Red Not Just Blowing Smoke

Red Not Just Blowing Smoke

January 23, 1999

   WALTHAM - Red Auerbach leaned against a gymnasium wall yesterday and smoked a cigar. Of course. Some people choose visual logos to represent them. Not Auerbach. His logo is the scent of cigar smoke, hanging over a basketball court.

More than 50 years ago, Auerbach helped deliver an infant known as the NBA. He is 81 now, so you can imagine he has spent plenty of time watching basketball. And smoking. His former players tell stories of the ultimate Red tribute: a flick of ashes in your direction after a good game. Auerbach was in the mood for tributes yesterday, too. But since there were no games to play - only the second day of the Celtics' double-sessions training camp - he had to adjust.

Auerbach decided to walk over to a 6-foot-9-inch Celtic and hand him a gift.

"He gave me a cigar," Antoine Walker said of the legendary coach.

Earlier, Walker had signed a six-year contract extension worth $71 million. Auerbach has seen many things in his career, but he has never seen a contract like that in Boston. You could take the highest salaries of Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, Bob Cousy, and Sam Jones. You could combine those numbers and then multiply by three. They still wouldn't come close to $71 million. That's $21 million more than the contract Rick Pitino signed in 1997.

But Auerbach didn't want to talk to Walker about money.

"You're the captain," he said to the third-year forward. "Act like one. Be in control."

Moments after saying that, Auerbach said he has no doubts that Walker will cut down on the technical fouls called against him during his first two NBA seasons. He also told Walker that he can be as good as he wants, weighty words from a man who coached nine championship teams.

"Have you seen him?" Auerbach said of Walker. "He's been great." Auerbach has been a fan of Walker's since the Celtics drafted the 22-year-old forward in 1996. The next year, Auerbach became a Ron Mercer fan, too.

After the Celtics ended a three-hour morning workout, Auerbach spotted Mercer and rookie Paul Pierce near center court of the practice floor. He walked up to Mercer and told him a few things.

What did he say?

"Oh, he just told me what some of my goals should be now and what they should be long-term," Mercer said.

Well, it was a little more specific than that.

"I told him, 'Winning is the thing, baby,' " Auerbach said. He began to chuckle. He knew he was caught; he didn't exactly say it like that. What he really said was simple: Shoot, kid.

"He's a scorer," Auerbach said of the 6-7 guard. "He's got to look to score more."

That was the same message Russell gave Jones more than 30 years ago when Jones, his shot temporarily ailing, began to hesitate before shooting. In that case, the hesitation stopped and Jones's No. 24 eventually was retired. Auerbach isn't saying Walker, Mercer, Pierce, and Kenny Anderson are headed for the Hall of Fame. Yet. But he is not afraid to label the four untouchable. He looked at Mercer and said, "I like that kid. He's got a great attitude."

Auerbach also looked at a trim Dana Barros and commented that he couldn't remember the point guard running so fast. He said he liked Bruce Bowen, Tony Battie, and Walter McCarty.

Red was raving.

Someone stopped his flow by asking about the state of pro basketball. It is a sport that will have to ask the public's forgiveness following a 204-day lockout. Can basketball recover?

"I think people have missed the sport," Auerbach said. "You'll find a few disgruntled people because that's the nature of the beast; you'll find that all the time. I don't think the fans are going to stay away. I honestly don't. I'd be shocked if they do. I think both sides are sorry that [ a new collective bargaining agreement] wasn't done sooner."

Anyway, Auerbach insisted, the game has not changed. He mentioned a book he wrote in 1952 (he's still sharp enough to give himself a plug) and said that 47 years later, the basics in that book still apply to today's game and today's players.

One thing has changed, according to Auerbach. He looked around the gym at a number of Celtics coaches and trainers.

"I ran practices, and you could shoot pigeons in there because no one was around," he said with a laugh. He was a coach and assistant coach and general manager and public relations man all at once. But he likes the way Pitino runs his practices, never letting lulls set in.

Eventually, Auerbach headed for the door. The man who earlier leaned against the gym wall was leaving the building. But the lingering smoke was a reminder of his visit.

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