Before he put his indelible mark on the Boston Celtics and basketball, Red Auerbach learned to lead while working at a reform school for tough young federal offenders and as a scrappy college player under a memorable coach at George Washington.
Arnold "Red" Auerbach, a transfer from Seth Low Junior College in Brooklyn, was a brand-new sophomore at George Washington University on a team filled with talented sophomores who had played together the previous season on an undefeated freshman team. It was 1936, and the newcomer had to prove his worth and battle for playing time at the Washington, D.C., school. "Needless to say," he says, "there were more than a few fights in practice."
Red was never one to back down from a fight, and, little by little, he earned the respect of his teammates and his coach. He had only one major setback, a game at Ohio State University where he started and was assigned to guard the Buckeyes' leading scorer. "The guy ate me up," he says. "He had moves I'd never seen in my life. I couldn't do anything right the whole night. The next three games, I never moved off the bench.
"Then we went to Army, and they had another guy who was a stud scorer. [Coach Bill] Reinhart comes to me before the game and says, `You got him, do a job on him.' Well, I did. He never said a word about what had happened at Ohio State. After that, I was back in the starting lineup for good."
Red majored in education and physical education, graduating in the class of 1940. But the most important parts of his education took place outside the classroom. One key place was in the gym, listening to Reinhart and observing him. "I would make the case that he was as good a coach as anyone," Red says, more than 60 years after playing for him. "He was an innovator. He was one of the first coaches to use the fast break, to talk about passing lanes, things like that. But the most important thing, at least for me, was watching the way he handled his players.
"You see, he didn't handle them. Players are people, not horses. You don't handle them. You work with them, you coach them, you teach them, and, maybe most important, you listen to them. The best players are smart people, and a good coach will learn from them. Sometimes when guys came to me with ideas, I knew they couldn't possibly work. But I didn't just say no, because they would see that as a sign that I didn't respect them.
"Once, [Celtic guard Bill] Sharman came to me and said that everyone knew our plays. We'd been running six basic plays for a long time, and, sure, he was probably right that if we called 'One,' a lot of teams knew what we were going to do. But that didn't mean they could stop us. So I listened to Bill and said, 'OK, here's what we're going to do. We're changing all the numbers. From now on, number one play is number two. Number two is number three.' And so on up the line until the six play became the one play. We worked on it before the next game.
"Game starts, I remind them that all the plays have new numbers. They say they understand. Then we go out, and we're totally messed up. [Bob] Cousy calls 'Two!' and half the guys are running our old two play which is now the three play and half the guys are running our old one, which has now become two. We look like Keystone Kops out there. I let it go until we were down 10, and then I called time, and I said, 'Forget everything we've done the last two days in practice. From now on, a one is a one, a two is a two, and if they can stop us, good for them.
"Reinhart always listened to people. He was always learning. If he had coached at a place with a higher national profile, he'd have gone down as one of the great coaches. As it is, when people ask me about great coaches, he's one of the first names I bring up."
The other key learning center for Red during college was the National Training School for Boys. Each year, 16 local seniors -- four from George Washington, four from Georgetown, four from American, and four from the University of Maryland -- were given internships to work at the training center.
"It was, basically, a very tough reform school," Red says. "It was for kids who were federal offenders. They had stolen cars and taken them across state lines or committed crimes that involved guns. Some of them weren't kids, either, because birth certificates weren't all that easy to track down in those days.
"The place was segregated. There were four white companies and two black companies. I worked there 20 hours a week. I don't think I ever learned more about leadership, about discipline, about dealing with people than I learned there.
"One of the men in charge of one of the black companies was Mr. Burns. I don't think I ever knew his first name. He was unbelievable. He was tough, so tough that when he took time off they had to bring in three guys to sub for him. But he understood people. He knew when to get in their faces and when to reason with them. He told me that the best way to get your job done wasn't to intimidate -- which I couldn't have done anyway -- but to earn their trust. You said something was going to happen -- good or bad -- make sure it happened. I tried to remember that.
