to change the name of Causeway Street to Red Auerbach Way?"

No, Mr. Mayor, I had not, but now that you mention it, I think it's a grand idea.

Changing street names, especially in a town like this one, which professes to care deeply about history, is a slippery slope.

But if we really care about history, then we need a street named after the late Arnold Jacob Auerbach.

Before anyone suggested creating a Red Auerbach Way, there was a Red Auerbach way. It produced a series of championships for the Boston Celtics that was unprecedented and, given the nature of free agency and the business that is pro sports today, probably will not be duplicated by any franchise, in any city anytime in the future.

The Patriots win three Super Bowls in four years, and we talk about dynasty. The Red Sox win two World Series in four years, and we talk about dynasty.

But with Red as coach, the Celtics won nine of the 10 NBA titles between 1957 and 1966. That's a dynasty. He was in the front office for seven more championships after that.

Beyond winning, it was the way his teams won. We have enjoyed the recent success of the Red Sox and Patriots especially because of the chemistry that is at the heart of them.

Long before, Red elevated the concept to an art form. Red stressed team over individual accomplishment. He emphasized the substance of defense over the flash of offense. After Bill Russell, the great Celtics center, won his first MVP award in 1958, Red pulled him aside to warn him that he was going to rip him at practice so none of the other players would think he would get preferential treatment.

Last night, as they have almost every game this season, the Celtics started five players who happen to be black. No one bats an eye.

But on the day after Christmas in 1964, Red put out a starting five that consisted of Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Tom Sanders, Sam Jones, and Willie Naulls. History records that as a great moment in the civil rights movement, especially in a town like Boston, when for the first time an NBA starting lineup was made up of five black men. But Red wasn't looking to make history. Tommy Heinsohn usually started, but he was hurt, so when Red looked down the bench he selected Naulls, not because he was black, but because he was the best forward available.

When it came to race, Red was ahead of his time. He drafted the first black player, Chuck Cooper in 1950, and in 1966 handpicked as his successor Russell, the NBA's first African-American head coach. Red made the issue of race relevant by treating people's race as irrelevant when judging them.

For a guy who emphasized team over individual, Red got the most out of his players because he treated them as individuals. And so what worked for Bob Cousy didn't work for Bill Sharman. What Red said to Big Russ was not what he said to John Havlicek.

The guy was a genius, and how many streets do we have named for geniuses?

There are reasons this might not fly. Some will say we shouldn't be renaming streets rich in history like Causeway. Others will say Red was really a Washington guy, not a Boston guy. And, let's face it, we're talking about renaming the street that runs in front of a building owned by the Bruins for a guy who bled Celtic green.

But there is an overarching reason why Causeway Street should become Red Auerbach Way, and it's the same reasoning that guided Red Auerbach through a tumultuous era that challenged our country, and our city and eventually brought out the best in most of us: It's the right thing to do.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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