Inevitably, with the beginning of a new year, we all stop and reflect back on the year, the people and the events that have also passed. One of the great architects of the NBA–Arnold "Red" Auerbach, died on October 28, 2006. He was 89 years old, and he had spent 56 of those years with the Boston Celtics....
Loved by his players–he coached for 20 years before moving into executive management positions for the Celtics–adored by legions of Boston fans and equally reviled by every competing team in the league, Red was a colorful figure. No pun intended.
His was a phenomenally successful coaching career, having won the longest consecutive string of victories in any North American sport--9–including 8 from 1959-1966. In all, as coach or executive, Red had a part in crafting 16 NBA championships over a 29-year span. Red's wily ability to make complicated trades with other teams, and his uncanny ability to sniff out the very best talent available, made him a legend.
But what truly set Red apart, were his contributions beyond the game of basketball. Red Auerbach drafted the NBA's first African American player, named the first African American coach in any professional sport, and had the first all-African American starting lineup in American history.
But he also innovated and elevated the game. Red was a stickler for sound fundamentals. He believed in a fast-break offense, stifling defense, control of game tempo, rebounding and the fabled sixth man off the bench.
Famous for saying things like "There is no 'I' in team," he molded his players into unselfish, motivated teams that couldn't abide the thought of losing. Red often commented that: "Only losers accept losing."
And he knew how to motivate each and every one of his players. Red's coaching style was relentless, and often appeared ruthless, yet Celtics players became part of a family that transcended the game. And it was apparent that Red was dear to each of them.
Red's players included legends like Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones, Tom Heinsohn, John Havlicek, Bill Sharman, and more–all of whom were inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. After his coaching days, Red was instrumental in drafting and trading for the likes Dave Cowens, Larry Bird, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale, all Hall of Famers. Of course, Red himself was inducted into the Hall in 1969.
After his death, a TV interview that Red had given some time in the late '90s were again aired. One of the most memorable moments in the interview came when the reporter asked Red how he handled people (his players). Red bristled at the question and replied:
"You don't handle people. You handle animals. You deal with people."
This paraphrased Red's simple philosophy which he put forth in a book he co-wrote with sportswriter John Feinstein about coaching: "Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game," where he iterated the same thing:
"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."
What did his players, competitors, and other coaches and NBA executives think of him? After he died, they all came to pay their respects. All of them.
Tom Heinsohn memorialized him in this way: "Nobody has had as much impact on a sport as Red Auerbach had on the game of basketball. He was a pioneer of the NBA. He left his philosophy of winning championships, playing hard and playing as a team with several generations of players. He was truly a great manager of people because he got people to commit to who they were as people and what their role was on the team. He was exceptional at listening and motivating people to put out their very best."
A great legacy, and one we should all learn from. I can't help but wonder what we, as marketers, might be able to learn from Red Auerbach and his philosophy of dealing with people.
Take the first step (it's free).
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