Red Auerbach, Walter Brown and ‘Gaming’ the Draft

Everyone’s heard the story about Red Auerbach promising Bill Russell, as they were leaving the locker room for his first pro game, that they’d never discuss his statistics when negotiating his salary.

Of course, Red knew at the time that he was addressing a rookie – a precocious one, no doubt – but nonetheless a rookie, a newcomer to the team and its culture.

The veterans on that team, the ones already clued in to that culture, much preferred “talking contract” with the Celtics’ kindly owner, Walter Brown.

The wily Auerbach and Mr. Brown (aided, abetted and occasionally steered by partner Lou Pieri) could be a formidable “Good Cop – Bad Cop” combination, not only within the organization, but within the league. Their guile at an early ‘50’s owners’ meeting would allow Red to draft Frank Ramsey and Cliff Hagen, and then Larry Bird a lifetime later, Hall of Famers all.

In practice, Mr. Brown deferred to Red in everything basketball-related while he tended to league and organizational matters.

On occasion, the spheres of influence would overlap, and a difference of opinion between two very strong-willed men could arise. Mr. Brown yielded to his newly-hired coach’s choice of postman Charley Share with the first pick in the 1950 draft instead of some “local yokel” named Cousy … but not four years later when his coach advised against supporting a new-fangled innovation called a “shot clock.”

From Red’s 1985 memoir On & Off the Court: “Sure I want what’s good for the Celtics, but I care about the league as well. So did Walter Brown when he owned the team. There were many times when Walter voted in favor of something that he believed was for the good of the league, even after I tried to convince him it would victimize his own ballclub. That’s the kind of guy he was.”

About Walter Brown, Auerbach’s final assessment dubbed him “a magnificent human being who personified everything good in sports.”

The First Clippers?

While the Minneapolis Lakers were casting their long shadow over the league’s first decade, the New York Knicks were enjoying more on-court success than Brown’s Celtics – a perennial playoff qualifier, coming within one win of a championship in 1952 and reaching two other Finals.

But then, inexplicably, the Knicks morphed into a precursor for the calamitous Clippers. Between March 16, 1955 and March 26, 1967, the New York Knickerbockers failed to win in the playoffs – and I don’t mean a series. For over twelve years they didn’t win a single post-season game.

I find it ironic that the most consistent bone of contention between the C’s “Proper Bostonian” owner and his hard-scrabble coach straight off Merchant’s Row in NYC involved the Knicks.

Allow me to let Mr. Auerbach take over the narrative, via 2005’s Let Me Tell You a Story:

I still remember back in the sixties, when Walter Brown came up with the idea to try to help the Knicks with the extra draft choice and I said to him, ‘Walter, there’s going to come a day when the Celtics are going to need help from the league and I promise you we won’t get it.’ He didn’t believe me. But that’s exactly what happened. The Knicks were incompetent and the league went to help them. We were struck by tragedy and they never lifted a finger to help.

Hmm … the NBA’s Board of Governors, apparently at the behest of Mr. Brown, provided the Knicks some sort of preferential treatment in a 1960’s draft?

[Full Disclosure: Now I have seen one other reference to such a draft accommodation … somewhere, and in fairly recent (21st Century) times. Mr. Brown is identified as a supporter, but not the driving force, as Red seems to be implying. According to this version, the original idea was simply to give New York a Bonus first round selection. But a compromise ended up awarding the Bonus to the last-place finishers in each Division.]

It took me some digging and a little deducing to figure out just what the hell Red was talking about in that rant from his and Feinstein’s collaborative effort. My sleuthing hit nothing but dead ends initially because I’d presumed any such draft would have happened during the lifetime of Mr. Brown, who died unexpectedly eight months before his plan was implemented.

Just take a look at the top of the 1965 NBA draft and the standings that produced its arrangement:

The San Francisco Warriors made the first TWO selections of Round 1, the Pistons and Lakers none. But Detroit and LA made territorial picks. By the rules of the day, a territorial selection was made at the expense of that year’s first round pick.

But the Knicks made both a territorial choice AND the No. 3 selection in the First Round.

