54 years ago today, NBA Hall of Famer Red Auerbach coached his final game as an NBA head coach after winning his ninth championship in ten years. He continued with the Boston Celtics as an executive after stepping down, and served as a General Manager until 1984.
While the Celtics saw a slump in the late 70s, Auerbach’s career as a GM mirrors the excellence of his coaching career. He oversaw Boston win four championships in the next ten seasons, quickly rebuild and set them up to win three championships in the 1980s.
As Auerbach aged, he continued with Boston in President and Vice-President roles. He maneuvered trades at the start of his presidency to add a number two pick to the 1986 championship Celtics. Had the Len Bias’ tragedy never happened, the Celtics may have begun another decade of dominance with Auerbach in the building.
But what Auerbach did that perhaps doesn’t get enough credit is below the typical discussion of the Celtic dynasties he oversaw from various roles. After a Game 1 loss of the 1966 NBA Finals, Auerbach went out of his way to publicly name his successor: Celtics’ Center Bill Russell.
Russell, suddenly, was the first ever African American coach in NBA History. The Celtics won the 1966 Finals in 7 Games, Red stepped down, and Bill Russell was given the reins to the NBA’s best franchise.
Russell’s first season as a player-coach was a disappointment to Boston. The Celtics fell to Wilt Chamberlain and the eventual champion Philadelphia 76ers in five games. Russell and the Celtics bounced back, and won titles in 1968 and 1969 after beating Chamberlain (on Philadelphia in ’68 and LA in ’69) in both seasons. Auerbach coached several future NBA coaches. Bills Russell, KC Jones, Bill Sharman, and Don Nelson each played for Auerbach and would go on to be successful NBA Head Coaches for multiple franchises.
But even if handing the franchise over to Bill Russell in 1966 makes sense in hindsight, it certainly did not sit well with the city of Boston at the time. Sure, Boston has retired number six and built a statue surrounded by eleven plinths (one for each championship) in his honor, but the move baffled many fans in ’66. He was bluntly asked, shortly after being promoted, about if “As the first Negro head coach in a major league sport, can you do the job impartially without any racial prejudice in reverse?”
“Yes,” Russell replied. Later, he would add “I wasn’t offered the job because I am a Negro, I was offered it because Red figured I could do it.” But Bostonians had their doubts. Russell was the subject of lots of racist columns in Boston sports media, some coded and some straightforward. When they couldn’t get past Chamberlain and Philadelphia in ’67, it became because of the differences between Auerbach and Russell… Whether it was intentional or implicit, the key difference was what they looked like.
Russell won in ’68 and again in ’69, but the damage was done. Russell consistently gets painted as an angry old man, but in truth he had lots of reasons to be reserved when interacting with Boston as a city. He cites case after case in his book Second Wind, including his suburban home being vandalized, racial slurs painted across his property, and racially motivated, threatening “fan” mail in his locker.
But the story that may paint the picture the best is how he had his jersey number retired. Red Auerbach had to force Russell to have a ceremony for himself. Setting up the presentation they eventually agreed upon, simply putting Russell’s number six in a box next to the other retired numbers, was a three year process. By the time they finally did it in 1972, Auerbach and a small handful of players sat and watched his number immortalized. A joyous celebration would’ve overlooked the trials it took to put the number there. The city of Boston enjoying it with Russell and his teammates would’ve been disingenuous to the experience.
Auerbach stepping down after winning the NBA Finals on April 28th, 1966, isn’t just historic for the shift he makes in his own career, but for the shift it creates in one of the NBA’s greatest players ever. Russell was the city of Boston’s first black star athlete while playing for Auerbach (Auerbach and Boston had drafted Chuck Cooper in 1950, but Cooper’s impact was much in making it to the league, not in dominating it). In the spring of 1966, Russell was running the city’s strongest sports franchise.
The hurdles that Bill Russell ran over are not gone. Of the 30 NBA franchises, there are only seven African American head coaches. While that is nearly a third of the league, roughly three-fourths of the league’s players are African American. While that ratio is favorable to other major professional sports leagues in the United States, it certainly raises eyebrows. Further, 2020 seems to indicate a decline in African American head coaches. In 2012, 14 head coaches (almost half the league!) were African-American.
