There aren't many giants as giant as Red Auerbach still walking around in the sports world. John Wooden's about the only one left. Auerbach, the patriarch of the Boston Celtics, died Saturday at 89.
There will always be great coaches running around. There will always be great executives. There may even be the occasional person who's great at both. Auerbach was both, simultaneously for a long time, but he was also an even rarer beast, one of a very small group who helped lead a sport from nearly prehistoric times into the modern world, winning along the way.
Connie Mack was such a person. George Halas. Maybe Toe Blake.
Auerbach began his coaching career in 1946, before the Boston Celtics, before the NBA, before his 30th birthday. He led the Washington Capitals of the old Basketball Association of America to two division titles in three years -- you remember their star, Bob Feerick, don't you? -- then spent most of the NBA's first year coaching the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, who, as you know, lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Anderson Packers.
Auerbach took over as Celtics coach in 1950. You know the rest. And if you don't, there are about a million obituaries and remembrances online. I suggest starting with Bob Ryan's wonderful piece in the Boston Globe.
Speaking of Ryan's piece, he relates that Auerbach once barked at him that he ought to cut it off. Ryan had offended Auerbach by writing that it wasn't entirely Auerbach's idea to draft John Havlicek.
Auerbach the executive was a leader in integrating the NBA, an achievement all the greater because he did it in Boston, a racially polarized city where the Red Sox were in the process of being the last major league baseball team to integrate, a city that Bill Russell called "a flea market of racism" nearly two decades after Auerbach became the first NBA general manager to draft a black player.
That was in 1950, when Auerbach picked Chuck Cooper, though Earl Lloyd was taken later in the same draft by the Capitals. Auerbach was the first coach to start five black players, in 1964, and when he stepped down as coach following the 1965-66 season, he named Russell to succeed him, making the great center the first black coach in NBA history.
These weren't political acts for Auerbach. He wasn't a civil rights activist. He started a fifth black player not to make a statement but because a white starter, Tommy Heinsohn, hurt his foot. All Auerbach cared about was winning.
But in that way he became one of the NBA's greatest proponents of civil rights, because what are civil rights other than a fair chance?
Auerbach was something of a caricature of himself late in life, lighting his victory cigars, talking smack about Phil Jackson or any other non-Celtic he could think of, ever the swaggering, arrogant architect of the league's greatest dynasty.
Couldn't stand the guy myself. I grew up on the other coast, rooting for the other team in one of the storied rivalries of the last half-century.
"I've never known anybody who has played under Red Auerbach who didn't like him," the Boston Herald quoted Russell saying. "Of course, I've never known anybody who has played against him who did like him."
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Didn't I say Cardinals in 5? [PERMALINK]
A few thoughts to wrap up the World Series, which the St. Louis Cardinals won in five games by beating the Detroit Tigers Friday night 4-2.
They compiled a good part of that record with some combination of Jim Edmonds, David Eckstein and Scott Rolen at best hurting and at worst out of the lineup, plus a disaster of a pitching staff. By the playoffs, those three position players were healthy enough to contribute, manager Tony La Russa had cobbled together a bullpen that did great work in the playoffs, and Jeff Weaver had been plucked off the scrapheap.
Knowing everything I know now, if I had to pick the Series winner again I'd make the same pick I made 10 days ago -- Tigers in six. But it's not as if the Cardinals came out of nowhere.
Eckstein won the award after going 8-for-22 with three doubles -- all in the pivotal Game 4 -- and a walk, three runs scored and four batted in. If I were Scott Rolen and I cared about such things, which I probably wouldn't, I'd be a little miffed.
Consider that Rolen had the same number of hits in three fewer at-bats, the same number of doubles, one more walk, one more home run and two more runs scored. Eckstein did have two more RBIs. Also consider that two of Eckstein's doubles, and one of his RBIs, in Game 4 were gifts of the Detroit outfielders, one coming on Craig Monroe's misplay and the other when Curtis Granderson slipped on the wet grass and couldn't recover in time to catch Eckstein's fairly routine fly ball.
And then there's Jeff Weaver, who pitched two beautiful ballgames, allowing five runs, four earned, in 13 innings while striking out 14 and walking two. He got outpitched by Smudgy Rogers in Game 2, but won Game 5.
Weaver should call Livan Hernandez and ask him how he did it. Hernandez won the MVP in 1997 when he pitched reasonably well once and horribly once, but got 15 runs of support and two wins to go with his 5.27 ERA. Darren Daulton, Gary Sheffield and Charles Johnson all hit roughly as well as Eckstein in that Series, which the Florida Marlins won with hitting, not pitching.
Verlander had been struggling since early September, and as a rookie pitcher who had exceeded his previous career high in innings pitched, he was right on schedule to keep on struggling. Bonderman had been pitching well.
There's some logic in that, but I think that when you're fighting for your life, you take your best shot, and Rogers had been dynamite all month. Verlander, the Game 5 starter, had merely been gasoline.
After a shaky start, Verlander didn't acquit himself poorly Friday, leaving the game after six innings with the Cardinals leading 3-2, thanks to two unearned runs courtesy of Verlander's throwing error. The Tigers lost Game 5 because they didn't score enough, not because they didn't pitch well enough.
But who knows what might have happened had Rogers had another great game and allowed the Tigers to get back home for the last two games. It's a terrible thing to die with arrows in your quiver, and the Tigers went down with a fully rested pitcher sitting in the dugout on a 23-inning shutout streak.
A big part of the problem was the huge role inclement weather played in turning the games into something quite different from the diverting sport played in warmer parts of the calendar.
There are about a hundred ways commissioner Bud Selig could solve the problem of baseball stretching too late into the fall. Odds against Selig actually enacting one of them are too great for the human mind to comprehend.
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