“Treat men with respect”: 5 ways in which legendary coach Red Auerbach impacted Bill Russell’s life

Bill Russell and Arnold Jacob "Red" Auerbach
Bill Russell and Arnold Jacob "Red" Auerbach

is the in history. There is no disputing that. Russell won eleven rings over a 13-year career with the between 1956 and 1969. He was a 12-time All-Star, five-time league MVP and four-time rebounding champ.

Russell was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975 but only accepted the honor a few years ago because he believed that there were other more deserving players who should have been enshrined before him.

On the upcoming September 11 weekend, Bill Russell will earn another accolade. He will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach. When legendary Celtics coach retired before the 1966-67 season, he appointed Russell as the head coach of the Celtics. Following Auerbach’s decision, Bill Russell became the first black coach in NBA history. He went on to win two NBA titles as player-coach with the Cs in 1968 and 1969.

Bill Russell also coached the Seattle Supersonics from 1973-77 and the Sacramento Kings for the 1987-88 season. Russell had an overall coaching record of 341-290 in the regular season and 34-27 in the playoffs.

Bill Russell, however, shared a very close relationship with Auerbach, the man with the second-highest number of championships against his name as head coach (after Phil Jackson). In his book, Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend, Russell waxes eloquent about the influence Auerbach had on him. Here are five such lessons that Russell learned from Auerbach as detailed in the book.

#1 Treating people with respect


In Bill Russell’s rookie year (1956-57) with the Boston Celtics, a journalist asked Auerbach “How do you handle that Russell?” The reporter asked Auerbach this question because he thought Russell was a difficult player to coach.

Auerbach gave the hack a fitting reply, saying, “You handle mule teams. You don’t handle men. You treat men with respect.” This statement by Auerbach left a definite impression on Bill Russell, who decided from there on that it was more important to understand people than to be understood.

#2 What can a player do for the team?


When Bill Russell joined the Celtics, he was expecting a difficult relationship with coach Auerbach since his previous relationships with coaches had been tough. To add to the situation, Russell was known to be a poor shooter when he entered the league. Auerbach asked him about this as well before Russell’s debut NBA game.

However, Auerbach didn’t go by Russell’s reputation as a poor shooter. In fact, he ended up making a deal with Russell, telling the center that he would never discuss stats at contract negotiation time. Auerbach was only interested in Bill Russell playing his game and the team winning. To that extent, Auerbach’s only concern was, “What can this guy do for our team today?”

Also Read: How many rings does Bill Russell have?

#3 Helping players improve as teammates


Bill Russell recounts a famous quote in the book where a reporter once asked Auerbach how he got along with all the star players on his team. Pat came Auerbach’s reply, saying, “There’s ten of them and one of me. Let them get along with me!”

But outside of those moments, Auerbach was always looking to improve his players, as Russell recalled. He always sought the opinion of his players on how they wanted to conduct the offense in a game. He admitted to not knowing everything. This was very different from Auerbach’s public persona. Everyone believed him to be a dominating figure, but Auerbach was quite the opposite of that.

#4 Bill Russell admired Auerbach’s quality of being a great listener


Bill Russell says that the secret of Red Auerbach’s success was that he had “great ears”. By this, Russell doesn’t mean that Auerbach had large ears, but that he was a very good listener. Not only did Auerbach listen to a player carefully, but he would absorb the information the player passed on to him. He would then proceed to act on it if it helped the individual or the team.

Bill Russell pays Auerbach the ultimate compliment in the book by saying, “He [Auerbach] was the best listener I have ever encountered.”

#5 “How do I get the best out of these guys?”


Bill Russell says that Auerbach never complained about the players he did not have on his team. He never felt that he needed a or or . His attitude was to work with the players that he had, not the ones that he did not have.

According to Russell, Auerbach worked with the players he got and the skills they had. This was different from a lot of other coaches, who wanted players to change the way they played to fit into their own system.

Russell summarized Auerbach’s attitude in this regard with the lines, “These are the guys I’m going to war with. I’m going to win with what we got. How do I get the best out of these guys?”

Surely, as Bill Russell gets inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for a second time, he will miss his longtime friend and coach, Red Auerbach.

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Edited by Raunak J