Steve Kerr replaced Mark Jackson in Golden State in 2014. Kerr’s Warriors went onto one of the best half decades in the history of basketball, while Jackson hasn’t gotten a shot since. It’s not that Kerr didn’t come in and get the team over the hump, but that Jackson laid groundwork and had those teams in the playoffs and now can’t get an interview. No one associated Jackson with the build up, just that he had yet to win big. Ty Lue was in the right place at the right time and coached Cleveland along the way to their historic comeback in 2016. In his three seasons as head coach, he went 128 and 32 for a .600 win percentage. After the dispersing of that iteration of the Cavs, Lue was fired in the first month of the 2018-19 season, and has since made his way onto the staff of Doc Rivers with the Clippers as an assistant. Again, no one associated Lue with the winning in Cleveland, just the losing. Dwane Casey received his NBA Coach of the Year award in the 2018 off season weeks after being fired by the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors, after ditching Casey, swapped DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard for what amounted to a one year rental… and resulted in a championship. Kawhi got the credit, Casey’s replacement Nick Nurse was the hero. Casey? The Pistons appear to still be figuring out what mix-matched pieces work the best, but Casey had them at .500 a year ago. David Fizdale, Mike Woodson, Mike Brown… the list goes on.
What each of these coaches has faced is eerily similar to the complaints Russell got after they lost in 1967. It was the first non-title year in Boston after eight consecutive championship runs… and to Bostonians the reason was clearly Russell calling the shots. Auerbach retiring from coaching but remaining the GM may have saved Russell his job, and thus led to the NBA championships in 1968 and ’69.
Even today, casual observers looking back still give Auerbach the credit for those last two titles. Russell coached Boston through them, but it’s hard for students of the game to separate the mentor and the mentee. But ’67? The year the Celtics lost? That was still being discussed as one of the biggest upsets in Celtics history, as recently as 2011. And it’s still tied to the decision to have Russell coach.
Auerbach couldn’t solve every issue. He knew when he drafted Chuck Cooper in 1950, when he started five black players in 1963, and when he ran his team through Bill Russell he was taking incremental steps to move the game of basketball and the city of Boston forward. He knew, when he retired in April of 1966, that handing his coaching whistle to Russell was a step he could control in giving a great basketball mind a chance.
Two years ago, at the NBA Players Awards, Bill Russell was asked about coming in as a defensive player to the offensive powerhouse that was the Celtics. “Some folks tried to encourage me to say that I want to play somewhere that the team was more defense-oriented. And my attitude was ‘I can play defense here.’” Little did he know at 22 that his defense would lead to the Celtics’ revolutionized and orchestrated fast break.
Auerbach assured Russell that “You may be worried about playing with this team. But I’m the coach, and you’ll fit.”
Talk about an understatement.
The two had a bond throughout their time with the Celtics. Russell, in the year following Auerbach’s death, pointed out that Auerbach would get technical fouls and ejections arguing on behalf of his black players. “First time that I had a coach who went to bat for me. After that game, I said ‘thanks for looking out for me.’ Red says to me ‘Russ, loyalty is a two-way street.’”
That two-way street led all the way to Russell getting to drive the bus. 54 years ago today, Red Auerbach retired and handed Bill Russell the keys.
It’s funny, Red Auerbach’s accolades as a head coach read like a CVS receipt: nine time champion, eleven time All-Star Game coach, selected as one of the ten best coaches of all time at the NBA’s 50th Anniversary. But what may have been his biggest effort was handing off the keys at the end of his career. Coaches rarely get the opportunities to name their replacements anymore. A coach even leaving on his or her own terms is almost unheard of. But Red Auerbach had a plan, and a brilliant friend to be loyal to.
And loyalty is a two-way street.
