note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Celtics or basketball fan. Playwright-author-filmmaker Ken Dooley’s one-man, two-hour play, “The Auerbach Dynasty,” which Dooley also directs, is a multi-media, fascinating look at sports icon Arnold “Red” Auerbach, who broke racial and sports barriers, changing the game forever.
That indomitable champion of the Boston Celtics died in 2006, but his spirit lives on, as he chats about his exciting career in Dooley’s entertaining play.
Before the play begins, a large movie screen flashes clips and photos of Auerbach, his past, his family, photos of him and his teams, his famous victory cigar, and more, motivating the audience. Diehard, longtime Celtics fans reminisced, while younger fans were in thrall.
Last Friday night, I met the marvelously humble Mr. Dooley, but also spoke with Celtics greats Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn, who graciously shared their enthusiasm about the play - and the legendary redhead.
Calling “The Auerbach Dynasty” 99 percent accurate, Heinsohn praised and congratulated Dooley after the show. Throughout the two-hour show, Cousy pensively watched actor Jeff Gill and the large screen behind him, flashing a plethora of photos, news clippings, movie and TV shots of himself, Auerbach, NBA basketball notables and Celtics. “Red was competitive and so was I,” Cousy told me, affirming Dooley’s account of the two sports giants’ relationship and mutual admiration.
Dressed in typical Auerbach garb, his infamous long cigar in hand, Gill holds court, captivating the audience with his fireside chat, tracing the birth and growth of the National Basketball Association and Auerbach’s sensational career.
He was born the son of immigrant parents in Brooklyn, NY, who loved playing basketball, starting in childhood. That love grew into a 56-year, colorful, groundbreaking career, in which he became the winningest coach, manager and president, kicking off the Celtics dynasty by winning 17 championships.
Auerbach was also “color blind”. With Celtics’ president Walter Brown’s staunch approval, Auerbach broke the color barrier by hiring Chuck Cooper, the first black basketball player, over Holy Cross local white star, Bob Cousy, as his first draft choice, creating controversy among the “local yokels” for overlooking the Boston rising star player. Auerbach hired Cousy later, kicking off a lifelong friendship.
Auerbach was also the first to hire a starting all-black team, raising concerns, especially since the league was silently segregated, as the other team general managers and owners wanted to create a “quota” system. He tells two shameful stories of the team traveling down South and to Indiana. “They hand us the keys to the city, but won’t open the doors to us,” quipped player Sam Jones. Auerbach admitted he should have packed up and left, not allowing his team to play in such bigoted circumstances, but he wanted to show crowds how outstanding and superior his players were.
Laid back and easygoing, Gill as Auerbach chronically relates his life, his love, Dorothy Lewis, his amazing career, starting as a high school basketball coach, then in the Navy, his coaching strategy and bag of tricks, including some hysterical trading hijinks, his battles with referees, brilliant choice of players and Celtics announcer, (gravel-voiced Johnny Most), peppered with Chinese fortune cookie sayings and quotes, fascinating, fun anecdotes, highlighted by associated large images on screen.
He also mentions new Celtics owner, John Y Brown, and his coaching successor Rick Pitino, who insisted on usurping all authority, refusing to listen to retired Auerbach, who was Celtics president then. Pitino didn’t last long here.
The play ends poignantly, wistfully, with Auerbach’s legacy lingering long after the curtain closes.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two-hour, one-man, multimedia play, written by Ken Dooley, appearing through July 3 at the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown.Showtimes are June 29,30, July 1, at 8 p.m.; July 2, at 3 and 8 p.m.; July 3, at 3 p.m. only. Tickets: $35. Call 617-923-8487.