He thought the price was a bit stiff. But Red Auerbach felt Bill Russell was worth it. He never let himself lose sight of that one critical premise.
Russell was worth it.
Of course he was. We know that now. We knew it in 1957. But in 1956, it wasn't an automatic thing. Far from it.
Many looked at Russell and saw a dynamic defender, but, alas, one who was only 6 feet 9 inches and offensively challenged. Auerbach was reminded time and again of Walter Dukes, who had just completed his first year in the NBA with New York.
Dukes was a legit 7-footer who could score. But he averaged only 7.8 points a game as a rookie. And he ran as well as Russell and shot better than Russell and he was barely hanging on. How could Auerbach expect anything better from Russell?
``They forgot one thing,'' Auerbach says today. ``They forgot about the brain. The heart. The desire.''
OK, so it's three things. But that's what Auerbach saw in Russell and that's what made him pursue the University of San Francisco center with a passion. How he got him is a casebook study of maneuvering in the NBA when money was tight, deals were commonplace, and Auerbach reigned supreme.
The Celtics of 1955-56 posted the second-best record in the eight-team NBA, 39-33. They led the league in scoring at 106 points a game as Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, and Ed Macauley ranked 6-7-8 in scoring. But they also led the league in points allowed (a mid-'50s version of this year's Sacramento Kings) at 105.3 a game. That's where Russell fit into Auerbach's grand scheme.
He needed a defender and rebounder. He needed someone to get the ball. Russell could do that.
Auerbach had first heard of Russell in a conversation with his former coach at George Washington, Bill Reinhart. Reinhart's team had just lost to San Francisco in a tournament at Oklahoma City. USF was led by a 6-7 sophomore center named Bill Russell.
``He told me, `Red, I just saw a kid who's going to be something,' '' remembered Auerbach. `` `Set your sights on him. He's just what you need.' ''
That's what Auerbach did. But whatever inside knowledge of Russell he may have had got out when San Francisco ran off 55 straight wins and consecutive NCAA titles. The 1956 draft approached and Russell was available. Auerbach determined he would not last until the Celtics' own pick (seventh), so he went to work.
The Rochester Royals owned the first pick. They had several problems with Russell, starting with his reported asking price of $25,000. There also was certain to be competition from the Harlem Globetrotters, then a serious threat to NBA teams, which were only beginning to sign black players. Finally, Russell was committed to playing in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, meaning he would not be available until December.
Auerbach and Celtics owner Walter Brown hatched a plan; Brown called Rochester owner Les Harrison and offered him a couple weeks of the Ice Capades. Brown was president of the skating show and it was a big draw.
``There were two things that all owners wanted in those days, the Globetrotters and the Ice Capades,'' Auerbach said. ``The Globetrotters kept a lot of teams in business. The Ice Capades was a big deal, too. So Walter promised him some shows if he wouldn't break his word.
``But Rochester could have double-crossed us,'' Auerbach went on. ``[Harrison] didn't have a reputation that you could rely on.''
But Harrison kept his word. (He also wasn't sold on Russell the basketball player, either.) The Royals drafted Sihugo Green of Duquesne.
The St. Louis Hawks had the next pick, and this is the one Auerbach wanted. He and Hawks owner Ben Kerner were both shrewd, and neither one particularly cared for the other.
``I had a pretty good relationship with Ben,'' Auerbach says now, ``even though I punched him in the mouth a couple years before.''
In addition to the same stumbling blocks in drafting Russell (Olympics, money, Globetrotters), Kerner faced another: race. St. Louis was among the most hostile places in the league for black players. The 1957-58 Hawks were the last all-white NBA champions.
Auerbach offered Macauley, a St. Louis native and six-time All-Star, for the second pick. Kerner originally said yes, then discovered that Harrison had received the Ice Capades. He asked for the rights to Cliff Hagan, too.
This was something Auerbach was reluctant to do.
``I had drafted this guy after getting the owners to change the rule about college players being eligible,'' he said. ``I said, `Why not make them eligible four years after they leave high school? Then, if he stays in college, he's still your property.' Well, then I drafted [Frank] Ramsey and Hagan and they get kinda nervous and they changed the rule in the same meeting. If he went back to school, you lost him.''
Boston had selected Hagan in the third round of the 1953 draft. He played another year at Kentucky and then spent two years in the military. He was still Boston's property. But Auerbach had fought hard for the rule change, fought hard to keep Hagan, and now he was asked to give two All-Stars for the unproven if promising Russell.
Auerbach agreed, and sent the two players to St. Louis.
``You had to remember why you were doing it,'' Auerbach said. ``You had to feel it was worth it or why bother? We thought he was worth it.''
The Celtics and Hawks met in the NBA Finals in 1957, with Boston prevailing, and in 1958, with St. Louis prevailing.
Auerbach had not seen much of Russell in the flesh prior to the center's arrival in Boston. But after a couple of practices, the legendary coach knew he had gotten the player he wanted and needed.
``We were already in first place when he got here, but he still was ready,'' Auerbach said. ``Arnie Risen helped him out and taught him some tricks of the trade. But he saw it, too. No one objected to being Russell's backup.
``This is a guy who made shot-blocking an art,'' Auerbach went on. ``Today, there are very few people who know how to block shots like he did. They like to smack it away into the stands. Russ kept the ball in play and I'd say 75 percent of the time, we came up with the ball.''
The rest, of course, is history. Auerbach gambled in 1956 and the bet paid off with 11 titles in 13 years. In retrospect, of course, he got Russell for a bargain because no one has, or likely ever will, win the way he did.