Zach LaVine Is The Missing Piece For The Sixers by Chris Allen
Zach LaVine is a 6’6 catch and shoot lob threat. This 25-year-old two-time slam dunk champion has spent his career trying to make it to the playoffs or keep the Chicago Bulls at 500. In contrast, he’s averaging over 25 points per game since 2019, per basketball reference. LaVine is bound to be an All-Star this year, having career highs in both points and FG shooting percentage. His skill set, and size, might be the missing piece for the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 76ers have themselves projected anywhere from a 2-4 seed coming out of the Eastern Conference. Ben Simmons is the best playmaker and on-ball defender on the team. Joel Embiid is a beast in the post and spreads the floor. Tobias Harris is a solid shooter anywhere on the floor and can create his own shot. Out of the three, the most tradeable player is Harris in exchange for LaVine. Depending on management, you can make LaVine sign an extension or throw in Danny Green and Otto Porter Jr. to offset the salary cap.
How would the 76ers offense and defense schemes work? In theory, depending on matchups, Simmons would play the four on defense for the most part and alternate with LaVine or another guard to play the one. This allows for more explosive offensive firepower surrounding Simmons and still creates space for Embiid to operate in the post or stretch the floor. This open space leaves room for your slashers, Simmons and LaVine.
With all the movement and attention on the central core, spot up, catch and shoot three-point shots will thrive. Matisse Thybulle, Seth Curry, & possibly Porter Jr. offer the Sixers solid shooting on the floor to make this a solid offense. Simmons at the four on defense allows him to turn into the point guard as soon as he gets the rebound hitting LaVine on the fast break for quick transition points.
LaVine can do something that Simmons can’t do, which is the ability to shoot from outside the paint. Whatever position you put them in, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and keep Philadelphia’s offense potent. Philly still has depth with Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey for guards if Simmons and LaVine ran as your forwards.
No one wants LaVine to have career numbers on a struggling team. Simmons and Embiid are rare in their skill set. They could use an independent scorer to take away attention and get a bucket when needed. With LaVine holding the ball more, there’s less talk about where Simmons sits in the offense with his lack of shooting. With the trade deadline coming, it will be interesting to see whether LaVine will stay a Bull or find himself with a contender for a ring.
Damian Lillard Named Cover Athlete for NBA 2K21
There aren’t many players in the NBA that are as exciting to watch as Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard can drop 50 points on any given night, putting up statistics only seen in video games.
Due to his gaudy play this year, Lillard has been announced as the first of three players that will grace the cover of the NBA’s premier video game franchise, NBA 2K.
Lillard was in the midst of a remarkable season prior to the league shutdown, as he averaged a career-high 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. If the season resumes next month, Lillard will look to close a 3.5 games gap across an eight-game schedule to get his Trail Blazers into playoff position.
Regardless of how this season ends for Lillard though, it will still go down as another incredible campaign for the five-team All-Star. One worthy of his first selection as the cover athlete on 2K.
Lillard will be on the cover of NBA 2K21 for all the current-gen gaming consoles including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC and Google Stadia systems. 2K still needs to announce another cover athlete for the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles.
For the 29-year-old point guard, this honor is very gratifying as it continues to solidify his status as one of the game’s most elite players.
Due to the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still unclear whether NBA 2K21 will be released at it’s regularly scheduled drop-date in September, or if it will be pushed back to accommodate the league’s changed schedule.
If the season is played in it’s entirety, many don’t expect the 2020-2021 NBA season to start until late November, if not some time in December.
Stephen Jackson: Journey Man
Nearly two months ago, when the NBA announced the 2020 Hall of Fame class, and in the midst of having no sports to televise, ESPN ran a series of important games from Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan’s careers. For Duncan, ESPN played his near quadruple-double to seal the 2003 NBA Finals. In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed buckets, the New Jersey defense collapsed in on Duncan, who kicked to a wide-open, third-year NBA player named Stephen Jackson. Jackson hit three big three-pointers, Spurs win. For many, some combination of that performance (being the secondary star in a non-primetime, 17-year-old basketball game) and his All The Smoke podcast with Matt Barnes was the most thought given to Stephen Jackson in quite some time. Jackson went on, after a brief stint in San Antonio, to play for six franchises in eleven years before retiring in 2015. Many would call him a journeyman for his travels in the NBA, and assumed his life would settle down after that.
