Red Auerbach, the Celtics’ patriarch and noted master of the swindle, pulled off many great deals in his day, but his most important maneuver involved the Ice Capades. First, he persuaded team owner Walter Brown to offer the show to Rochester for a week if the Royals (the team that would eventually become the Sacramento Kings) would pass on the player he wanted in the draft. Then, he swapped a pair of players to St. Louis to move up and select his man: William Felton Russell.
The franchise, and Boston, would never be the same.
With Russell patrolling the middle and igniting the fast break with his trademark blocked shots and outlet passes, the Celtics won 11 championships in 13 years, making them one of the great dynasties in pro sports.
Auerbach and Russell were unlikely partners, but they understood one another. Together they challenged convention and the racial practices of the day. When Auerbach stepped down after the 1966 season, he appointed Russell the first black head coach in North American sports on the rationale that the only other man who could coach Russell was Russell himself. The Celtics were not social activists as much as they were realists in a time of tremendous, and often ugly, social upheaval.
It was an uneasy relationship between the city and its star. Russell used to say that he played for the Celtics — leaving Boston symbolically out of the equation — and he made it sound like some utopian vision of teamwork, camaraderie and togetherness. It was a far different reality than he and some of his teammates faced on a daily basis.
Mostly, though, they won. Russell begat Dave Cowens and John Havlicek, and they begat Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, and for years the Celtics were the panacea against another Sox collapse or a futile Patriots season.
It’s fair to say that the Celtics have a higher national profile than they do locally, which isn’t the same as saying people here don’t care. They do, passionately. But even today, Red, Russell and the championship banners hover symbolically and literally over the famed parquet floor of the Garden. Simply placing themselves in the pantheon is achievement enough for the modern-day Celtics.