12.09.2009

Volk Set to Replace Auerbach at Season's End

1983-84 Boston Celtics
Record: 15-6
12/9/1983


Red Auerbach has informed everyone from Charles Bradley to Charles Kuralt that this is his last year. The one and only general manager in the 38-year history of basketball's proudest franchise plans to be home in Washington, "Only a phone call away if I'm needed," when the Celtics open their 1984-85 season. We know better. Auerbach's presence will be felt by the Celtics as long as he's blowing smoke somewhere. He'll be president emeritus, honorary general manager or legend-on-call, but he'll be involved.

Meanwhile, someone has to take the title. It's not going to be easy. We're not talking about replacing Walter Cronkite or Gen. Francisco Franco here. It just seemed as if no one else ever held their positions. In this case, the man who sits on Auerbach's throne will be the only other person to have occupied the chair. Hello there, Jan Volk. You are at destiny's doorstep. Remember The Man Who First Walked on the Moon? The Man Who Came in from the Cold? The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? You could be The Man Who Replaced Red Auerbach.

"Jan is the logical successor," Auerbach says. "I have made that recommendation to the new owners. He's well prepared. He's ready. I think he'll make a good general manager." "Without making decisions for my partners," says vice chairman of the board Alan Cohen, "I'd say that if Red weren't around, we'd be lucky to have a man like Jan." Volk sighs deeply when confronted with the prospect. Would he like to be the next general manager of the Celtics? "The answer obviously has to be yes," he says. "Everyone aspires to a goal. I don't necessarily think I need the title or the exposure, but in terms of where I am now, I think it's a logical step for me. I would feel confident with that responsibility. I would not feel put out or displeased if it didn't happen, but if in fact the job were offered, I would view it as a challenge I would love to accept."

Admit it: The first time you saw Jan Volk's name you thought he was a she. It happens all the time. Volk has what the political pollsters call a low- recognition factor. You won't find Jan Volk storming across the Garden floor to challenge Moses Malone. There are no Jan Volk eyeglass commercials, no photos of Jan with Anthony Athanas, or Jan holding a Wingo card. There's no "Jan On Roundball" instructional film. There isn't even a short biography of Volk in the Celtics' 168-page press guide. He's just listed as "Jan Volk, vice- president, assistant general manager," in the same type size as "John Creed, administrative assistant" and "Walter Randall, equipment manager." "I don't view myself as some larger-than-life figure by any means," Volk admits. "I don't view myself as a charismatic leader."

Volk is methodical, indeed, almost bland. His mild manner is a striking contrast to Auerbach's combativeness. The appearance is somewhat deceptive. Volk is never going to be a basketball guru or a monologue funnyman, but he runs deeper than three-piece suits, travel vouchers and deferred-payment clauses. His rise to the right hand of Red is laced with symbolic, Celtics' symmetry. Like the NBA and the Celtics, Volk was born in 1946. The birthplace was Mercy Hospital in Davenport, Iowa. Thirty-three years later, he would discover that William Charles Fitch was born in the same hospital in 1934. But we all have our closet skeletons. Believe it or not, in 1949, Davenport shared an NBA franchise with Moline, Ill., (home of Steve Kuberski) and Rock Island, Ill., (home of Don Nelson). The name of the team was the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, and the coach was a cigar-chomping hothead with red hair. Under the tutelage of Arnold Auerbach, the Hawks went 28-29 in 1949-50.

The Volk family was living in Newton when Auerbach left Tri-Cities and took over as coach of the Celtics in the fall of 1950. Paths crossed again 10 years later, when Jan's father, Jerry, approached Auerbach about a Celtics' summer camp project. The elder Volk owned Camp Millbrook in Marshfield. Wouldn't the Celtics like to bring their guys down for a week every August? It would be cheap for the team and a thrill for the campers. "I thought it was a good idea," recalls Auerbach. "We didn't have any money back then. It was a way to tie in our rookie camp and get a lot of the top college players of the day to come down." Thirteen-year-old Jan Volk first met Auerbach in the summer of 1960. "He was a kid," Auerbach says with a laugh. "He used to chase us around. He was a little sharper than most kids, maybe, but just a kid." "I ran and got coffee and did anything else I could do," Volk recalls. "When I got my license, I would pick up ballplayers at the airport. I remember picking up Willie Naulls when Red first acquired him (1963)."

Volk went to Newton High School (now Newton North), Colby College and Columbia Law School. Every summer, he was back at the camp, getting a little closer to the Celtics' organization. Each year, they would let him do a little more."He ran all kinds of stuff at the camp," recalls former Celtic Bob Brannum, who worked at the camp for 14 years. "He was general manager of the camp and ran it just like a pro league. It was like having games in the Garden. What he did then was actually a preview of what he's doing now." "When he got older, he knew what the hell he was doing," Auerbach says. "Then, when he went to law school, I figured he might have some brains after all." Volk graduated from Columbia Law in June 1971, passed the bar later that month and joined the Celtics' organization that August. He has never worked for anyone else. He started as director of ticket sales. He took over the travel and equipment-purchasing departments, then became full-time business manager.

