After his death on Saturday night, Red Auerbach was remembered as the greatest basketball coach/executive who ever lived. He built 16 championship teams and coached nine of them. He was the first to start five black players at the same time. He invented the victory cigar. He was competitive enough that he announced his coaching retirement before the ’65-66 season so every team would have one last crack at him. He drafted Bird, Cowens and Havlicek, traded for Russell, traded for McHale and Parish, lucked into Cousy. He’s arguably the most important non-player in NBA history — really, it’s either him or David Stern — the one person who transcended a franchise and became a one-man Mount Rushmore.
But it went deeper than that. For every Celtic fan growing up in New England in the ’70s and ’80s, Red became part of our families, the crusty old grandfather, the patriarch, the guy who made everyone else feel safe. As long as Red was around, the Celts were in good hands. That’s just the way it was. He was our ace in the hole. He was Yoda before Yoda was Yoda. He was like a shark at a poker table raking in huge hands every 20 minutes, puffing on that damned cigar, making everyone else feel inferior. He was the ultimate winner. He gave us a competitive advantage. He was smarter than everyone else.
And I can’t remember life without him. My father started carrying me into Celtics games when I was 4 years old, the year he purchased a single season ticket behind the opponent’s bench. My memories don’t kick in until the ’76 season, when I was 6. Back then, the Celtics allowed me on the court before games. I stood under the basket as everyone launched jumpers, praying for airballs that I could chase down and toss back to the offending parties. Sometimes I’d amble over to the Celtics’ bench and stand next to the coaches and ask them questions. They all knew my name. I even made the front page of the Globe’s sports section once — a big picture of me gazing up at an injured John Havlicek during the Buffalo series. He was standing on crutches with a dumb smile on his face. I was chewing my nails and looking confused that he wasn’t wearing a uniform. They ran a caption like, “Why aren’t you playing tonight, John?” My father bought about 10,000 copies of that paper.
You can’t imagine what this team meant to me as a little kid. And Red was always the most important person with the Celtics, by far — the architect, the leader, the father of Celtic Pride. I met him once, and only once, but he will always be family to me. Like with any family member, you have memories. These are mine.
We’re playing somebody in a big playoff game, that’s all I remember. Tommy Heinsohn coached the Celtics in those years like the real-life Oscar Madison, looking constantly disheveled, screaming at officials with a booming voice, waving in disgust at every other call, a constant threat to be ejected from every game. Of course, he ends up getting tossed from this one. His only assistant takes over, a tall, aging, pot-bellied guy who looked like an overmatched police sergeant. This isn’t good. Even at the age of 6, I know this isn’t good.
Suddenly, the crowd starts rumbling. Red Auerbach is getting out of his seat. Sitting across from the benches in Section 12, about eight rows up, right on the aisle, everyone sees him moving toward the court. People are cheering. People are yelling. Red is going to save the day. He reaches the floor, circles behind the bench, says some encouraging words to the players, then sits at the press table next to the Celtics’ bench. And he remains there for the rest of the game. Thirty years later, I can’t remember any of the details — just a hazy memory of Heinsohn getting kicked out and feeling worried, then Red moving near the bench and diffusing the tension. Red was there. We were safe. And we ended up winning the game. That’s all I could remember.
Like anything else that happens when you’re a kid, sometimes you wonder if things happened like you remember them, or even if they happened at all. But NBA TV showed Game 5 of the Cavs-Celtics series from ’76 this summer, and wouldn’t you know it? Same game. Heinsohn got kicked out; Red moved over to the press table; Musburger played it up on CBS like the pope just emerged from the Vatican; they showed Red sitting at the table about 50 times; and the Celtics ended up pulling out a hard-fought win. Just like I remembered. You always remember the things that made you feel safe as a little kid.
|On ESPN Radio’s GameNight, Bill Simmons says he doesn’t see a modern equivalent to Red Auerbach.|
Red is leaving. That’s the rumor. He’s tired of butting heads with an audacious new owner named John Y. Brown, a cocky Kentuckian who doesn’t understand what Red means to Boston. Things bottom out when Brown trades three No. 1 picks for Bob McAdoo without consulting his mortified GM. It’s the ultimate anti-Red trade. He hates giving up first-round picks. He hates me-first scorers. Brown should have just dragged Red to midcourt of the Garden and slapped him across the face in front of 15,000 people. Bob McAdoo? A Celtic? For three first-round picks? Red can’t take it anymore. Now he’s leaving to take the Knicks’ job. It’s the worst-kept secret in town.
Only one problem: We won’t let him leave.
