Just as Phil Jackson reached the cusp of catching him with his ninth NBA championship, Red Auerbach was on the telephone, grumbling over the legitimacy of that legacy. The emperor of the Boston Celtics resisted letting Jackson climb onto the coaching Olympus with him, insisting a fatal flaw of the Los Angeles Lakers coach still separated them.
“He’s never tried building a team and teaching the fundamentals,” Auerbach said. “When he’s gone in there, they’ve been ready-made for him. It’s just a matter of putting his system in there. They don’t worry about developing players if they’re not good enough. They just go get someone else.”
This would’ve made the possibility of Jackson’s 10th title so crushing to Auerbach. What could Red say now? Six years later, Jackson dares to do it Auerbach’s way. All those old Celtics kept wishing Auerbach had lived to see this return to Garden glory, but Auerbach would’ve loathed that this season be punctuated by Jackson using Boston to pass him for the most championships in coaching history.
These days, everyone is wondering: Has Kobe Bryant surpassed Michael Jordan?
That question is still too premature, but this one isn’t: Does the Los Angeles Lakers’ coach become the greatest coach in NBA history with another Finals victory?
Rest assured, nine titles now is far more impressive than nine back in Red’s day. Ten ends the argument.
Auerbach is the greatest general manager to ever live. He shaped and reshaped the Celtics for three different title eras. There were the Russell-Cousy Celtics and the Havlicek-Cowens Celtics and the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics.
Whatever Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak did to steal Pau Gasol resembled the chicanery Auerbach routinely used to rouse rival owners and executives. Auerbach stole Bill Russell for ice show dates at the Boston Garden. He secured Larry Bird’s draft rights as an undergraduate. Dennis Johnson for Rick Robey. The rights to Joe Barry Carroll for Robert Parish and the pick that brought Kevin McHale. It goes on and on.
Ultimately, Auerbach has to be considered the greatest basketball mind in the game’s history. No one should ever dispute that. And yes, he was the greatest coach the sport had ever known, until Phil Jackson started driving vans in Albany of the Continental Basketball Association. People pretend like Jackson never paid his dues. He did. He won titles in the CBA. He coached his summers in Puerto Rico for the extra paycheck. Sure, he had been historically fortunate with Jordan and Pippen, with Shaq and Kobe, but let’s get something straight: No one – least of all Auerbach – ever won without great talent.
Of course, Auerbach always groused that coaching was so much easier today. This was flawed and, deep down, he knew it. Talent scouting in Auerbach’s era was as sophisticated as an envelope of newspaper articles an old buddy clipped and mailed. At the time, Auerbach had complete control of his ballplayers. There was no free agency, no arbitration. Auerbach was judge and jury on your job. Want a raise? He gave it. Want to work next season? His call.
For that reason, Auerbach could reach his players at the most base level: Fear. Auerbach claimed control that coaches today could only dream.
After Auerbach retired in 1967, his replacement won the ’68 championship. Remember? Bill Russell. As a player-coach. Imagine that now.
Jackson didn’t pick these Lakers, but he sure did develop them. Andrew Bynum has a chance to be one of basketball’s best centers. When most coaches disdain giving young players minutes, Jackson cultivated a bench of Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic. Through the years, he’s blended the development of talent with the manipulating of minds. In Chicago, he turned his own GM, Jerry Krause, into a common enemy for whom the Bulls to rally around. He created the model for working officials through the press, and reaching his players through the most untraditional of means. They meditated. They read books. He brought dignity and decorum to sideline coaching behavior that has become embarrassing from others. Jackson was a different coach, for a different time.
As arrogant as Jackson can be, his act still pales against Auerbach. Red’s been remembered as a kindly, grandfatherly man, but he was an arrogant winner and a sore loser. Everyone laughs about his ritual late in victories, but think about that: Lighting a cigar on the bench.
Auerbach hated the idea of Jackson breaking his record. To him, he was still that miserable New York Knick with sharp elbows. Truth be told, Auerbach never believed a coach could catch him in titles. Before he died, Auerbach talked to me about Lenny Wilkens passing him for most career victories and Pat Riley for playoff wins, but the nine coaching championships were different. Those banners were Auerbach’s measure of greatness.
“When Wilkens did it, it took him longer than me as a coach, but he still broke it," Auerbach said. “And then subsequently other guys did it. It took Riley a little less time than me. Hey, these records are made to be broken. One guy broke Roger Maris' home run record, and then a second and a third, and now they've blown it all to (crap).”
Before Jackson won his ninth in 2002, he sounded like a man who wanted Auerbach’s approval. He never did get it. He said he’d settle for a congratulatory cigar. “Unlit,” Jackson hoped.
Never, Auerbach insisted.
“It’ll stunt his growth,” he growled.
This was the basketball season Red Auerbach would’ve loved to see in Boston, but an ending that might have driven him mad. This is the year that Phil Jackson answers all of Auerbach’s doubts. He never tried building a team? Finally, Jackson did and maybe it’s for the best that Red is gone. For the first time, he’d have to concede: As coach, Phil Jackson had done it all. Mostly, he has nearly done the unthinkable: Pass Red as forever’s coach.