Auerbach: Jackson is 'a great coach'
By Ken Shouler
Special to ESPN.com
Red Auerbach was a brash 29-year-old fresh out of the Navy. Without a cigar, he walked into the office of Mike Uline to tell him he was the man to coach his new Washington Capitols in the Basketball Association of America for the 1946-47 season.
"I don't know why, but Mike bought my brag," Red recalls.
Red Auerbach had many victory cigars thanks to Bill Russell.
Uline chose a coach who turned into a legend. In 20 years as a coach with Washington, Tri-Cities and then Boston, Red made the playoffs every year, suffering just one losing season. With the Boston Celtics, he won eight championships in a row from 1959 to 1966.
Auerbach retired with nine titles, a record tied by Phil Jackson in 2002, which puts these two coaches at the forefront of any debate about the NBA's greatest all-time coach.
After the Lakers rehired Phil Jackson this week, ESPN.com spoke to Auerbach for his reaction.
ESPN.com: Why do you think Phil Jackson would take the Lakers' job after the team won 34 and lost 48 last year?
Auerbach: As far as why he would take it, you have to ask him. But it's very obvious; he did it because of the money. I don't blame him for taking the job.
ESPN.com: Do you think part of the motivation was to surpass your record of nine championships?
Auerbach: No, I think that's an incidental factor. Take away the money and he wouldn't be coaching.
ESPN.com: Is a definition of a good coach someone who can win even when his team didn't have the best regular-season record or is not expected to win? For instance, you won the title in 1966 (Auerbach's last year coaching Boston) even though Philadelphia owned the better regular-season record. And Jackson did not win a title without Jordan, but came close, winning 55 games with Chicago in 1994.
Auerbach: Remember Doug Collins had that team and he won with it.
ESPN.com: He didn't win a championship with it.
Auerbach: No, but he was a winning coach and it was just a matter of time.
ESPN.com: What are the similarities and differences between you and Jackson as coaches?
Auerbach: We both had the respect of the players. And that's the key thing. In other words, you say something and they listen. If somebody else does it, they don't listen.
ESPN.com: Besides the ability to communicate, is there anything else that makes him a great coach?
Auerbach: There's no question in my mind that he is a great coach. Because I've seen guys who get great teams on paper and they butcher it up, you see?
If you have some great potential players, there are two things: One, you help make them great. Two, you devise a method of play that is suitable to their talent. He did that.
For example, suppose I had a center like Bill Russell and a point guard like Bob Cousy and I played a half-court game. You know, like Philadelphia did. Chamberlain would get the rebound, make a lot of motions, and they'd wait for him to get upcourt. Now suppose I played that kind of slow-down game with Russell and Cousy. I don't think we would have won.
Phil Jackson has that knowledge of what is best for his players and has the ability to communicate. He's in control. That's the whole thing. He's in control, they listen to him and that's more than half the battle right there. You see a lot of ballplayers – you watch during timeout in college and the pro – the coach is talking, talking, talking and their minds are way the hell someplace else.
ESPN.com: They're looking around, or looking at their feet.
Auerbach: They're not listening. They don't hear a damned thing he says.
Phil may need to meditate more with this Lakers team.
ESPN.com: But they're listening to Phil?
Auerbach: I think so.
ESPN.com: Some people didn't want the job. Like Roy Williams at North Carolina.
Auerbach: Well, they didn't offer Roy Williams $10 million a year. You take a guy like Roy Williams and they may offer him $2 ½ million, or even $3 million, but he can live the life of a king in Carolina, playing half the games or a third of the games, and have time for this and time for that and still be a big guy, and walk away with close to $2 million, why would he want to coach Los Angeles?
ESPN.com: What can be done to make this team win?
Auerbach: I think the biggest mistake that they made – and I don't even discuss other teams, because it's stupid; I don't want to tell you what they can do or what they should do – but I will tell you this: They made one big mistake in letting Jerry West get away.
As far as what they can do and who they should get, hey, that's their problem. I've got my own.
ESPN.com: So you think they could bring in better talent if they had West?
Auerbach: West is a hard, hard worker. West had his own – I can't say following – but he had his own respect. A lot of people respected him and he has credentials to back it up. I would venture to say that if he was still there, Shaq would not have left.
ESPN.com: So you thought Shaq was the key, not Kobe?
Auerbach: Sure, you can't win without the ball.
ESPN.com: Which is what you said when you coached Boston in the early '50s before you got Russell.
Auerbach: Yeah. Plus the fact that Shaq makes players around him better. They double-team Shaq and triple-team Shaq. All he has to do is hand it off and let the other guys shoot.
It's like this kid [Bruce] Bowen. He's done a great job. We had him in Boston [in 1998-99], but we didn't have any Tim Duncan in the middle to make this kid better. So therefore we couldn't see how good he really was.
ESPN.com: Can Kobe make people better? If not, what can they do to get better? It's a tough team to fix.