For two weeks, everywhere he goes, the locals implore him to stay. Cabbies reason with him at stoplights. Restaurant patrons interrupt his dinners. Radio hosts beg for him to reconsider. He cannot go anywhere in Boston without someone pleading with him to stay. Meanwhile, I’m only 8 and completely petrified. Red can’t leave. You can’t have the Celtics without Red. WHAT WILL WE DO WITHOUT RED??? (Note: This was the same year that my parents separated, and I’m telling you, the thought of Red leaving Boston was nearly as traumatic as the thought of my parents splitting up. Each event carried the same “Good God, what happens now?” ramifications. I am not ashamed to admit this.) Everyone in Massachusetts feels this way, so we make the collective decision to change his mind. It’s a guilt trip for the ages. Red Auerbach can’t do this to us. He can’t leave, and he especially can’t leave for the Knicks. This can’t happen. He can’t leave. He’s not leaving.
What happens? He stays. Like he had any other choice. Seeing the writing on the wall, Brown avoids becoming a local pariah by switching franchises with Buffalo’s owner and moving the Braves to San Diego. So long, John Y., Red wins again. Red always wins.
We’re playing the Sixers in October. We hate the Sixers. They hate us. And even though it’s a preseason game, Sixers thug Marc Iavaroni goads Bird into a fistfight that turns into a full-fledged brawl involving Moses, Parish, Toney, Maxwell and others. Just as everything is settling down, Red comes barreling down the stairs in Section 12, furious that a stiff like Iavaroni started the whole thing and endangered his franchise player. He goes right for Sixers coach Billy Cunningham, shoves him and rips his blazer before they’re separated. Then Moses says something to him, and before we know it, 66-year-old Red is jamming a finger in Moses Malone’s chest and threatening to throw down with the toughest center in the league.
• The Celtic family on Auerbach’s legacy
• Paul Silas and Bob Ryan with their favorite Red stories
You’d think everyone in the Garden would react like someone was dangling a baby over the balcony, right? Nope. They’re cheering for Red to get Moses. Fortunately, some of the players hold Red back and nothing else happens.
But you know what? Twenty-three years later, I still believe Red would have landed one good punch. Moses Malone was lucky.
The Celtics have just outlasted the Lakers for their 15th world championship. It ends up being the Finals widely credited with turning the NBA around — Bird vs. Magic, Gerald Henderson’s steal, McHale’s clothesline, the unparalleled Heat game and, of course, the Celtics prevailing in at the Garden in another Game 7 — as well as the most satisfying title of the post-Russell era. Everyone said the Lakers were better. Everyone said Showtime was unstoppable. But the Celtics were tougher. They turned the series into a street fight, reduced the sport to its simplest terms (fast breaks, offensive rebounds and defensive stops) and broke the Lakers down. And when they had nothing left, the Garden fans carried them the rest of the way.
Now the Celtics are celebrating in their locker room and pouring champagne on one another. Everyone crams onto a makeshift podium so the commissioner can present the NBA trophy. He makes a little speech and hands the trophy to Red, who’s sucking on a victory cigar, as always. And after hearing about the Lakers’ “dynasty” from every broadcaster and writer for two weeks, good ol’ Red can’t resist rubbing it in.
“Everyone keeps talking about the Lakers dynasty!” Red yells at Brent Musburger. “Well, here’s your dynasty, right here!!!!!!”
He holds the trophy up as the locker room explodes. He’s holding it like a hunter would display a deer’s head. Here’s your dynasty. Right here.
Lenny Bias is a member of the Boston Celtics. At the news conference, Red puffs a cigar and grins from ear to ear. He just added the best college player to the best NBA team ever. This was the kid we wanted all along, he says. One year shy of 70, Red has a realistic chance to dominate the NBA for four consecutive decades. It’s a foolproof plan. Bias saves the legs of the Big Three (Bird, McHale and Parish). The presence of the Big Three allows Bias to develop at his own pace. Bird will teach Bias everything he knows and, eventually, pass the torch to him. The Celtics will keep winning and winning. Lenny Bias will lead the way. Lenny Bias is the chosen one. That’s the plan.
Two days later, Bias is gone. Cocaine overdose. And when he meets the press later that week, for the first time ever, Red Auerbach looks like an old man. Little does he know that the Celtics will never be the same. Or maybe he does.
Game 4, 1987 Finals, Boston Garden. We’re watching one of those larger-than-life games that seems surreal even as it’s happening — the defending champs holding on in a must-win game against the Lakers. After surviving Bias’ death, a fleet of injuries and two Game 7s in earlier rounds, they aren’t going away. We won’t let them. With 12 seconds left, Bird drains a 3-pointer for the lead and nearly causes the roof to collapse. Timeout, Lakers. Magic responds with a baby sky hook for the lead. Timeout, Celtics. Two seconds left. Bird breaks free from Worthy, chases down the inbounds pass, sets his feet and launches a 3 in front of the Lakers bench … it’s dead-on … everyone holds their breath … and just as it’s going in, it glances off the back of the rim and bounces out.
