One of the themes that I have seen in many of the books written on Celtics history is that of racism. This piece will end the series on Red Auerbach On and Off the Court. From this story, we will go back to Heinsohn, Don't You Ever Smile for a story along the same lines and then will go to Second Wind by Bill Russell, who faced racism from the time he was young and into his time as a superstar in the NBA. He addresses the issue throughout his book. There have been some writers who have suggested that the Celtics were a racist organization, but the opposite was true. The city of Boston wasn't always as accepting, however. Here is our last excerpts from Red's book On and Off the Court.
Walter Brown was cut from the same cloth. He'd tell me: "Red, take a man for what he is and what he does and never mind anything else you might have about him." Walter believed it, practiced it, and personified it. He didn't care about a man's religion or color; nome of that stuff mattered to him. He just cared about the man! And he proved that one day in the spring of 1950, just after he hired me, when we drafted Chuck Cooper from Duquesne. This was just four years after Branch Rickey made history in baseball by signing Jackie Robinson. The NBA, at the time, was an all white league. When Walter called out Cooper's name that day, one of the other owners looked at him and asked, "Are you aware of the fact that Mr Cooper is a negro?" "I don't care what he is," Walter shot back. "All I know is that this kid can play basketball and we want him on the Celtics." What wasn't generally known at the time, however, was that Walter was under considerable pressure from Abe Saperstein, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, not to be a pioeer in breaking the color line. After all, Abe wasn't anxious to break up his own monopoly; he was getting all of the great black talent, the way the Montreal Canadians used to have exclusive claim to all of the great French speaking skaters. Abe had a good thing going, so he wasn't at all timid about reminding Walter that the Globetrotters drew some pretty big crowds to Boston Garden, crowds Walter was in no financial position to disregard. Remember, he was losing his shirt on pro basketball at the time. Still this was a matter of principle - a matter of conscience, if you will - and there was never any doubt in my mind as to what Walter's decision would be. "Boston takes Charles Cooper!" he repeated. There are no flags to commemorate the occasion, but I'll always remember that as a proud moment in Boston Celtics history. As it turned out, we would later have the first all black starting five in the league: Satch Sanders, Willie Naulls, Bill Russell, Sam Jones and KC Jones. And when I retired from the bench in 1966, Russell replaced me as our coach - again setting a precedent. He was the league's first black head coach, though that certainly had nothing to do with the decision to appoint him. He was simply the best man for the job.
And here is another story from Red Auerbach On and Off the Court.
Russell, over the years, has taken a lot of heat for the negative things he's had to say about the racial climate of Boston. He's never given me specific instances of things which outraged him, yet knowing him, and knowing some of the experiences some of our other guys have encountered, I'd have to conclude he's probably been right in most of his criticism - though being the very opinionated tough guy that he is, I'd also have to say he hasn't done much to alleviate the tension. When he joined the team in 1956 he was the only black guy on the team, and the whole city was madly in love with Cousy, the local, colorful, white All American hero from nearby Holy Cross. Russell had none of that stuff going for him, plus the great defensive skills he brought with him didn't have the same crowd pleasing effects of those behind the neck passes Cousy used to throw. Russell had a great respect for Cousy as a passer, as a playmaker, as a fast break guy who kept the team moving, and no one denied that Cooz deserved all of the publicity he got. But, damn it, Russ was doing just as many great things out there, yet sometimes you got the impression no one even noticed. I often tell the story of the time we took a little road trip and Cousy stayed home with the flu or something. Russell played out of his mind and we won every game, but when we stepped off the plane upon our arrival home the headline that greeted us was "Will Cousy Play Tonight?" Not one mention of Russell's great performance. Maybe it was a reflection of the writer's personal prejudice, maybe it wasn't. But in Russell's mind it might have seemed that way, and that's what was important. Remember? It's not what you tell them, but what they hear. And that was the message Russell kept getting. I could see it happening, so I used to go out of my way to tell writers what a fabulous job Bill was doing, which was certainly true. I'd point out key parts of a game and show them how he took complete control with blocked shots and domination of the boards. If I hadn't said those things, and if his teammates hadn't reaffirmed them, it would have taken some of those writers 20 years to recognize who great this kid really was. I had a very firm rule about not socializing with my players. When I was coaching I didn't even want to know their wives and kids, because I didn't want any personal considerations weighing on me if a time came when I had to make a tough coaching decision. In Russell's case, however, I made an exception. I went over to his house for dinner - something I'd never done with any other player - just to demonstrate to him that his color didn't mean a damn thing in our relationship. I broke my rule when Russell was a rookie, because I thought he might not understand my reasons for not going. I couldn't speak for the writer, the fans, or the city, but as far as the Celtics were concerned, he was one of us and we were damn glad he was on our side. If the whole city had made him feel that way, it wouldn't have made him a better player. hey, he was going to be great, no matter what, because he had a champion's heart, a champion's desier. But would it have had a warming effect on his personality? I think the answer's yes. But we'll never know.
Next up will be one more story from Heinsohn, Don't You Ever Smile and then on to Second Wind by Bill Russell. I hope you are enjoying this glimpse into some of the great books on the Celtics that are out there.