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Red Auerbach’s NBA drafts were informal and uninformed

Word of mouth is what first tipped off Red Auerbach (right) to Bill Russell; that couldn’t happen today.Walter Green/AP file photo/Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD — I am standing here in the uppermost Honor Ring of the planetarium-like Basketball Hall of Fame, looking at the images of all the great Celtics and thinking about how they were acquired in the days of Red Auerbach, when the draft was a little less sophisticated than it is today.

Hmmmm. There’s Bill Russell. He was pretty good. Red first heard about Russell from Bill Reinhart, who was Red’s college coach at George Washington. During the 1953-54 NCAA season, Russell’s San Francisco Dons crushed GW in a tournament in Oklahoma City. Russell was only a sophomore, but Auerbach got reports on the kid from Reinhart and his West Coast friends, Pete Newell, Freddy Scolari, and Don Barksdale.


Soon, a lot of folks knew about Russell, so Red had to go to work. He cut a deal with his former boss, Ben Kerner, who owned the St. Louis Hawks. St. Louis had the second pick in the draft. Red agreed to give the Hawks Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan for the No. 2 pick (Oscar Robertson always held that St. Louis did not want a black star in 1956).

Unfortunately, Rochester had the No. 1 pick, so Red had to make sure the Royals would not take Russell. Red called upon Celtics owner Walter Brown, who offered to give Rochester owner Lester Harrison the Ice Capades show for two weeks each winter. Harrison agreed, and Rochester selected Duquesne guard Sihugo Green with the No. 1 pick. Red got Russell.

In the same draft, Auerbach selected Tommy Heinsohn and K.C. Jones. They are also on the ceiling here in Springfield. Three Hall of Famers for one team in a single draft. It’s safe to say that won’t happen this year.

Also on the Hall ceiling, 12 squares over from Russell, we have Sam Jones, who was drafted in 1957. Jones has 10 championship rings. He went to tiny North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central), and few folks saw him play college ball. There was no ESPN, no AAU bag men, no scouting bureau. One of Red’s former players, Bones McKinney, was coaching at Wake Forest and recommended Jones to Auerbach.


“I was so damn busy,’’ Auerbach recalled in 1993. “I didn’t know who to draft. I called Bones McKinney down in North Carolina. I asked him if there was anybody down there in that area who could play. Bones told me this kid Sam Jones was as fast as lightning.’’

Among the players picked ahead of Jones were Charles Tyra, Jim Krebs, Win Wilfong, Brendan McCann, Len Rosenbluth, and George Bon Salle. None of those guys are on the ceiling here in Springfield. Jones was the final pick of the first round.

Directly above Jones on the Hall ceiling, I see the photo of a young John Havlicek. Havlicek had been overshadowed at Ohio State by Jerry Lucas and had designs on playing in the NFL. No problem. Red liked the idea of taking someone who was the second-best player on his college team.

After the NBA Draft, Havlicek tried out for the Cleveland Browns and was one of the last players cut. He wound up as the Celtics’ all-time scoring leader.

In the 1962 draft, Havlicek was picked after Bill McGill, Paul Hogue, Zelmo Beaty, Len Chappell, Wayne Hightower, and Leroy Ellis. None of them are on the ceiling. Like Jones, Havlicek was the final pick of the first round.


In those days, the draft was . . . informal. And uninformed. The informality sometimes came back to bite Auerbach.

In 1963, when he could have selected Gus Johnson, Red picked a 6-foot-8-inch forward from Colorado State named Bill Green. After the draft, Green informed Auerbach that he did not fly on airplanes. Green went home and never played a minute in the NBA.

So there are some advantages to today’s exhaustively thorough selection process.

Nobody prepares more than Danny Ainge. And the Celtics president is as bold as Auerbach was. He doesn’t care about public perception. He trusts his superior basketball instincts.

But mistakes happen. In 2005, Ainge took high school player Gerald Green with his first pick (No. 18 overall), and Gerald Green became his Bill Green. Gerald Green flew — in airplanes and on the court — but he wasn’t ready for the NBA when he played for the Celtics.

The Celtics have picks Nos. 6 and 17 Thursday night. It appears that Kevin Love is not coming to Boston. I don’t think Carmelo Anthony is coming to Boston. LeBron James will not be taking his talents to Revere Beach.

So it looks as if the Celtics might have to (gulp) build through the draft. A few weeks ago, owner Wyc Grousbeck talked about “playing the kids” the way the Celtics did from 2003-07 when they went 138-190 and did not win a playoff series. They bottomed out at 24-58, which is just one game worse than the tankapalooza season we just witnessed.


So here goes. Unless there’s a big trade (Rajon Rondo? Two first-rounders for Cleveland’s No. 1?), the big move of Thursday night comes when the Celtics make the No. 6 pick. What do they do if 7-foot/broken-foot Joel Embiid is still on the board? Do they see Embiid as a potential Hakeem Olajuwon, worth the wait while his bones mend? Or is Embiid more like Sam Bowie or Greg Oden without the collegiate résumé? Who wants a 20-year-old big man with big injury problems?

All signs point to 6-foot-9-inch, 18-year-old Aaron Gordon from Arizona. Or Kentucky’s Julius Randle. Or maybe guard Marcus Smart if Ainge plans on trading Rondo.

I will make a case for Adreian Payne. He’s 6-10, with a 7-4 wingspan, and played four full seasons for Tom Izzo at Michigan State.

Draftniks who fall in love with athleticism have overlooked Payne probably because he’s 23 years old. I see that as a benefit. Payne isn’t 19, but he actually knows how to play basketball. He is NBA-ready.

Nobody is touting him as high as No. 6, but he might still be available at 17. Ainge should find a way to get this guy, because everyone is overlooking him.

We know only that the Celtics will be prepared. No information is overlooked. It’s just not like the old days of Red and “his guys.’’ Lester Harrison and Bones McKinney aren’t walking through that door Thursday night.


Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at Follow him on Twittter @Dan_Shaughnessy.