May 9, 1997
Paul Gaston was two minutes into his introduction of Rick Pitino when the 79-year-old man in the front row violated building fire laws and lit up a telephone pole-like Hoyo de Monterrey cigar.
Red Auerbach blew smoke in the direction of the man sitting to his
right, then turned to his left and graciously offered Joanne Pitino
a cigar. She accepted the stogie. It'll no doubt make a nice family
keepsake, commemorating the day her husband signed a 10-year, $ 70
million contract to rebuild the Boston Celtics.
Auerbach is the man who built the Celtics the first time, the second
time, and the third time. Auerbach is the man who's responsible for
those 16 banners that served as a backdrop for Pitino's Thursday afternoon coronation.
Red had to be there yesterday. It was one of the grandest days in
Celtics history - certainly their best in this sorry decade - and
Shamrock fans always feel better when the Green Godfather is in the
Auerbach never made more than $
100,000 when he coached the team to nine championships, including one
title in each of his final eight seasons on the bench. But he's not
bitter about the money today's coaches make. He sees it as the price of
doing business, and Red has always had a good head for business.
And so there was no complaint when they stripped Red's "team president"
title and handed it to the 44-year-old whippersnapper from Oyster Bay
on Long Island. The Celtics made Auerbach "vice chairman," and according
to Gaston, "Red's going to continue to be a pain in the ass for years."
In the historic, hour-long press conference held on the middle of the
parquet floor on which Auerbach won all his flags, Gaston and Pitino went to special lengths to give praise to the Green Godfather.
"I just spoke with Coach Auerbach for 20 minutes," said Pitino,
giving it his best New York ("Ah-back") accent, "and now I have the
opportunity to work alongside of him and lean on him for advice."
spoke of other mentors in other jobs, then said, "Now I get maybe the
greatest legend of all time in coaching to lean on . . . This is the
greatest tradition in basketball, and Coach Auerbach is the top of this
"I'm representing him. I will
work harder than Coach Auerbach has ever seen any individual work, to
represent him in the best light possible to bring back this organization
to championship level."
and Gaston referred to Red as "Coach Auerbach." It's been a long time
since folks in the Celtic front office called Red "Coach." Yesterday
they almost made it sound like Red might be on the sideline with Pitino, diagramming plays and yelling at Dino Radja to get back on defense.
It won't happen, of course. Red will be 80 when Pitino coaches his first game. But Pitino has Auerbach's blessing. The kid even reminds Red (and John Havlicek) a little of a young Red Auerbach. Call him "Pocket Red."
"He's feisty, he's tough like I was," said Red. "But when he'll get to be my age, he'll mellow."
Mellow. Sure, Red. You were pretty mellow that night in 1984 when you
bolted out of your loge seat, walked across the court, and challenged
Moses Malone to fight. After all, you were only 67 then. Later that
season, you swore at retired referee Norm Drucker when he made some
questionable calls at an old-timers' game during All-Star Weekend in
Denver. And you were still mellow last winter when you coached Celtic
old-timers in a free throw contest against Knick retirees. After your
old guys beat their old guys at Madison Square Garden, you told us, "We
kicked their ass."
They're calling Red's
new title a promotion. It's not, of course, but who cares? Auerbach has
not been part of the day-to-day operation of the Celtics for more than
10 years. His wife was ill over the winter, and that cut down his trips
to Boston. But now that Dorothy Auerbach is better and Red is a vice
chairman and Rick Pitino is on board, "Coach Auerbach" feels like getting back into the mix again.
"It's a compliment at my age to get a promotion," said Red. "It shows
that they still think I can contribute. But Rick has been my choice all
the way down the line. I never dreamed we could get him. Personally, I
have a great rapport with Rick. We speak at a different level. We speak
basketball. His style of play is very similar to mine. We play
aggressive, concentrate a great deal on defense, and we run.
"When I coached, we were always in great, great shape. We used to stand
up during timeouts just to psych the other team and show 'em what great
shape we were in. He's the same way."
Maybe Pitino is the closest thing to Auerbach. But there's only one Red (Missie Cousy someday will tell Joanne Pitino
that it's a sure sign of affection when Red flicks cigar ashes on your
shoulder). And as with a favorite grandparent, we feel better when he's
around. Ashes to ashes.
He has been in the
NBA for the entire 51 years of the league's existence. He's been part
of the Celtics since 1950. President? Vice chairman? Godfather? Poobah?
Doesn't matter. The Celtics will be special as long as Red's still lighting up.
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