clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

When Red Auerbach Could Have Been Duke’s Basketball Coach

Auerbach vs. Frank McGuire? The mind boggles

Red Auerbach
Happy Celtics players hoist their coach, Red Auerbach, to their shoulders after downing the Syracuse Nationals, 83-80, making it three straight over the Nationals and thereby taking the Eastern Division Championship Playoffs of the NBA at Boston Garden. Players (L-R): Bill Sharman, Bob Harrison of Nationals congratulating Celts, Andy Phillip, Bill Russell, hidden, and Jungle Jim Loscutoff.
Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

People who follow Duke basketball closely probably know this but we bet a lot of you don’t: Red Auerbach, who later went on to become a basketball immortal with the Boston Celtics, was nearly the head coach at Duke.

He was hired as an assistant in 1949 when then-coach Gerry Gerard was facing death at the hands of cancer. Auerbach was supposed to take over when Gerard couldn’t do it anymore but he felt like he was waiting for him to die and just couldn’t do it. So when the Tri-City Blackhawks came calling, he took that job for a short period before resigning over a conflict with the owner.

Soon enough the Boston Celtics hired him and the rest of course is history: Auerbach built the greatest dynasty in basketball history, one of the greatest in all of sports, and changed the game in many ways.

It’s tempting to wonder what he would have done at Duke but we’re not sure it would have ended happily.

First, Auerbach really preferred total control. And secondly, he wanted the best players he could get. And in 1949, not only was Duke not prepared to integrate its basketball team and by that then the university, but road trips to places like Clemson and South Carolina would have been a nightmare for everyone - and that’s if those schools would even play the games. A lot of Southern universities simply refused to play an integrated team.

Duke didn’t have its first player for nearly 20 years and African-Americans weren’t really part of Duke basketball consistently until the ‘70s.

Faced with that, our guess is that Auerbach would have said good riddance and moved on. By then though, Bill Russell might have been somewhere else and the Celtics dynasty might never have happened. Alternative history is fun but unfortunately entirely theoretical.