Little by little, Auerbach started using Volk's legal expertise. The stencil man kept changing the title on Volk's door. He was business manager and house counsel. Then he became vice president and house counsel. When Jeff Cohen left to become general manager of the Kansas City Kings in the winter of '81, Volk became the No. 2 man - Volk became vice president, assistant general manager and general counsel. "He started at the bottom," Auerbach says. "That's what makes him so qualified. He's had a hand in everything around here, and he paid his dues." Tod Rosensweig, director of marketing and communications, adds, "I've been here 10 years, and Jan's been my boss all of those years. Jan amazes me with his desire to be involved in all of it. He concerns himself with every little thing." Contracts, sneakers, who'll sing the anthem, paper clips, Delta or TWA, renegotiations, new letterheads, salary caps, carpeting, team photo sessions . . . you'd better clear it with Jan.

David Stern, who'll be commissioner of the NBA in February, says, "Jan is knowledgeable in all phases of our league operation, from the sale of tickets, to promotions, to the legal aspects. He's hard-working and a pleasure to deal with. He has the respect of everyone in the league. He knows the new agreement so well that he calls us to point out things we haven't seen yet. No one is ever going to replace Red Auerbach, but that's a separate issue. In terms of an effective business administrator, you can't do better than Jan Volk."

Ron Grinker, who represents Cedric Maxwell, Darren Tillis and John Schweitz, has had an opportunity to work with Volk across a negotiating table. "I find Jan Volk very acceptable," Grinker says. "He's personable, thorough, meticulous and very capable. I can't compliment him enough."Pat Williams, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, adds, "Almost all of my dealings with the Celtics are with Jan now. I find him to be a delight to work with. He's open, communicates well and he's bright - even for a lawyer." There is the small matter of basketball expertise to consider.

Volk never played basketball. He hasn't spent much time in smelly gyms or alongside smoldering summer hot-top courts. He has never coached, scouted or refereed. He has not sweated. "I think some of the players have a hard time accepting Jan as the next general manager," one Celtic says. "He seems to be more of a gopher-type guy." Fair or unfair, the comment is indicative of the main obstacle Volk will face. Can the Celtics have a general manager who has never been a sneakers- and-whistle guy? "I don't presume to have Red's basketball expertise," Volk admits. "The only time I do is at parties. Seriously, though, part of the job requires having people in the right positions you can rely on. There has to be basketball expertise above and beyond the general manager within the organization. I don't presume to make those decisions, but I've been here 13 years and obviously accumulated some basketball expertise."

"There is no real job description," Philadelphia's Williams says. "You hire people. I would see Jan as an overseer of the whole operation. You can hire scouts." "I'll still be his boss," Auerbach adds. "All he needs is to call me." Auerbach's perception of retirement is shrouded in semantics. It is presumed that Auerbach will continue making the basketball decisions while letting Volk tend to the day-to-day chores. "I would hope that would be the minimum Red would do," tri-owner Cohen says. "But we're still hoping to use our persuasive powers to make Red stay." Check out the new Celtics' offices, under construction on the eighth floor of 150 Causeway st. Auerbach's new office is huge and features a panoramic view of Boston's business district and waterfront area. Volk's new office is not as huge and overlooks the biggest "Stop & Shop" sign you've ever seen.

Volk is careful. It must be frustrating doing all the detail work while Auerbach reaps the glory, and it's clear that the legend of Red will forever haunt the eventual successor, but Volk won't say or do anything Machiavellian. He's too loyal and too smart."Our relationship has evolved into something special," Volk says. "Red's very supportive and takes the time to sit and talk about what he thinks should be done. I'm most appreciative of that. He's seen it all . . . Red wants to assure that when he does retire, things carry on the way he thinks they should."

A behind-the-scenes guy for most of his 13 Celtics' years, Volk finally moved into the spotlight with some regularity last summer. Harry Mangurian announced he was getting out, Auerbach announced he was getting out, and Fitch graciously hopped on a horse for Houston - all within a few weeks of each other. If Volk had any Al Haig in him, he'd have told the Celtics' fandom, "I am in charge now." He didn't, but he was far more visible than ever before. He was a capable spokesman throughut the sometimes-bitter Kevin McHale free agent negotiations. He signed Rory Sparrow at LaGuardia International Airport during the league meetings, then cabbed back to the Waldorf Astoria to make the announcement. He was the fourth man in the room when Auerbach, Larry Bird and Bob Woolf hammered out Bird's historic seven-year contract.

Auerbach was in Washington for much of the summer, and Volk became a regular on the nightly news. He got better at it as the summer went along. "He spent years watching Red show us how to do that," Rosensweig says. "I used to say that if I was doing a good job, people would never see me," Volk says. "I hope I was wrong." His finest hour came when Robert Parish made his pay-me-or-trade-me renegotiation demand. All three local television stations sent crews to interview Volk. When WCVB camerman Don Mitchell arrived alone, Volk was asked if he could do the interview a cappella.

Mitchell handed Volk the microphone, started filming and Volk delivered his thoughts without ever having been asked a question. Even Red might have had trouble pulling that one off. Volk lives in Wayland with his wife Lissa, daughter Shari and son Matthew. In his spare time he builds furniture, takes thousands of photographs and fervently organizes an eight-man Sunday morning touch football team. There is nothing haphazard about his hobbies. He has built an in-house darkroom and can be seen with cameras in hand, stalking the sidelines at BC football games. He won't take pictures at Celtics' games because "I'd get too much grief," he says. The touch football is also serious business. They play road games as far as Worcester. Cornerback Volk has each game videotaped. At the end of the year, Gil Santos is retained to narrate the highlight film. As it was with Camp Millbrook and is now with the Celtics, no detail is overlooked.

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