"One time, I caught a bunch of my guys with a still out in the back. They'd found a bunch of dandelions out there and had managed to brew up some awful, cheap alcohol. They were drunk as could be. I got 'em back inside, sobered 'em up, and put 'em to bed. Didn't turn 'em in. Who could blame them for wanting to get drunk in that environment? They remembered that.
"Another time, we're getting ready to go out for exercise, and I realize that one of the master keys is missing. This is a big deal, because someone has that key, they can get in anyplace on the complex, steal just about anything they want to steal. I get my guys together and say, 'We're not going out until I get that key. I don't care who took it, I'll turn my back, and whoever has it just throw the key on the floor.' Nothing. So, finally, I take this guy named Frenchie aside. He was the leader. That's another thing Mr. Burns had taught me: Every group has a leader, and that guy knows everything. So I said to him, I didn't want any information at all, but I know that you know who has the key, and we aren't going anywhere, today, the next day, whenever, until I get the key back. I told him he had five minutes, or I had to go to the higher-ups.
"Frenchie goes back into the room. I wait. A minute later, I hear the key clattering on the floor.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you they were all good kids who'd had bad luck. But some of them were. I'd bought a car that year, finally got my dad to give me 100 bucks to get one. It was a Ford convertible [to this day Red drives a convertible]. The radio broke. One of the kids said he could fix it for me, so I said fine.
"I go over to see how he's coming, and the engine's running. He says, 'I didn't want to run your battery down, so I just hot-wired the engine.' He also fixed the radio.
"A lot of those kids got out during the war by volunteering for the service. Years later, I still heard from some of them. If I learned nothing else from Mr. Burns, it was when to trust people and when not to. You look a guy right in the eye and he doesn't look right back at you, you can bet he's lying. He looks back, he's either telling the truth or he's a damn good liar."
AFTER GRADUATION, Red enrolled in a master's degree program in education. But he was no longer on scholarship, so he needed to work. He got his first coaching job at the prestigious St. Albans School, a private school in Washington. When he arrived, he learned that St. Albans had been very good the previous season -- with five senior starters. He would be working, in effect, with a brand-new team.
"So we start practice, and for about three days it is just awful," he says. "I mean, they couldn't do anything. So, finally, I'd had enough. I stopped practice and brought them all to the center jump circle. I took a ball and I said, 'OK, fellas, we're starting all over. This round thing I'm holding in my hands is called a ball. The goal of this game is to take this ball and to get it into one of those two things with a net on it -- that's called the basket. Then, when the other team has the ball, you try to stop them from getting the ball into the other basket. Are you with me so far?'"
The team ended up having a very successful season, winning 11 of 12 games. Red is a little hazy on the details of the 11 wins. Not the loss. "We're playing Episcopal," he says. "Big school, good team. We've got 'em beat. We're up 17-16 with five seconds left, and we've got the ball under their basket. All we have to do is get it inbounds, let them foul us, and even if we miss, they aren't going the length of the court and score. It just didn't happen in those days."
Some kid, I swear I've blocked on his name on purpose, but I remember he was a congressman's son, takes the ball out of bounds for us. All of a sudden, he throws a pass behind his back. No one did that in 1940. Hell, no one does that on an inbounds pass today. But he does it. He throws the damn ball right to a kid on the other team, and he makes a layup at the buzzer, and we lose 18-17.
"I wanted to kill the kid. But you couldn't do that at St. Albans. Couldn't even yell at him. If he walked in here today, my first question would be, 'What in the world were you thinking about?'"
Does the loss still bother him, six decades later?
"Worst loss of my life."
RED STAYED AT ST. ALBANS for one year while he finished his master's. He then got a job teaching and coaching at Roosevelt High School, a public school in D.C. By this time, he had a roommate in his small apartment, his brother Zang.