There it is – and New York uncharacteristically made two good choices, as both Bill Bradley and Dave Stallworth were key contributors to their 1970 championship.

Adios, Territoriality / Hola, Casino Night at Mount St. Mary’s

Curiously, the 1965 NBA Draft marked the end of its Territorial component. Despite the Big Apple’s reputation as the home of “The City Game,” Bradley was only the second player the Knicks selected via those means. (Seton Hall’s Walter Dukes in 1953 was the other.)

Between Philly’s Big Five and Overbrook HS, Eddie Gottlieb’s Warriors snatched up six locals; the Lakers so chose five players – that accounts for over half the 21 total Territorial selections over 19 years. The Celtics’ only dip into this pool yielded Tom Heinsohn, one of the 11 Territorial guys who would wind up in Springfield.

The 1966 NBA Draft, however, would lack its territorial phase – but would still have a pre-show. To be a participant in this “Prelude to a Draft,” a team was required (incentivized, maybe?) to post the very worst winning percentage in its Division. The first “winners” were the Knicks (30-50) and the Detroit Pistons (22-58). Perhaps there was a two-headed coin involved, but New York chose first. Ironically, they selected Cazzie Russell, a University of Michigan teammate of the Pistons’ ‘65 “territorial bust.” [Detroit came out OK, though, with ROY and future Celt Dave Bing.]

The Baltimore Bullets were enabled in their construction of a perennial ‘70’s contender by flopping coins that produced Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld with No. 2 picks in successive drafts.

The coin flips between Division/Conference cellar-dwellers hung around – as the NBA was literally doubling in size – through (George Orwell’s?) 1984 when Mr. Stern and his minions deemed their Lotto Game a superior ratings generator.

Contemporary Sports Literature

Red Auerbach’s words, deeds and impact are well-documented in the written annals of the NBA.

But not so much when it comes to Walter Brown.

The past 15 or 20 years – perhaps sparked by the 1999 passing of Wilt – has seen a renewed interest in the NBA’s formative years … and so much current sports lit. seems to be more thoroughly documented than a PHD’s dissertation. (Bill Reynolds’s Rise of a Dynasty,for example, draws heavily upon a recent history of Ben Kerner’s “Vagabond” Hawks. And I’m still berating myself for not grabbing the Eddie Gottlieb biography I saw – just once, dammit – at a nearby used book store.)

It’s high time we get a proper accounting of the Life and Times of Walter Brown.

Hey Bob Ryan, ya got one more project up your sleeve, perhaps? (I’d be happy to help out with the grunt work, good sir!!)

Abacus Revelation for the Road

Walter Brown was just 59 years of age when felled by a heart attack on Labor Day weekend of 1964.

Red was pushing 90 – and still holding court weekly at The China Doll – when he and John Feinstein did Let Me Tell You a Story. The feisty old dude was out stumping for the book just a couple of months or so before he died. (If you've endured this far, you might be interested in my review-of-sorts for LMTYS.)

Auerbach must have figured the book would be his last chance to even some scores, particularly regarding the Knicks and the NBA.

On the heels of the gentle scolding of Mr. Brown cited above, he went on to say:

I think a lot of people enjoyed seeing the Celtics finally suffer after all our years at the top. That still makes me angry. A couple of years after Reggie [Lewis] died, they changed the rule to say if you lost a player for an entire season you could replace him and spend a certain amount of money under [sic] the cap. They never talked about grandfathering us in at that point and we were still struggling big-time. Never. For that, I’ll never forgive them.

Red’s beef with the league regarding the Knicks dates to 1950 when, Auerbach claims, he’d signed Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton to a contract. (Clifton may have been hoop’s first free agent, his contract with the Globetrotters having just expired.)

NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff, it seems, wouldn’t approve the C’s contract, fearful that ‘Trotter owner Abe Saperstein would cry “Foul!” at the loss of his most talented player.

Red was miffed at Mr. Brown for not challenging the decision … then furious when, less than a month later, Podoloff approved Clifton’s contract with Knick and MSG owner Ned Irish – with whom Red had differences dating to his college days at George Washington.

Yea, the Good Ol' Days ... one big happy hoops family!