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Saturday, October 28, 2006
A Sports Law Retrospective of the late Red Auerbach

Boston Celtics' chairman and president Arnold "Red" Auerbach passed away tonight at the age of 89. Auerbach was well-known for his coaching and player personnel accomplishments with the Celtics over the last 56 years. He was tied with Phil Jackson for the most NBA championship rings as a coach with nine, and pulled off a number of great draft picks and trades, including drafting Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and trading for Robert Parrish and Dennis Johnson, among many other accomplishments.

Auerbach's career also affected developments related to sports and the law. For instance, and as the Boston Globe's Peter May details in his Auerbach obituary tonight, Auerbach helped to break racial barriers in the NBA. Most notably, he drafted the league's first African-American player in 1950 in Chuck Cooper, hired pro sports' first African-American head coach in 1966 in Bill Russell, and started five African-Americans on the Celtics, an NBA first. Particularly when juxtaposed with the less racially-tolerant practices of the Boston Red Sox during that time, Auerbach's decisions seemed ahead of not only other NBA personnel, but sports actors and perhaps even people in general.

The low point for Auerbach in his career also influenced sports and the law. It occurred right after the Celtics, courtesy of an earlier trade engineered by Auerbach, drafted University of Maryland superstar Len Bias with the second overall pick in the 1986 draft. If any of you have seen ESPN Classic footage of Lenny Bias, you'll know exactly why he was drafted so highly--the guy was simply amazing, almost like a more gifted and rugged version of Elton Brand. But two days after the 1986 draft, Bias died of cardiac arrhythmia, most likely related to a cocaine overdose. His death would motivate NBA teams to conduct far more extensive background checks of prospective draft picks. The untimely death of Celtics' guard Reggie Lewis' in 1993 also led to reconsiderations of monitoring players with heart conditions (a topic I discuss in my recent publication in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Labor and Employment Law). While Auerbach was no longer as actively involved with the Celtics by that point, he did draft Lewis back in 1987.

But all in all, Auerbach should be remembered far more for the good times than the bad times. He was probably the most influential coach and general manager in NBA history.


This may be mentioned in the Globe obit, but on ESPN last night they were airing some pieces of Auerbach interviews, and he came out very much against a hard age floor.

His quote was something to the effect of "if they have the talent, let them play."

Blogger Satchmo -- 10/29/2006 11:36 AM  

Will (Satchmo),

Thanks for the comment. I didn't see the ESPN piece on Auerbach, but that is interesting that he supported allowing prep players the opportunity to declare for the NBA draft, rather than, like so many of his peers, endorsing a simplistic and absolute age ban. Auerbach always seemed like a bright guy, and one who would rather consider facts than dwell in popular fiction, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised. He was truly a legend and often one step ahead of his time.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 10/29/2006 7:02 PM  

Yes, he certainly was ahead of his time and was a model citizen. As far as popular fiction, well, seems to me that the simplistic and absolute age ban prevails as of today despite his attitude toward the "hard age floor."

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/29/2006 8:54 PM  

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