Game over. Series probably over. Dynasty in major trouble. It’s so hushed in the Garden, we can only hear the Lakers celebrating and the basketball bouncing away. Everyone is standing in shock. How did that not go in? How the #$^@ did that not go in?
Suddenly, there’s Red hustling down from his seat and storming across the court. He’s furious. The officials cost the Celtics this game. Or so he thinks. He’s trying to catch referee Earl Strom before Strom heads into the tunnel and into the safety of the locker room. As it happens, my father and I happen to be sitting right along that tunnel. Here comes Red, screaming and hollering, madder than mad, his face turning maroon. Strom turns around, sees him and screams something like, “Don’t start me with me, Arnold!” That’s followed by Red ranting and raving and Strom screaming something like, “You’re showing all the class I always knew you had!”
And that’s how the game ends — 15,000 people standing there in disbelief, 70-year-old Red Auerbach chasing an old nemesis through a tunnel. The Lakers couldn’t have beaten us fair and square. No way. We were robbed.
I make the 45-minute drive from college to catch a home game with my father. In that summer’s draft, Red spent his first rounder on a BYU forward named Michael Smith, with Tim Hardaway going one pick later. It was a curious decision — after all, we needed a point guard much more than we needed another slow white forward. Red maintained that Smith was special. Smith reminded him of Larry Bird. That’s what he said. And since he’s Red Auerbach, nobody questions him.
Of course, Hardaway starts out in Golden State like gangbusters, while Smith can’t even get off Boston’s bench. In this particular game, the Celtics throw him out there to see what they have. He’s gawky and awkward. He can’t guard anybody. He looks like one of those dorky guys in intramurals who keeps bumping into everybody and making everyone angry. Quite simply, he’s terrible. Fifteen years earlier, maybe he makes it. Not now. The league has become too quick, too fast, too athletic. It’s a different era.
We watch Smith head back to the bench, his confidence completely demolished. On the other coast, Tim Hardaway is averaging 14.7 points and 8.7 assists per game as a rookie. It’s impossible to look at Michael Smith and not think of Tim Hardaway.
“Might be time to take the car keys away from Red,” my father says finally.
Red has stepped down at this point, handing the team over to a handpicked successor named Dave Gavitt. He’s firmly entrenched in the “Vito Corleone in the last hour of ‘The Godfather'” stage of his career, an advisor and nothing more. But his legacy lives on. In Faneuil Hall, a tourist trap in downtown Boston, they now have a statue of Red Auerbach. He’s sitting on a bench and holding a cigar, a small smile on his face. Would any other city erect a statue of a coach/executive? Of course not.
Walking around with my girlfriend from college, we stumble across the statue. She ends up taking a picture of me proudly standing next to Red. A few days later, I frame the picture and place it on a nightstand next to my bed in college. I have three pictures on that nightstand: one of me with my parents; one of me with my girlfriend; and one of me with Red’s statue. For the rest of my senior year, those are the three pictures next to my bed.
The Celtics haven’t won a title in nine years. The Garden has been torn down, replaced by the generic Fleet Center. With the franchise floundering under coach M.L. Carr, Red spends most of his time in Washington now. And maybe that’s a good thing. Meanwhile, I’m covering high school sports and answering phones for the Boston Herald. Perusing the computer files in the sports system one night, I find an entire section devoted to prewritten obituaries of older Boston sports legends like Ted Williams, Harry Sinden, Bob Cousy, Johnny Pesky, Bill Russell and, of course, Red Auerbach. It’s the weirdest thing ever. None of these people are dead yet. It’s downright creepy.
I end up reading Red’s obituary from beginning to end. Where it says his “age” at the time of death, they have “age XX” in there. I find this to be deeply disturbing. How can you write an obituary of someone who’s not dead yet? So when Red dies, they’ll just fill in the “age XX” and run this thing in the paper?
I glance around the news room. Nobody’s looking. I’m going to delete Red’s obituary from the system. That’s the decision. It’s the only way. Of course, I don’t have proper clearance to delete anything. I’m just a lowly intern. So Red Auerbach’s obituary keeps staring at me, pulsating in green letters on a crappy computer, and part of me wants to flip the computer over and be done with this lousy job once and for all.