Last week Stephen Jackson put himself, and his cause, in front of everyone. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by four police officers, Jackson took to his Instagram to let the world see and hear the pain he had for his lost friend. Floyd grew up in Houston, Jackson in Port Arthur. For those not acquainted with Texas’ geography, the two went to high school just over an hour apart. Many in Port Arthur residents, like Jackson as a child, go into the city of Houston when they need things you’d find in the city. Port Arthur is a tough-minded oil town that functions as both a suburb of the city of Beaumont and the city of Houston. It’s produced the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Pimp C, and Bun B… but Stephen Jackson is the only notable NBA alum that cites it as home. You can see Port Arthur’s toughness in Johnson, Charles, and Jackson. You can see its swagger in Pimp C, Bun B, and Jackson.
And now, you can see him representing Port Arthur, and making a difference.
Everyone ended their Memorial Day weekend watching the same horrifying viral video. It hit everyone differently. For some, it was a wake-up call to the deadly realities of police brutality. To others, it was an anger-inducing “another one?!” To still others, it was horrifyingly close to home, with a mirror-like reality. And to Jackson? It was his lifelong friend. His “twin.”
Jackson and Floyd have known each other since childhood. Both were active athletes from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds, but the “twin” moniker came not only because they were figuratively brothers, but because they look eerily similar to one another. The two played pick-up basketball in the Cuney Homes housing complex of Houston’s Third Ward. (Jackson has, in the last week, really done an intentional job of pointing out how talented of an athlete Floyd was. To be frank, it is very important. The difference in Floyd’s life cut short and Jackson’s life in the NBA can come down to a few breaks or ball bounces here and there.)
While much of the nation’s initial anger over George Floyd’s murder was in their own homes for the initial twenty-four hours, Stephen Jackson’s was cast for the world to see.
In the following days, Jackson continued to post homage to Floyd while he made his way to Minneapolis to lead protests. Once there, he made his message clear: no one was going to diminish Floyd’s name. No one was going to rest until action was taken. Change was coming, and Jackson was ready to work for it.
Jackson was surrounded by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie, actor Jamie Foxx, Houston area rap artist Trae the Truth, amongst other protestors. After speaking to the crowd, Jackson and others went outside marched to the Hennepin County Government Center.
Protests and marches have been commonplace all over the United States of America this week. In an effort to combat police brutality, communities are banding together to have their voices heard. Both in-person and online, at the forefront of these protests continue to be high profile athletes and celebrities. In North Carolina, Dennis Smith Jr. and J. Cole were mixed into the marches like everyone else. Jaylen Brown did the same in Atlanta. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an op-ed for the LA Times. It clearly did not take being connected to the situation like Stephen Jackson to take the lead in the community.
In the week since publicly sharing his pain, Jackson has become the face of NBA players involved in the protests, and his movements are seeing results. Within hours of his statements in Minneapolis, the police officer who murdered Floyd was arrested. Protests have continued, calling for both the arrests of his three partners who watched him idly, and for their four convictions. Since Jackson spoke out, major shoe brands, EA Sports, and even Adam Silver have come out in support of the protests. Jackson, who made a career as a reserved tough guy, pushed much of the NBA world to the point of speaking up. While COVID quarantine certainly helped further the cause (everyone is stuck at home with little other distractions, searching social media), Jackson’s activism is the inspiration we look for.
What’s both fascinating and disturbing is George Floyd was not the first unarmed black man murdered on camera. He wasn’t even the first of such since the COVID quarantine started, and the violent reaction to the protests imply he won’t be the last victim of police brutality either. But, his name and case are pushing people to a protesting brink at a national level. There are several factors, but Jackson and the ensuing NBA involvement is certainly a big one.
The murder of an unarmed person at the hands of the police shouldn’t need celebrity grief to become a tragedy. NBA players shouldn’t have to remind the public they’ve been wearing “I CAN’T BREATHE” tee-shirts since 2014. The news should sting on its own and, if you’re paying attention, it always does.
