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NBA Draft: Mystery of Knicks Pick Evokes a Red Auerbach Ruse

At tonight’s NBA draft in New York, the hometown team holds the fourth pick.

Less than two years into the job, Phil Jackson already faces skeptics who question whether the winningest coach in NBA history can manage a franchise like he coached his teams.

NBA-insider scuttlebutt cites numerous possibilities for the Knicks on Thursday: acquiring an established star through a blockbuster trade, drafting D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay, the slipping Willie Cauley-Stein, or even the rising triangle-offense niche guy Frank Kaminsky at four, or moving down to grab their guy. Everybody talks. Nobody knows.

The only draft participant not listed as a possible Knickerbocker? Karl-Anthony Towns, the likely number-one pick.

The forecast for the Knicks offers many predictions but little predictability. Buried somewhere amidst the planted and authentic draft scenarios lies the boardroom truth.

Rumors abound on who goes fourth to the Knicks. Perhaps the team’s brass pays homage to Red Auerbach, who in the 1970 NBA Draft held the 4th pick with the longest poker face in league history.

At the 1970 NBA Draft, Auerbach played the basketball world like the radio in his car, selecting a player the whole world believed he loathed. He raised two more world championship banners because of it.

“Red was always clever and a step ahead of everybody else. Everything was done for a reason,” The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy told Breitbart Sports, recalling Red Auerbach’s perfectly executed ruse leading up to the 1970 NBA Draft.

Twice tearing the Boston Celtics down in the 1970s, Auerbach rebuilt a championship-caliber team deep into the Reagan years—sans scouting or personnel department. Unlike today’s front-office armies, Red Auerbach strode the NBA as a one-man gang in the 1960s and ’70s.

Following the 1969 NBA title season, the Boston Celtics struggled, losing a (then) franchise record of 48 games. Yet, the 1969-70 Celts didn’t lose enough to win the first pick. So, Bob Lanier from Saint Bonaventure wasn’t an option. Pete Maravich, despite his career twilight stint on the Celts, was never Red’s favorite.

Auerbach’s guy fell into his lap months before Lanier, Rudy Tomjanovich, and Pete Maravich landed in the top three picks.

In January of 1970, escaping Boston’s winter at a Florida State game attracting an abundance of team executives and sports media in press row, eyes focused on Seminoles power forward Dave Cowens. Auerbach ensured more glares focused on him.

Entering the gym, Red appeared agitated from the jump ball, talking very little, but saying what he had to say with his mug. Auerbach reportedly wore a face so sour it appeared as if he had been smelling body odor in a crowded elevator while watching Cowens play.

And before the first-half buzzer shrieked, Auerbach stormed out of the gym shouting, “This kid can’t play. He can’t play!”

Red’s allergic reaction to Cowens begged a serious question to league royalty in attendance: If Red Auerbach doesn’t like Cowens, how good can the kid really be?

Coaching the Cincinnati Royals, and holding the fifth pick, Celtic great Bob Cousy prayed that Red’s read in Tallahassee was genuine and Cowens would plummet to five.

“Couse was coaching [Cincinnati], hoping Red would select Sam Lacey. Red was too smart for that,” Shaughnessy tells Breitbart Sports.

Auerbach, in truth, believed he had identified the college player to relieve some of the stress on mid-career All-Star John Havlicek and revive the Celtics from their 1960s hangover. The player Red had in mind but not on his lips now humbly calls Havlicek the greatest player in the storied Celtics history. “You’d have to model it on a guy like Havlicek—have the ability to score 54, but rebound and play great defense,” Dave Cowens told Breitbart Sports last month. “He’s the consummate great player. I mean, he’s the leading scorer in Celtic history—not anybody else you know.” The 1973 NBA MVP would know. He teamed with Havlicek to revive a slouching Celtics to win as many titles as any other NBA franchise in the 1970s.

The mystery surrounding tonight’s Knicks pick suggests that the only man to coach teams to more NBA titles than Red Auerbach may be following in his footsteps as an executive as he did as a coach.

The ginger-haired boy from Williamsburg’s ability to sell gullible front-office novices the Brooklyn Bridge helped Auerbach resuscitate the Celtics and raise more world titles as a front-office man. Drafting Cowens fourth, the Celtics won two NBA Championships, in 1974 and 1976, validating subterfuge’s place at the NBA war-room table for the next forty-five years.

For the street-smart Auerbach, he only needed a gaze at the back stools in cavernous Brooklyn gin mills to deduce that only losers play the lottery. But in the NBA this axiom more suitably reads: only the losers get played in the NBA Draft Lottery.

Follow Sean Flynn on Twitter @CoachSFlynn

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