Auerbach Made the NBA See Red

1984 NBA Finals

Could the stories possibly be true? When opposing teams would trundle in off the road, was it really Red Auerbach who never sent them to the same Boston Garden locker room twice? Was he the reason the lighting always seemed inadequate? Was he behind the obvious plot to shut off the hot water in the showers or to leave the thermostat locked at a temperature that made the place untenable?

Could the rest of the stories be true? Was Red larger than the NBA? Did he in fact run the league?

Is he the genius who built the Celtics, the gruff, irascible ex-coach who intimidated every other team, or is he the warm, compassionate, loyal man that his friends and family defend to the end?

Whatever, he is the winningest coach in history (938 regular-season victories, 99 playoff victories), he has won nine titles, and in his last nine seasons he never won fewer than 49 games. He has been the Coach of the Year (1965), the Executive of the Year (1980), and already he has been inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame (1968).

Red Auerbach will be 67 in the fall. He became the Celtics coach in 1950; their full-time general manager in 1966. After 34 years, he is about to step away from the day-to-day responsibilities of being the president and general manager. But the Auerbach Era will not end there, because he has transformed how he is perceived into an art form.

Auerbach is seen at different levels, and always as he wishes to be seen. It is at once the charm, magic and magnitude of the man. Everybody has an opinion about him.

'I was never an Xs and Os coach,'' said Auerbach, watching the Celtics hustle through a championship series workout here earlier in the week. ''Oh, sure, I'd sometimes dream about plays that a team could run, but in reality most of my plays were dreamed up on the Washington (D.C.) playgrounds.

''I mean that. I'd come up with an idea, I'd go over to one of the courts where I knew there'd be top players and I'd ask them to walk through it. Did they mind? Nah. They knew it was helping them as much as it was helping me.''

But don't wave good-bye now, because Red says he isn't really leaving.

''I'm just cutting back on being in Boston so much of the time, and cutting back on certain responsibilities that come with being a general manager,'' he said. ''But I'll still be the team president. I'll still be consulted. The only thing I'll lack is the physical presence.''

It was that presence that helped create Celtic Pride.

''If I had to define that,'' Auerbach said, ''I'd say it's camaraderie. It's something that takes time to build. Our players, if they play hard and produce, don't have to perform with their bags packed.

''Wearing our uniform has become the way it must have been for baseball players to wear the Yankee pinstripes in the old days. You build a sense of belonging, you build a group of alumni. Wayne Embry played two years for us, but ask him and he'll say he's a Celtic. He looks right past the nine years he played in Cincinnati. A Paul Silas feels the same way, even though he played for other teams.

''I think we've had more guys start and finish here than probably the rest of the league combined. Bill Russell. K.C. Jones. Sam Jones. Bob Cousy. Bill Sharman. Tom Heinsohn. Jim Loscutoff. Take a guy like Don Nelson. He didn't start with us, but he finished with us. I consider a guy a Celtic after he's been with us three years. And I never liked to dump guys at the end, trying to get something for them when they have maybe a year or two left. I preferred to see them finish with us, entitled to the appreciation they deserved. Give 'em a day, let them have a proper retirement. That's always the way I thought it should be.''

This is the same Red Auerbach who stirred the juices of an incredible pre-season incident in the Boston Garden last Oct. 16.

In a game between the Celtics and the 76ers that involved three separate scuffles, Auerbach scurried down from his seat in the stands and strolled across the court to defend his club and berate both the opponent and the referee.

''Auerbach running on the court is nuts,'' Sixers owner Harold Katz said at the time. ''. . . I've never seen it done before . . . This wasn't the seventh game of the finals. If there were children watching on TV, you could hear some of what he said, and you could read his lips. Every word was a four-letter curse word. Unbelievable.''

Auerbach challenged Sixers center Moses Malone to hit him, Boston's Larry Bird took a swing at the Sixers' Marc Iavaroni, and Sixers coach Billy Cunningham had his sport jacket shredded.

