Trading the Ice Capades for Bill Russell

As the NBA draft approaches, I thought of the story of Red Auerbach’s acquisition of Bill Russell.  This story*– told in “Let Me Tell a Story: A Lifetime in the Game”, the autobiography Auerbach wrote with John Feinstein, (a book I very much recommend and is available for less than $6 at Amazon.com) – was going to be re-told in Stumbling on Wins.  Unfortunately – in the process of editing the book — it ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor.  As we think about how much teams think about today, it is interesting pick this story up from the floor and look back a time when teams had far less information before the NBA draft.

The NBA draft has always been a part of the league.  But the resources teams could devote to the process were initially quite limited.

To illustrate, consider how the Boston Celtics came to draft Hall-of-Fame center Bill Russell. The person responsible for acquiring Russell was Red Auerbach.  Back in 1950 Auerbach became the Celtics head coach, as well as “general manager, chief scout, and marketing guru.” 

For the first six years of Auerbach’s tenure the Celtics consistently posted a winning record but could never get past the Eastern Division Finals.  And then in 1956 Auerbach got a call from Bill Reinhart, his old college coach. Reinhart had just visited the West Coast and seen a player from the University of San Francisco named Bill Russell.  When Reinhart returned from California he called Auerbach and said: “I’ve seen this guy who can make you into a championship team. You have to get this guy.”  Reinhart went on to discuss Russell’s ability to get rebounds and play defense.

Of course Auerbach wondered if Russell could contribute on offense.  In Reinhart’s view, Russell was not a very good shooter and couldn’t help Boston much on offense.  Nevertheless, Reinhart thought Russell was a player who could help the Celtics win games.

For the remainder of the college season Auerbach tracked Russell and the University of San Francisco (primarily via newspaper reports). When the season was over Russell’s team was undefeated and had won a second straight NCAA title. 

We should emphasize that Auerbach claims he never saw Russell play before he was drafted.  Auerbach’s interest in Russell was entirely based on what Reinhart told him about his play and the record Russell’s team achieved.  Based on this limited information, Auerbach took the following steps to acquire Russell.

The Celtics entered the 1956 draft with the 7th pick.  This pick was sent to the St. Louis Hawks – along with Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan, for the 2nd pick.  It was believed that the Rochester Royals – who had the first pick – might want to take Russell. Auerbach, though, had a secret weapon.  The owner of the Celtics, Walter Brown, was also the president of the Ice Capades.  Brown called up the owner of the Royals– Lee Harrison — with the following offer:  Brown would send the Ice Capades to Rochester for one week if the Royals would pass on Russell. 

Harrison agreed and with the first overall choice in the 1956 draft the Royals selected Si Green, a guard from Duquesne.  Green only played 33 games with the Rochester-Cincinnati Royals before he was sent to the St. Louis Hawks.  After the Hawks he played for a franchise that transformed from the Chicago Packers, to the Chicago Zephyrs, and finally to the Baltimore Bullets.  And then he finished his career in 1965-66 with the Boston Celtics.  Across his nine season career Green never averaged more than 12.7 points per game and he was below average in shooting efficiency.  Although we can’t measure Wins Produced prior to 1977, one suspects given the data that is available that Green was not one of the better NBA player in the game during his career.  In sum, one hopes the shows the Ice Capades put on for that one week in Rochester were simply amazing; because it certainly appears Si Green never came close to the productivity of Bill Russell. 

Lessons Learned

Okay, beyond this being a fascinating story about Red Auerbach, what do we learn from this tale?

1. Back in the 1950s, the NBA was a very small business.  Can one imagine a team trading the rights to host a show over taking a player with the number on pick?  If that is the still the case, what show would the Wizards take to pass on John Wall?

2. This story highlights how little information decision-makers had before drafting talent in the 1950s.  Although I believe you need to do more than just watch a player, I wouldn’t think anyone would want to draft a talent they never even saw play.   Certainly one wouldn’t expect anyone today to go to this much effort for a player they had never met.

3. And finally, this story also highlights a point we made in Stumbling on Wins. Often the first pick in the NBA draft is far more productive than the second pick (although in this case, Russell was technically the second pick). Therefore NBA teams have an incentive to do whatever they can to land that first pick. 

Of course, “often the first pick…” is not “always.”  If John Wall does go first in 2010, I am not sure he will necessarily be much better than the players who go afterwards.

Update: Some people have questioned whether the Celtics gave up the seventh pick in the 1956 draft to acquire Bill Russell.  Here is what Auerbach and Feinstein said in their book: “(Auerbach) called his old boss Ben Kerner, who by then owned the team in St. Louis. He offered (Ed) Macauley and a swap of first round draft picks — Kerner’s number two slot for Red’s number seven slot. According to Red, Kerner said, “Deal”.” 

- DJ

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*-This story is told in Feinstein and Auerbach (2004), pp. 73-76.

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