6.14.2017

Bird Toasts Red




October 4, 1992

The room was dark, save for the three rows of empty chairs in front of a photographer's lighting setup, and Larry Bird had found what he hoped was a remote couch.

Bird, hunched over in his tuxedo, hurriedly pored over three computer printout pages with notes scribbled in the margins in ink. He traced a line or two with his finger. It was his speech for last night's 75th birthday celebration for Red Auerbach at the Marriott Copley Place - a multi-media event televised by Ch.7 in a grand ballroom, complete with enough gadgetry, fireworks and guest appearances (Jack Nicholson and Billy Crystal via video hookup) to stock Oscar night, and a list of gifts and honors that included a street (Cotting Street, in the North End) renamed Red Auerbach Way.

With 800 people decked out in black tie and gowns, and 50 former players and coaches now filing into this small room for a group photograph, a different kind of pressure was on. Bird gave those pages one more quick glance before folding and sliding them into an inside jacket pocket. 

"Hey, L.B., still studying those notes, eh?" Kevin McHale joked as he walked over, extending a hand.

Bird took a cigar off a tray on the bar and sauntered into formation, just behind and off Auerbach's right shoulder in the second row. On cue, roughly five decades of past and present Celtics, from Gene Conley to Xavier McDaniel, lit their cigars. Bird, after moistening his and running it under his nose like a Mississippi gambler, had a smoke.

With 42 men, including Auerbach, puffing with varying success - Bob Cousy preferred to clench it with his teeth and Ed Pinckney had trouble getting a light - the room was soon filled with a gray, swirling haze.

It even looked a bit mystical - current players vastly outnumbered by retirees, all of them smiling through the smoke. The moment struck Bird for that reason. He was now a member of the latter group.

"It's a different feeling," he said. "But I've seen all of these guys already through the years."

But never quite like this. Bill Walton, ever conscious of his persona, wore hightop sneakers with his tuxedo. Jo Jo White, Paul Silas and Dave Cowens huddled. Kevin Stacom's hair had somehow turned grayer. Don Nelson, who was roving the upstairs reception as if he were Doug Moe, with an open collar, found a bow tie just in time.

Everyone began Celtic watching.

"I hear that Ramsey's here," said Cousy.

Frank Ramsey? Mal Graham, now a judge, stepped toward the gray, 6-foot-3 man he thought looked awfully familiar. Ramsey grinned.

"Hi Mal, you still judgin'?" Ramsey, his Kentucky drawl spreading out the last word like peanut butter, said as he slapped Graham on the back.

Everyone seemed to have an Auerbach story for the asking.

"I've been fortunate to play for two great coaches - John Wooden and Red Auerbach," saidWalton. "One of the magic elements in Red's personality, like Wooden, was the interpersonal relationship he had with each player."

And if not for Auerbach, they wouldn't have all come together last night. Even Bill Russell, whose absence made a couple of contemporaries shake their heads, stopped by Auerbach's home in Washington, D.C., to tell Auerbach he couldn't attend.

"It's nice to know there are people who feel they are still part of the Celtic mystique," said Auerbach, smoking his cigar and looking around the room at the clusters of his former players. "I had a part in it, but it was created by Walter Brown (late Celtics owner). He was the guy who started the whole thing."

Someone asked him to tell an Auerbach story, and he blurted, "I have thousands of 'em," before deciding to try out a line he would use during the ceremony - "It's changed so much. Years ago, the player just came to practice with his gym bag. Now they all bring attache cases."

Only Bird, who would later nail down his delivery and cap it with the observation, "You don't play professional basketball unless you play for the Boston Celtics, and that's because of Red Auerbach," felt uncomfortable digging into his library of Auerbach moments.

"No, I keep all of the good ones to myself," he said, smiling, his mind on the enormous birthday cake that was waiting upstairs. "Seventy-five is a lot of candles to blow out. I want to see him blow out all those candles."

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