''That's just Red,'' Cunningham says now. ''I was really angry at the moment, but we talked a couple of days later and just laughed about the whole thing. I told him we could probably get a Lite Beer commercial out of it. He could run on the court yelling, 'Less filling,' and I could say, 'Tastes great.' ''

''Yeah,'' Auerbach said, ''and after that I could smack him.''

Cunningham says he considers Auerbach ''a dear friend,'' a man he respects inside and outside the boundaries of the basketball profession.

''His bark,'' Cunningham says, ''is a lot bigger than his bite.

''I've always believed he's as knowledgeable as anyone in the league, and he's a fierce competitor. I mean fierce. I watched him play tennis up at Kutsher's (the resort in the Catskills mountains of New York) one year, I think against Kevin Grevey. For a while it looked like he was going to get killed, but somehow he won. He also worked so hard to do it he couldn't go on to the next round.''

One other thing.

''When I first got the job coaching the Sixers,'' Cunningham said, ''one of the first things I did was read his book.''

Auerbach drafted JoJo White when White was in the Marines, took Larry Bird as a junior-eligible, picked Danny Ainge while Ainge was playing major league baseball.

He traded Bob McAdoo to Detroit for two first-round picks to complete the compensation for having signed free agent M.L. Carr, then sent the two picks to Golden State in return for Robert Parish and the opportunity to draft Kevin McHale. He got starting guard Dennis Johnson from Phoenix for lumbering, less-useful Rick Robey.

But, whoops, he also drafted Clarence Glover, Steve Downing, Glenn McDonald, Tom Boswell, Norm Cook, Charles Bradley, Darren Tillis and Greg Kite.

Is he saint, sinner, neither or both?

''What makes Red memorable,'' said Sixers general manager Pat Williams, ''is his coaching. What he has done since is like having Casey Stengel or Vince Lombardi stay years after as an executive. He's the most successful pro coach ever. As the general manager, he instantly became the most recognizable executive in sports history.

''But I don't know many people who know him well. There's the gruff, barking exterior, but his people will say that beneath all of that is a warm, soft, compassionate man. The outside world doesn't see that, I guess, because Red doesn't let us. There's an ivory-tower aspect to him.

''People talk about the luck of the Celtics, but I never believed it was just luck. He made an amazing deal, giving up Ed Macauley and (the rights to) Cliff Hagan, two established players, for the chance to draft Bill Russell. As great as Russell became, at the time he was just coming out of college. But Red had the guts to do it. Sometimes I think there's something almost mystical about him.

''When Russell retired, the club collapsed. They went from being champions to virtually falling into disgrace. They weren't bad enough to get the first pick in the draft, but they did get No. 4 and they picked Dave Cowens, a decision that basically took care of them for another decade.

''And then, in '78, they used the No. 6 pick to take Bird, even though they had to wait a year for him. They did that even when they knew they needed help right away, too.

''There's a tendency to want to deify him (Auerbach), but he's imperfect, just like the rest of us. He's made some bad trades, some terrible drafts, but at the same time you can almost believe he's bigger than the game. He survived a dozen ownership changes, and maybe that says more for him than anything else. Every time the ownership changed, he somehow got a better deal for himself.

''I've been involved in the NBA for more than 15 years, and I've talked to him, but I can't say I really know the man. I don't.''

Red Auerbach says he wasn't responsible for the misadventures of teams coming into the Boston Garden.

''That's something people never have understood,'' he said. ''We've had continuing, ongoing hassles with the ownership of the building. We finally have better dressing rooms, but it's still a 50-some-year-old building, and some things you can't do much about.

''We used to get kicked out ourselves. For the circus. For the ice show. For concerts.''

''Within the hundreds of stories that have been told, one or two may be true,'' says commissioner David Stern. ''The vast majority are probably apocryphal, but ones Red probably enjoys hearing and would do nothing to dispel. After a while, the legend builds on itself.''

''People talk about the Sixers-Celtics rivalry, but for the most part it's been a healthy relationship,'' Cunningham says. ''You could be playing for a title, or playing in a schoolyard and the games would be at the same level. But when I think of the Celtics, Red Auerbach is the first name I think of. Not Bill Russell. Not John Havlicek. Or Larry Bird. I think of Red Auerbach.''

