Editor’s note: This article was originally published on March 22, 2002.
“Are you waiting for me?”
It’s Red Auerbach. All 84 years of him. Emerging from an elevator. Moving slowly. Using a green cane. Wearing a green Celtics jacket and green Celtics hat. Looking like a cross between the Celtics leprechaun, Yoda and God.
“Yes, I’m waiting for you,” I tell him.
Growing up in Boston in the ’70s and ’80s, we possessed three treasures that nobody else had: Fenway, the Garden and Red. He was our trump card. He had mystical powers. He made things happen. He fleeced other teams. He found diamonds in the rough. He intimidated officials. He stamped his winning imprint on everyone and everything. He was the Celtics. Sixteen championships in 30 years … and they all happened because of him.
And we loved him for it. Back in the late-’70s, Red wasn’t getting along with new owner John Y. Brown — an abrasive know-it-all from Kentucky who nearly
submarined the franchise — and thought about leaving for the Knicks. And people here panicked. I’m not kidding you … people panicked. We had
a collective heart attack. Red was leaving? He’s leaving??? Everyone where he went, people urged him to stay: cab drivers, waiters, gas station attendants,
people on the street. Everyone. He stayed.
|More Red on Roundball|
|Random observations about the game from Red Auerbach:
On coaching in today’s game: “After a certain amount of money, it don’t make a damn bit of difference. (A player) makes a million dollars, anything after that, it’s just numbers. So you have to appeal to his pride, his wanting to win, and you disregard the money. The only thing I did years ago was tell them, ‘Your salary is
On his five favorite non-Celtics to watch: “Kobe … Iverson … Kidd … Shaq … and that kid from Minnesota (Garnett). I like Kobe the most.”
On Russell vs. MJ: “(Russell) is my boy, and we’re very close, even today … but if you had to pick the greatest player of all-time, you might go with Michael. If you’re
On the worst thing to happen to the NBA: “Expansion. Diluted the talent. It’s the same as in baseball … although the worst one is hockey. Man, you talk about dilution.”
On the second-worst thing: “There are no real trades of significance anymore. Like the Kidd-for-Marbury trade, those are rare. And that was an emotional trade — (Jerry) Colangelo is an emotional guy, an ethical guy, and Kidd got in trouble, so (Colangelo) said it’s time to go. And they got a good player back. Marbury’s not a stiff,
On David Stern: “One helluva commissioner. He knows the game, he’s a fan of the game, he’s a commissioner who knows the game and understands the players, He’s a great TV and marketing guy. They’re couldn’t be a better commissioner no matter how you cut the mustard.”
On his favorite Celtics’ title: “The first one (’56-’57, over the Hawks in seven games). Always the first time you win.”
On Jim O’Brien: “He’s an excellent coach. He has poise, and he doesn’t panic. He’s not gonna win all the time. You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken s—. If you
That was 24 years ago. Red eventually pushed Brown out of town, jump-started another mini-dynasty (the Bird Era) and finally scaled back his involvement with the team in the late-’80s, retaining more of an aging Vito Corleone-type, patriarch role. The next decade was rough for him, and not just because the team freefell into Lottery Land. Red endured quintuple-bypass surgery back in ’93. Four years later, he was stripped of his presidency by Rick Pitino, the NBA equivalent of shoving someone into a
nursing home. His beloved wife, Dorothy, passed away just 17 months ago, leaving him all alone in their Washington, D.C. condo.
Over the past few years, rumors persisted that Red’s health was failing, that one of the people involved with the NBA since Day One (56 years, but who’s
counting?) was approaching death’s door. And watching him struggle up the steps at the Fleet Center during Celtics games … well, it almost made me
believe the worst.
Standing in front of his office door in Washington, shaking hands with me, he looks fine. Old, but fine. As the old saying goes, rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.
“Sorry I’m late,” he growls. “I was at the dentist. Took longer than I thought. And I have to go back next week!!!”
That’s the way Red speaks … starts out slowly, builds steam, finishes with a final flurry. He’s a movie character. Everything about him makes you feel like you’re in a movie scene with him, like he’s being played by Robert Loggia or something.
His office looks like a hidden section of the Basketball Hall of Fame — framed photos, newspaper clippings and tons of Celtics memorabilia crammed along all four walls (supposedly, his Boston office puts it to shame). Red saves everything. These aren’t just run-of-the-mill photos, either; on one wall, a photo of Red with Ted Kennedy hangs above an autographed lithograph poster of Kevin McHale (the caption reads, “To Red, Thanks for everything! Kevin McHale”). You could spend three hours in here, just looking around. Red spends most of his weekday mornings here, making phone calls, reading letters, meeting visitors, doing favors, sticking to a routine. Keeps him sane.