"I had called home one day, and my dad told me Zang had dropped out of school, that he wanted to go to vocational school. Apparently, he hadn't been going much to begin with, because he didn't need to. They said he'd show up five, six days a month, and he had a 94 average or something like that. He was bored. He wanted to be an artist, always wanted to be an artist of some kind.
"I remember when he was 10, he took an old orange crate, cut it up, put some shellac on it, and painted John L. Sullivan, who had been the heavyweight champion, on the wood. It was beautiful. Looked just like the guy. I liked it so much I offered him five bucks for it, which at 14 was a lot of money. He told me he'd already been offered 10 by a guy, and he'd said yes. He took the money, went out and bought paints and brushes and taught himself how to paint. I've always said he was the one in the family who had real talent."
When Red heard from his father that Zang had dropped out of school, he asked him to persuade Zang to move to Washington to live with him. When Zang balked at the idea, Red told him if he didn't come to Washington himself, he would come up to Brooklyn and drag him to the train station.
"Red was about the only person Zang would ever really listen to," Zang's son-in-law Stanley Copeland said years later. "The two of them may be the most stubborn people I've ever met in my life. Zang would listen to absolutely no one. But Red he would listen to . . . sometimes."
Zang enrolled at Roosevelt High School, which was where Red was teaching and coaching at the time. Since he was living with Red, the big brother made sure the little brother made it to school, on time, every day.
Red quickly made an impression at Roosevelt -- as a teacher. Gym class was generally looked upon with disdain by most students at the school. They didn't like getting out of their clothes, getting sweaty, taking a shower, and then putting their clothes back on to go to class, all in less than an hour. So, many of them -- most -- would show up with notes from home saying they had a sore throat, a cold, a back problem; anything to be excused from gym class.
"I had one class with 50 kids in it, and 40 of them had notes excusing them," Red says. "There was nothing I could do. If they had a note, they had a note.
"One day, though, before class started, I sat all the 'sick' kids on a bleacher, and I said, 'Hey, when you guys are at home, which do you take, a bath or a shower?' Just about all of them put their hands up and said they took a shower. I said, 'Good, fine. So if you aren't too sick to take a shower at home, you aren't too sick to take a shower here. With 10 minutes left in class, I want you all to take your clothes off and take a shower.'
"Within a week, I had exactly one kid still sitting out. [Apparently, he was sick.] They all figured if they had to shower anyway, they might as well get dressed for class."
It was while Red was at Roosevelt that he and Zang met Hymie Perlo, who had been an All-Met basketball and baseball player at the school. Perlo was trying to figure out exactly what to do with his life -- college, a job, the military -- but spent a good deal of time hanging around the playground that Red was in charge of in the afternoons once basketball season was over and he didn't have any practices to run.
Red quickly picked Perlo out as the best athlete around, and the two of them began engaging in high-intensity one-on-one games at the end of the day. "Hymie was one of the best young athletes I ever saw in my life," Red says. "I don't mean he was good for the neighborhood or good for Washington; he was good, period. He could have really done some things if he hadn't been wounded in the war."
This was before all three young men -- the two Auerbachs and Perlo -- went off to fight World War II. Perlo, who tries to come off as caustic and sarcastic most of the time, rarely allows people to see how deeply he cares about the Auerbachs.
"What's Red ever done for me?" he likes to say. "Bought me a few lunches. Big deal." Then he will pause and go through the litany of favors Red did him in later life. But his first memories are of their one-on-one games in the playground.
"Anyone tells you that Red isn't a tough, mean competitor, send them to me," he says. "I think I've still got bruises from our games 60 years ago. He wasn't as good a player as I was, but he was good enough to make the games plenty close, because he'd claw and scratch and do whatever he had to do to win."
This article is excerpted from the new book Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game, by Red Auerbach and John Feinstein. Copyright © 2004 by Red Auerbach and John Feinstein. Used by permission of Little, Brown & Co.