It's an opinion that even Bird has come to share.

''He's a true Celtic,'' Bird said. ''He makes sure everyone is treated fairly and he brings out the best in everybody. He knows where his heart is, what he's made of. He'll be part of the Celtics 'til he dies.''

''Red is the most loyal man I've ever met,'' says Johnny Most, the gravel-voiced Celtics' broadcaster. ''He knows and respects the meaning and value of friendship, and that has become a lost quality. The other stuff is only on the surface. I know, because there have been times when I've needed his compassion and he has never let me down. But his philosophy is, you can never look too soft publicly, because then people might begin to think you really are.''

''I see passion, pride, substance,'' says Pat Riley, the Los Angeles Lakers' coach. ''He does things his way, and he's consistent. He does what he has to do to lead his troops. He's never anybody but himself, fighting like hell. If that means stepping on toes, then he'll step on toes. He fights when others might not. He takes an edge wherever he can. He battles when he believes it's necessary to battle.''

And once he knows a victory is locked up, he lights that dreaded cigar.

''I don't know why, but I never minded that,'' Billy Cunningham says.

''I always thought it was like grinding your heel in an open wound,'' Pat Williams says.

Where did the ritual begin? And why?

''I'm not even sure exactly which game or where I did it the first time,'' Auerbach said. ''But I did it once, and Maurice Podoloff (then the commissioner) raised hell. He said I couldn't do that on the bench. I said other coaches already were smoking on the bench. Joe Lapchick, for one. I said it wasn't an airplane. Why legislate against me?

''I kept doing it, partly to spite Mr. Podoloff. I found out it had some charisma, it became something that took hold. Today, people know that cigar all over the world. I remember one of the astronauts once lit one and said, 'Just like Red.' ''

But Auerbach won't say which perception of him is correct.

''That's not for me to say,'' he said. ''I mean, how much ego can one guy have? All I ever tried to do was what I felt was right. I have a feeling for people. I treat players as people, not as numbers or cattle.''

He says the game hasn't changed, despite the arrival of taller, stronger, quicker athletes.

''The court's the same size, the basket's the same height, it's the same game,'' he says.

And he anticipates, in his adjusted position, to spend more time with his family, perhaps give a series of lectures to Harvard law students.

''My talks would deal with sports law and management, but not from a lawyer's point of view, because I'm not a lawyer,'' Auerbach said. ''When agents first got involved in our game, I thought they were bad. Now I see some good ones, some bad ones, some reasons to have them, some things that should be changed. I think, in that area, I have something to offer. And I did use to be a teacher.''

'He's something different to everybody,'' McHale says. ''And this is his team; he made 95 percent of the moves to get the people he wanted. Everybody thinks they know the guy, but outside his family and this team, nobody does. You could probably say the same thing about all of us.''

''He's the reason guys want to be Celtics,'' M.L. Carr says. ''I know that's true in my case. I knew as long as he was involved, this team would never be on the bottom.''

Podoloff, Walter Kennedy, Larry O'Brien and Stern all have had to deal with Auerbach.

''All the teams have perfected the art of attempting to secure an edge,'' Stern said. ''Red is no better or no worse than anyone else at that. I can't tell you how many times the league has had to take action on something and someone would say, 'You wouldn't tell Auerbach to do that.' The truth is, we have, even if it hasn't always been publicized. Depending on where you're sitting, the Celtics are treated better or worse than every other team. I believe they're treated the same.''

Is there an adequate bottom line?

''People ask me all the time how I'd like to be remembered, and I'm never sure what to say,'' Auerbach said. ''I felt I made a contribution to the game itself, and to the players. If I've been able to get their respect, that's what's important.

''This isn't the end of anything or the start of anything. It's just a change. It's time.''

''Tell him,'' David Stern said, ''we appreciate him. Tell him, even if he wanted to retire, we wouldn't let him.''

1 comment:

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