I watch him gingerly move behind his desk, finally dropping into a chair. Red has trouble walking — hip problems, foot problems, back problems, just problems. Elevators and escalators are two of his favorite things; he lives his life accordingly. He avoids Washington’s MCI Center, mainly because the nitwits running that place don’t make it easy for him to get around. The green cane was an enormous concession for him; just 10 years ago, Red was still playing racquetball and tennis three times a week. Now he uses a cane
to get around. Took him awhile to get used to it. Him, using a cane.
“I can’t fight the stairs anymore,” he says. “I don’t like to walk stairs. Things change. I used to smoke 10 of these” … he holds up a Cuban cigar … “every day. Now I’m down to two. You don’t get to be 84 years old and not have problems. But I don’t want to talk about my problems.”
Now he’s behind the desk, sitting down … and he’s lighting that same cigar. First one of the day. Before his bypass surgery in ’93, Red plowed through cigars like they were Life Savers. Read anything about him, and that’s the first thing anyone mentions — the suffocating cigar smoke. Hell, he invented the concept of the victory cigar. There’s a famous story about Red lighting one up at Legal Seafoods in Boston during the mid-’80s, when a female customer upbraided him, “You can’t smoke in here! It says so on the menu!” Red told her to look at the menu again. The menu actually said, “No cigar smoking in here … except for Red Auerbach.” Another “W” for Red. True story.
Now he smokes one in the morning and one at night. Sometimes he cheats and sneaks another one in during the afternoons. But the morning cigar … that’s the best one. First one of the day.
We start talking hoops. I tell him how my family owned Celtics season tickets since I was 4, how my father carried me into games in the mid-’70s, how I
attended the Triple-OT Game against Phoenix in the ’76 Finals (sleeping through the second half and the first two overtimes, because the game started
so late, stretched out across three people). I have no idea why I’m telling him this. I’m just babbling.
“Greatest game I ever saw,” he says, rescuing me. “You were at that game? How old were you?”
“I was 6.”
Red nods. He’s impressed. “Who did you say you wrote for again?”
“Dot.com. It’s ESPN’s internet site.”
Red makes a face. “I never bought into that whole Internet thing. I don’t
even own a fax machine.”
It’s true. Red doesn’t own a fax machine, computer or cell phone, and he rarely uses his VCR (“I hate that technical s—,” he says). The only modern invention he embraced was DirecTV; Red catches every Celtics game on his satellite dish, calling CFO Rich Pond after every victory, but never after a loss (“I don’t feel like talking to anyone after we lose,” he explains). He watches as many college/NBA games as possible, sometimes staying up until 1 a.m. for certain West Coast games, just in case GM Chris Wallace needs to consult him for a deal. When Boston traded Joe Johnson and a No. 1 pick for Phoenix’s Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers last month — a time-sensitive deal,
since it was happening one day before the deadline — Wallace still found time to consult Red.
“I was for the deal,” Red says now, hesitating a bit. “But I wasn’t totally for it. I hated to give up a first pick. The deal itself made a lot of sense.
But the first-round picks … back in my day, we used to fight to keep those!”
Red shakes his head, leans back and puffs on his cigar. He can’t figure out luxury taxes, salary caps, escalating trade kickers … it’s like trying to understand Chinese for him. It was the main reason he scaled back his involvement with the franchise in the early-’90s. “It’s so hard to make a deal because of the cap,” he laments. “Years ago, let’s say I want to trade Mike for Ike — you call someone and say you want to make a trade, you say ‘Give me a big guy, I got a big guy, you got a guard that I can use, let’s
make a deal,’ and then see ya, it’s over.”
Complicated. Everything’s complicated. When Red ran the Celtics in the ’50s and ’60s, he was head coach, director of basketball operations, general
manager, team president, head scout … he did everything. That’s why his influence was so sweeping; he was always a step ahead of everyone else.
You relied on one guy back then. No assistant coaches, no scouting departments, no front-office assistants. Just one guy running the show.
“I was doing everything myself, coaching without assistants, trying to see as many college players as I could,” Red recalls. “I would call (friend and de-facto scout) Bones McKinney and say, ‘Any players down South that I can use?’ One year he says, ‘There’s a kid here from North Carolina ATT, Sam Jones, he could help your ballclub.’ I never saw Sam Jones play before we drafted him. Hey, I made my share of mistakes. One time I drafted a kid named Bill Green, helluva player … but he wouldn’t fly! There was no way he could play in the league!”
