88-Year-Old Red Still Taking Shots at the Zen Mistress

November 3, 2005

You knew he was OK, that the mind was still as sharp as ever, that he still was in full tweak mode, when the two words that Red Auerbach loathes to hear were raised last night in a pregame press conference: Phil Jackson.

   He'd rather talk about John Y. Brown.

        "I think Phil Jackson, they've got a pretty good ball club out there, but he's got a built-in excuse," Auerbach said of Jackson and his new/old team, the Lakers. "You could have taken I won't say anybody but you can take any knowledgeable coach and put [him] in [that] position and [he] can't do any worse. If LA doesn't make the playoffs, it's building."

Yup, Red is back to being Red.

   Less than two months after being in the intensive care unit of a Washington hospital, where he was, at times, ventilated, the 88-year-old Celtics patriarch/president made it to Boston for last night's season opener against the Knicks. In doing so, he won a bet from Celtics coach Doc Rivers and basketball boss Danny Ainge, who had visited him in Washington when Auerbach was hospitalized. Red bet the two he'd be there for Opening Night. You can be certain he has collected already from each of them.

   Auerbach made it to the TD Banknorth Garden, where he was seated in a chair in front of a lobby wall that at first made him look like he was some sort of POW. But once the queries started, Auerbach showed that he had lost little of his legendary gruffness.

   Jackson has been a convenient and consistent foil for years, or ever since the soon-to-be Hall of Fame coach threatened to overtake Auerbach for most NBA titles. Each has won nine. Auerbach did it with the greatest winner of all time, Bill Russell. Jackson did much of it with the individual many feel is the greatest player of all time, Michael Jordan.

   Asked if he had heard from Jackson while in the hospital, Auerbach said he had not. That surprised no one. Then someone asked Auerbach if he thought Jackson would ever win a 10th title.

   "What's ever? Who knows what 'ever' is? Phil obviously is a good coach," Auerbach said. "You don't win that many games without being a damn good coach. Remember one thing: He's been very fortunate. He picks his spots. That's all I can say. Larry Brown don't pick his spots. He's a great coach."

The lesson? Never get into a you-know-what contest with someone whose constant travel companion is a urologist.

   Auerbach touched on a number of other topics, both Celtics-related and league-related. He says he likes the San Antonio Spurs, but not to repeat as NBA champions. He didn't elaborate. "I don't think they're going to win it this year. I really don't." He didn't say who he thought would dethrone the Spurs.

   As for the Celtics' latest assemblage, Auerbach is, like many, wary of all the youngsters. He said he has voiced his concern about the lack of veterans and the overabundance of kids (nine 23 or under).

   "What is age? Age is not really a factor," said Auerbach, who turned 88 Sept. 20. "The veteran aspect is a factor. I think that is something we're lacking a little bit. But hey, you can't have everything."

   Auerbach also passed along a few bonbons for the Knicks' Brown, the oldest active NBA coach at 65. (He was only the fourth-oldest last year, behind Hubie Brown, Lenny Wilkens, and Don Nelson.) Brown gave Auerbach a big hug when the two saw each other prior to Auerbach's press conference.

   "Larry Brown is a great coach. He's probably the best coach in the NBA today," Auerbach said. "He gets the most out of his players. He'll have them hustling and fighting and scrapping the whole year."

   Auerbach's daughter, Nancy, and her husband accompanied the Celtics president to the game. Also there were Auerbach's ubiquitous urologist, Murray Lieberman, and a cardiologist, Sean Dwyer. One of the downsides to Auerbach's post-operative care is that he must give up cigars. "I don't want to get into that," he said.

   And he also didn't want to get into the concept of mortality. "I'm here. That's what counts," he said. Many of Auerbach's friends were extremely concerned about his health in September, as were members of the Celtics. But he recovered sufficiently to make it to what he guessed was his 50th season opener, seated courtside, near the Knicks' bench, rather than in his usual loge seat.

   After what he went through a couple of months ago, any seat in the building had to look good to him last night.

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