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7.24.2008

Auerbach Almost Leaves Celts for Knicks

This was going to be the great coach's greatest achievement, a grand homecoming that would have capped pro basketball's most magnificent career in the best way possible. Red Auerbach was coming home. He'd grown up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, starred at Eastern District High School.

He'd moved on, first to George Washington University and later the Washington Capitols of the fledgling pro leagues, and then he'd gone and built the Boston Celtics into the Yankees of the NBA. By July of 1979, he'd already won 13 championships with the team as coach, general manager, president and overall impresario. All those banners hanging from the ceiling of Boston Garden; when you wrung them out they dripped the sweat from the brow of Arnold (Red) Auerbach.

But by that fateful summer, Red had had enough. The owner of the Celtics, John Y. Brown, had traded three first-round draft picks to the Knicks for Bob McAdoo, and had done so not on the advice of Auerbach but of Brown's wife, Phyllis George.

Auerbach hadn't even been consulted, and that was too much for him to bear.

So when Madison Square Garden chief Sonny Werblin called, Auerbach was prepared to listen.

And what Werblin offered was this: the entire Knicks empire.

Everything. The team had already fallen on hard times, the Garden had stopped being the magical place it had been earlier in the decade. Werblin, always the showman, wanted to hire the best in the business.

"The best," Werblin would later clarify, "that ever was." It didn't take much to persuade Auerbach. He was gone. In fact, he was on his way through the Callahan Tunnel, en route to Logan Airport, where he was set to take the shuttle to New York and sign the contract, and he was talking about it out loud in the back seat of a taxi with his attorney, Bob Richards. The driver couldn't help but overhear. And he offered a simple bit of advice that may well have forever altered the fortunes of two of the league's charter franchises.

"He said, 'Why do you want to leave here? This is a wonderful organization. This is where you belong,' and it got me thinking," Auerbach recalled for the Boston Herald in 1994, on the 15th anniversary of that seminal afternoon.

"I turned to Bob and said we had to talk about it some more. I called my wife and she said to forget it. Sonny said he'd still hold the job open for me for three more years, and he did." But by then, Brown had sold the team, Auerbach had reemerged as its guiding force, he'd assembled the pieces that had already won banner No. 14 and was busily crafting the part that would soon add Nos. 15 and 16 within a few more years. There would be no homecoming. There would be no victory cigars in Madison Square Garden.

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