Auerbach: He's a great player. But you're asking me the same question as before, and I'm still not going to answer it. I don't care if Jackson gets the best players in the country to go to L.A. You still don't win it on paper. You have to go out there and win over 82 games.
ESPN.com: In this debate about who's the greatest all-time coach, you can bring up your record as a coach, general manager, vice president and president. You had a larger role in acquiring talent – and the prudent moves you made to acquire Bill Russell, Dave Cowens, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish – and building teams.
Auerbach: You could bring that up if you wanted to. I think it's important. If I'm going to coach the players, I want some say on who they're going to be. I used to go out and do as much scouting as I could in those days for that reason. You get players because you work.
ESPN.com: The eight consecutive titles you won from 1959 through 1966 – that seems like an unapproachable record.
Auerbach: All records are made to be broken.
ESPN.com: But that's a pretty tall order.
Auerbach: It is.
ESPN.com: Is there a different way to win in the postseason than in the regular season?
Auerbach: People will say when you get to the playoffs, 'try to play the same way,' but the media won't let you play the same way.
ESPN.com: What do you mean by that?
Auerbach: I mean because of all the hoopla. Look at the games now; the games are going on in the East at 9 p.m. And they can't get an audience because of that. And No. 2, all this crap before the game and all this show. I think – and I don't care what David Stern and what anyone else thinks – I think it takes away from the game.
ESPN.com: You mean the blaring music, long commercials and general delays in getting games started?
Auerbach: It takes away from the game. If you want to have that stuff, give them a show, but give it at some other time. Basketball people get disgusted. The loud music, the extensive interviews – they thrash it to death.
The media writes all this stuff, like [a recent story] about Bowen's family and his mother. During the year they don't write this stuff. Many members of the media have become private investigators. They're looking for stuff no one else has found.
ESPN.com: So the purists who love the game are put off?
Auerbach: I think so.
ESPN.com: What other factors affect a team's ability to win at playoff time?
Auerbach: Like I always said, everything can happen in the playoffs.
I'll give you an example. Suppose you're coming down to the wire and you got a chance the last two weeks – you're fighting for the best record. Then all of a sudden you have your best player, or your two best players are questionable with injuries.
You gotta make a decision. Should I bench these two guys and finish second, or should I go all out to get a one-game home-court advantage?
That situation could very easily arise. Bill Russell could have some problems with his knees and I could have played him 10 minutes a game over the last two weeks or I could rest him for four or five games, and so on.
But we played him his regular 45 minutes. The thing we used to go by was every game is important and don't try to be cute and play the angles. Play every game, win every game, let the chips fall where they may.
I remember people used to tell me years ago, when Bird was here, wouldn't it be better if you lost some of these games and then you would play so and so instead of so and so. I never bought that. I never bought that theory. Bird was like I was – win every game and let the chips fall where they may.
ESPN.com: Back to this issue of greatest coach of all-time, what standard should people use to decide it?
Auerbach: Most of the people that are talking about it never saw the people in contention coach. It's like a lot of these guys – today you get these new writers – and they think Shaq is way ahead of Wilt Chamberlain. They never saw Chamberlain. Maybe Shaq is better. But on what grounds are they picking him?
ESPN.com: Not to mention that Shaq has won just two scoring titles and no rebounding titles and Chamberlain won seven scoring titles and 11 rebounding titles.
Auerbach: Different types of players. But Chamberlain – he was bigger than Shaq, just as strong as Shaq, ran just as good as Shaq, rebounded better. ... Everybody thinks the new players are bigger, stronger, faster and smarter. But they are not. Back in my time we had as big a team as you have today. Only [difference] is you didn't have as many.
Back in those days [counting players starting before 1975, the approximate midway point in the NBA's history], you had Russell, Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Take the backcourt. Oscar Robertson is a big backcourt man.
Auerbach: Jerry West was big, too. [West is listed as 6-2 by the NBA.]
ESPN.com: But your forwards would be a bit small.
Auerbach: Bob Pettit wasn't small.
ESPN.com: Yeah, he was 6-9 but Elgin Baylor was only 6-5.
Auerbach: I don't care if he was 6-1. I'd like to see these kids today stop Baylor.
ESPN.com: So you think it would be a pretty competitive game between an old squad and a new one?
Auerbach: Sure. You also had Dolph Schayes at forward. We were bigger – the whole team.
ESPN.com: What about quickness?
Auerbach: There was only guy running a fast break who could do it better than Bob Cousy and that was Magic Johnson. You think that Cousy couldn't play today? As good as [John] Stockton was, I'd rather have Cousy.
ESPN.com: How would you stop Jordan?
Auerbach: Either West or John Havlicek. You just wear him down.
ESPN.com: This takes some working out. It's a great topic for another day.
ESPN.com: Any last comparisons on you and Phil?
Auerbach: Any coach needs talent. You start with talent. Without talent, we're all in the soup. You know what I mean? If you get the talent you gotta use it and you better not lose it.
Kenneth Shouler is the editor and a writer for "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia."