Basketball Short Story
Gotta Have Him
The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End,
Gary Pomerantz (2018)
It is 1957. Red Auerbach, the Celtics coach, is trying to decide whether to draft Bill Russell.
If Russell was everything he seemed to be, he could remake the Celtics, in particular the team's fast break. Long, lean, and springy, Russell on defense became like a Venus flytrap, thwarting shots that flew toward him. In college, Russell's defense and shot blocking proved game altering. His University of San Francisco coach, Phil Woolpert, said that in one game against Cal-Berkeley, Russell blocked 25 shots. By the second half of many games, opposing shooters weren't the same; Russell's psychological warfare reduce them to dupes, their shooting confidence gone. Auerbach understands this, just as he understood that he needed a center to battle the Knicks' Harry Gallatin and Sweetwater Clifton and Syracuse's Johnny Kerr and Dolph Schayes. Ed Macauley couldn't win those battles. He was too thin. The Celtics had lost in the playoffs for six straight seasons to those two teams in large part because Auerbach didn't have a rugged big man. He also needed someone to get [Bob] Cousy the ball on the fast break.
Auerbach had friends watching Russell, and he strafed them with a thousand questions. As a rebounder, he heard, Russell had long arms, inside quicker. A master of positioning, Russell always seemed in the right spot for a rebound. Auerbach listened to the criticisms as well: Russell was not a good shooter or ball handler, and he seemed moody ... It was widely known that Abe Saperstein wanted Russell for the Globetrotters, reportedly offering as much as $50,000, but Russell wasn't interested.
Russell was not a conventional center; he wasn't a primary scorer. Not everyone was convinced he would became an NBA star. Auerbach brushed aside such thinking. Russell, he believed, was a winner: He had just won consecutive NCAA championships and, at the moment, was riding a 56-game winning streak at USF. All eight NBA teams knew Russell was available in the draft. Even though he played beyond the media spotlight in the Far West, he would not slip through any cracks, not at nearly 6'10". Auerbach told [owner Walter] Brown the Celtics had to have him. The trouble was, Boston had the sixth pick in the draft, much too low to get Russell. Besides, the Celtics intended to give up that first-round pick to select Tom Heinsohn of Holy Cross, the NCAA's fourth leading scorer, as a territorial selection; in this way, the NBA allowed teams to select a popular college player in their region, within a radius of 50 miles, figuring that would help at the gate. ...
Auerbach could never undo what Harry Frazee had done to Boston sports by selling Babe Ruth in 1920, but by acquiring Russell in the 1956 NBA draft he would bring to the Hub a luminious new star whose effect on his sport would be nearly as dramatic as the Babe's on his. What Ruth did for baseball with his offense, Russell would do for basketball with his defense. Both became the foundational piece of a dynasty.

L-R: Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Walter Brown, Tom Heinsohn
No one knew for certain what was to come on draft day, April 30, 1956. Rochester had the first pick. Auerbach knew that Royals owner Lester Harrison was bleeding money, and that his team already had an excellent big man, Maurice Stokes, an African-American all-star who as a rookie had averaged nearly seventeen points per game. Russell was said to be seeking $25,000 per season, probably too rich for Harrison's blood, Auerbach thought. Besides, Harrison needed a guard and privately told Brown that he wanted Duquesne’s Sihugo Green with the draft’s first pick. St. Louis picked second. Here, Auerbach thought, was his opportunity. He knew that Russell didn't want to play for the Hawks, an all-white team in the league's southernmost city. Auerbach negotiated a deal with his old boss, Ben Kerner, who had moved his Hawks from Tri-Cities to Milwaukee to St. Louis: Auerbach would trade Macauley, a seven-time all-star, popular with Boston fans and with Brown, in return for Russell, who would be selected with the draft's second pick. Much as he enjoyed playing for the Celtics, Macauley, a St. Louis native, wanted to play for the Hawks because his young son had been diagnosed with spinal meningitis and Macauley needed to be closer to home. Kerner pondered the offer. He wanted more. He wanted Macauley and Cliff Hagan, an all-American from Kentucky who had been fulfilling his military obligation and had yet to play for the Celtics but now was ready to go. Auerbach nearly choked on his cigar. Macauley and Hagan? That's a kick in the head! He desperately wanted Russell, and Kerner knew that, so Auerbach and Brown agreed to it. Preparing for all possibilities, a few weeks before the draft Auerbach and Brown secretly met at Boston Garden with Kerner and his coach, Red Holzman, and agreed that if Rochester changed its mind and took Russell with the first pick, then St. Louis would choose another big man and send him to the Celtics. On draft day, Auerbach's insides churned. But when Rochester took Green, the Celtics' coach reveled in his great fortune: Russell was his. Then, in the second round, with the thirteenth pick overall, the Celtics chose Russell's USF teammate guard K.C. Jones. In one draft, Auerbach obtained three future Hall of Famers, a feat that hasn't been equaled by an NBA team in the more than sixty years since. Of course, in so doing, he traded away two future Hall of Famers in Macauley and Hagan. "A shrewd maneuver," the Globe's Herb Ralby wrote of the Russell acquisition. In the Boston Evening American, Larry Claflin went a step further, praising the Celtics for "shocking the basketball world.” Preparing that fall with the U.S. Olympic team for the Melbourne Games, Russell played an exhibition at the University of Maryland. Auerbach and Brown showed up to see their new game changer for the first time. Russell played terribly. Auerbach thought, What did I do? If this was the real Russell, he decided, I’m a dead pigeon. That night, after the game, Russell apologized to Brown and Auerbach, saying he had never played so poorly. "I am much better than that. It will never happen again," Russell promised. Auerbach pulled aside Brown and told him that he'd never heard a young player apologize in this way. A classy kid, Auerbach thought. He recalibrated his thinking, telling Brown, "Maybe there is something here."