I stop by the Celtics offices to see a friend who works for them. There’s a lobby outside the front desk with trophies and pictures hanging everywhere, including year-by-year photos of every Celtics team. So I’m following the photos through the years, seeing players that I hadn’t thought of in years, and there’s one constant in every photo: Red Auerbach sitting in the middle of the first row, holding a basketball and smiling at the camera. Pick a year and you’ll see him: 1956, 1962, 1974. It doesn’t matter. And I’m going through the photos and, suddenly, we get to 1998, and there’s Rick Pitino and Red sitting in the middle together, awkwardly holding the basketball, and by 1999, Pitino is holding the basketball by himself and Red has been pushed off to the side.
Out of all the injustices over the past few years — Pitino taking Red’s team presidency, Pitino ignoring the old man’s advice and treating him like yesterday’s news, Pitino ultimately running the franchise into the ground with a series of impetuous moves — this series of framed photos captured everything. You can see Red getting pushed out. Literally.
Well, until you get to the 2001 team photo. Pitino is long gone. Red Auerbach is back where he belongs, right in the middle of that season’s photo, sitting in the front row, holding that basketball again. Everything is right in the world.
As I’m staring at that photo, my friend comes out.
“What are you looking at?” he asks me.
I point to the 2001 photo. He understands right away.
“Isn’t that great?” he says.
Yes. It’s great. That’s the perfect word.
I’m sitting at my kitchen table in Charlestown, trying to start a column that can’t be started. A few days before, I had spent 90 minutes hanging with Red in his Washington, D.C., office. Rightfully, the Celtics were protective of his time. The guy running the franchise back then, for all intent and purpose, was a good man named Rich Pond. The past two regimes had pushed Red aside; the current regime made an effort to include Red in everything, even including him in the decision-making process for the 2001 draft. Still, they worried about having writers spend time with him. They were extremely selective.
“We’re going to let you do it,” Rich Pond told me. “But if you make him look bad in any way, I’m going to kill you.”
He was serious. Like I would ever make Red look bad. As it turned out, the old man was as sharp as ever — we talked hoops for an hour and he even gave me a ride back into town. It remains one of the greatest thrills of my life. It was like meeting God. Right down to what you would imagine God looks like.
And now? I have to write about it. And I’m staring at an empty laptop screen, thinking to myself, “You are not good enough to write this column,” even though my whole life had specifically played out for me to write that column. I keep staring at that empty screen, waiting for the words to come. I have never stared at an empty screen longer in my life.
The call finally comes, the one I had always been dreading. My friend with the Celtics tells me that the rumors are true: Red Auerbach is dying. He’s on his last legs. His lungs have filled with fluid. He’s not making it through the weekend. He promises to keep me posted and we hang up.
Coincidentally, I have a magazine column due the next day. My editor calls and wonders if I should write about Red. Yeah, that seems like the right idea. A couple of beats pass. I can’t help but remember that freaking Herald obit and the “age XX” section.
“You know what?” I tell him. “I’m not writing about Red until he’s actually gone. I don’t feel right about it.”
I pick another topic. And guess what? Red holds on. Red gets better. Red makes it to Opening Day. Red makes it to Thanksgiving. Red makes it to Hannukah and Christmas. Red makes it back to the Fleet Center for another standing ovation. Red makes it through the season. In fact, Red is doing well enough that the team asks for his blessing to have cheerleaders. Every other team has cheerleaders but Boston. And why? Because Red always maintained that the Celtics would have cheerleaders over his dead body. Those were the exact words. Over my dead body.
Unfortunately for Red, it’s a different league now. You don’t need one assistant coach anymore; you need five. You don’t need one scout anymore; you need 10. You don’t need a scoreboard anymore; you need a Jumbotron with an HDTV picture; you need a good stereo system that plays hip-hop songs during timeouts; and you definitely need cheerleaders. They call it “in-game entertainment.” Red never understood this; he always thought the game should be the entertainment. Eventually, he accepted the fact that the world was changing around him, that he couldn’t stop it anymore. Sure, the Celtics could have cheerleaders. He wouldn’t like it. But they could have them.
The cheerleaders were scheduled to debut at Wednesday night’s home opener against New Orleans. Not anymore. Red Auerbach stole their thunder by passing away. I will always believe that this wasn’t a coincidence. It’s just too crazy. The old man waited until the last possible moment … and then he called it quits. He lived and died without ever seeing a Celtics cheerleader. What a way to go out.
Instead of breaking out their dance squad, the Celtics will mourn the soul of their franchise on Wednesday night. Red’s seat in Section 12 will remain empty. Old players will show up. Bagpipes will be played. A tribute video will run on the brand-new Jumbotron that Red would have hated. People will cheer, people will clap, people will cry. It’s going to be an emotional night. For one final game, 21 years after our last championship, the Boston Celtics will seem more special than every other NBA team.
After that? Bring on the cheerleaders. We’re going to need them.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.