Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Of Coaches And GM's

Throughout baseball, teams, players and their agents are just beginning to stoke the Hot Stove League fires. As we await the heat, there is plenty of smoke if not fire elsewhere on the sports scene.

Andy Reid’s fall from grace might just be the fastest in Philadelphia’s long and mostly sordid coaching history. No, we’re not talking about his eight-year tenure here, the last five of which provided him with complete control over everything relating to player personnel. Instead, we are talking about the last three weeks when Reid went from head man finally out from under the long shadow cast by a certain departed player to a guy whom many doubt has control over the 53 guys who remained.

Perhaps his monosyllabic answers to every question posed don’t play well in the locker room either, where clearly much more in the way of explanation is required of him.

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Billy King begins the Sixers’ season by acknowledging he is on the hot seat. King is my candidate for the next “can’t fire the players” move in Philadelphia sports. If nothing else, his timing stinks with the election for governor a mere week away. King was once mentioned as a possibility for Pennsylvania’s highest public office; now, he will have to wait four more years to toss his hat into that ring. On second thought, that might not be so bad; the interval gives voters four years to forget what he did in his last job.

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Speaking of coaches and GM’s, the passing of Red Auerbach has understandably received wide attention. No one in professional sports history had a greater impact on his game while enjoying so much success. Not George Halas. Not Casey Stengel. Not Bear Bryant. As numerous tributes point out, Auerbach’s impact would have been tremendous had he not won a single championship. He influenced the way the game was played, who played it, how they were drafted and, ultimately, who coached it.

None of this should come as a surprise for a Jewish kid from hardscrabble Brooklyn who grew up understanding prejudice if not experiencing it first hand. If nothing else, Auerbach was a pragmatist. He refused to bend to the racist practices of his day, insisting on drafting black players, putting the best men on the court regardless of color and ultimately turning over the coaching reigns to the first African American head coach in the league.

He drafted Larry Bird when number 33 was a junior thus insuring he would play in a Celtics uniform. No one before him would have thought of “wasting” a draft pick like that. If the five best players on an Auerbach-coached team happened to be black, they were going to start even when the unwritten rule in the NBA was to limit the number of black players in order to maintain the game’s appeal to white fans.

And, then, of course, there was his record. All of those championships as a coach and then GM certainly helped to establish his legend. But what strikes me in reading the outpouring of reminiscences about him is how many former players and opponents, sportswriters and fans saw him as tough but fair, idiosyncratic but steady and, above all, human and accessible.

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