However, in Jackson’s grief he helped elevate this particular case. The NBA, and pro sports, can humanize black people for many white audiences that otherwise don’t get to interact with people that don’t look like them. For decades neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces have been (intentionally or unintentionally) segregated through various means. As pointedly illustrated in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowe, these systems can perpetuate cyclically and lock people into only being around folks that look like them. Humanized professional athletes can bring new faces into white neighborhoods, as they connect with and idolize people on their team. Jackson is one of those faces, and he isn’t just “involved” in the ongoing fight in Floyd’s name. In his own words, he’s “all in.”
Jackson’s activism can bring those conversations into white homes, neighborhoods, and families. It can help force the issue and conversation. Recent generations of NBA players have been very socially active, and time after time we see the issues they take up carry significant weight. It’s sad to admit, but in many ways it’s vital. It makes the stories human to more people, because Jackson is a human known by more people.
Jackson has spent the last week publicly riding an emotional roller coaster. He mourned the loss of his friend, was firm in pursuing justice, and was open in sharing his story. As we enter week two of Jackson’s journey, he has accepted being the leader of the current athlete activists.
“Like, I’m honest with you: I did not expect to have the role and to have so many people waiting to see what I have to say and what’s the next move,” Jackson told ESPN. “Like, I didn’t ask to be in this position, but I’m embracing it. I’m embracing it.”
But what does that mean? What does embracing it look like for Journey Man Jackson?
“We got to vote,” Jackson continued. “I’m not just talking about the president. I’m talking about the local city council. I’m talking about your police chief, your fire chief. We need to vote for all that type of stuff because all that stuff’s going to matter at the end. And what we’re doing now as far as protesting everywhere around the world, we got to use that same energy when it’s time to vote.”
“Coming into this, I’ve seen so many situations not pan out right,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen the impossible happen also. And I think this is that situation. I think this [is] going to be the change. My brother’s death is going to be change. I think we’re going to get convictions for all of them. I think they’re drawing it out right now because this is the typical system. That’s why we got to change the rules — they look out for each other. They try their best to look out for each other. So this is expected by me.”
“But we’re going to fight. This is a marathon. And we’re going to continue this fight, and we’re going to outfight them. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep this thing going. They’re going to get tired of hearing about George Floyd. They’re going to get tired of hearing his name.”
The word “journey” carries a lot more positivity than “journeyman.” A journey can be life-changing, and it can be historically impactful. A journeyman is a wanderer; he’s lost or he has no home. A journey is going to be important. Calling someone a journeyman implies they weren’t important enough to stick in one place.
However, in the NBA journeymen are often beloved by other players because they have to be good teammates to survive. Journeymen change clubhouses frequently, and they’re more appealing to more teams if their past teammates can attest to their characters. But to fans, and outsiders, they tend to be the periphery of the storylines of the league. Sure, Stephen Jackson hit a barrage of three-pointers in the 2003 NBA Finals, but they were off of Tim Duncan’s assists. He’s an emblem of toughness, but Jackson never stayed in the same organization for more than two complete seasons (though he did have two separate two year periods in San Antonio).
Players love Jackson, that’s evident in his podcasting and TV appearances. But he was never integral to the NBA’s story throughout his journeyman-days. He was always going to be remembered as the guy who scored on Duncan’s kick out, or the teammate that got traded, or the veteran on a one-year deal. If you watched the NBA in his 14-year career, you knew who he was… but his playing days didn’t indicate he’d be an unforgettable piece of the story of the league.
But as the latest chapters of Jackson’s story is being written, he’s looking more like a man on a journey than a journeyman. If you persist he is a journeyman, he’s clearly chosen to focus on the breakdown of the word regardless of your perception.
And his leadership has proven far more than necessary in connection to the story of America in 2020 than it ever was in connection to the NBA.
If you have the means to, or would like to donate to help the cause Jackson is at the front of, please consider the following places to start:
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