He’s being diplomatic. Red didn’t make many mistakes. He traded for Russell, Parish, Archibald and Walton. Drafted Havlicek, McHale, Cowens, Maxwell, Sanders, Ainge, Heinsohn, White, Sharman, Lewis and the Jones boys. Drafted Bird in ’79 with the sixth pick in the entire draft, even though Bird wasn’t eligible to play for another season. Coached nine championship teams and built the foundations for seven others. You could argue, successfully, that Arnold “Red” Auerbach is the greatest winner in the history of sports.
|***** ***** *****|
Maybe that’s what made it so tough to swallow when Rick Pitino stormed into town back in the summer of ’97. At this point, Red (nearing 80) had already yielded day-to-day control of the team — first to Dave Gavitt (in the early-’90s), then to M.L. Carr (a comical three-year run in the mid-’90s) — but still served as Team President and Legend Emeritus. When Pitino agreed to his extravagant, record-setting contract ($50 million for 10 years), he demanded complete control of the basketball operations, as well as Red’s
title of Team President. Anxious to close the deal, owner Paul Gaston agreed to Pitino’s demands. Amazingly, unbelievably, Red Auerbach was demoted to Executive Vice-President.
Wait … it gets worse. Visit the Celtics offices, and you’ll see framed team pictures from every season. In every picture since 1950, Red Auerbach is sitting in the center of the first row, holding a basketball. Coaches change, players change, but there’s Red, always in the middle, always holding that damned basketball. Enter Pitino. In the ’97-’98 team picture, he and Red are sitting in the middle, awkwardly holding the basketball together. The following year, only Pitino is holding the basketball. The year after that,
Red isn’t even sitting dead-center. Seeing these pictures now, it’s jolting. How could this happen? It was John Y. Brown all over again.
I mention these things to Red, getting more animated as I’m telling the story, finally asking him: “Did that stuff hurt your feelings?”
“Not really,” he says. “The tough part is, when you get past 80, you let things slide that 20 years ago I’d never let slide. You know what I mean? So I didn’t make a big thing out of it. In all fairness, he might not have realized (what I meant to the franchise).”
Pitino’s inability to judge talent … now that’s what bothered Red. On a local radio show last November, Auerbach blurted, “I knew right from the beginning that he was headed for the pile.” Classic Red. Now he adds, “I respect him, he’s a helluva coach, he really is … but he didn’t like Rick Fox! He didn’t like (David) Wesley. He didn’t like (Danny) Fortson. You know what I mean … we differed on a lot of things. But that was his opinion as the CEO, so he made the moves. Hey, he’s where he belongs. He’s a great college coach.”
When Pitino bolted last winter, the Celtics quickly restored Red’s presidency and graciously sought his input on trades and draft picks. During last year’s draft, the Celtics held three first-rounders, including the No. 21 selection. Red was enamored with Joe Forte, North Carolina’s All-American and a Washington product, while the rest of the Celtics hierarchy leaned toward French point guard Tony Parker (now starting for the Spurs). In the end, they passed on the talented Parker and drafted Forte — another shooting guard on a team filled with them — simply to throw Red a bone.
|“||I knew right from the beginning that he was headed for the pile. I respect him, he’s a helluva coach, he really is … but he didn’t like Rick Fox! He didn’t like (David) Wesley. He didn’t like (Danny) Fortson. You know what I mean … we differed on a lot of
|— Red Auerbach on Rick Pitino|
According to Red, everything worked out for the best — without Pitino, Jim O’Brien (a favorite of Red’s) never would have never ended up in charge. He
also likes this year’s group, the best Celtics team since Reggie Lewis’ final season (’92-’93). Things are better now. For the first time in seven years, the C’s will make the playoffs. For the first time in nine years, they’ll have home-court advantage in a playoff series. For the first time in 11 years, they have two All-Stars (Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce). And since the Eastern Conference lacks a truly dominant team, the Celtics have as good a chance to make the Finals as anybody.
“We’re competitive,” Red explains. “When you’re competitive, anything can happen. Some of the Western teams kill us. San Antonio kills us. Kills
us. We play the Lakers OK. But there’s nobody in the East that good. And any time you have Pierce and Walker going for you, you’re off to a good
start. They’re acting like captains … they decided that there’s no substitute for winning.”
It’s just nice to have the Celtics playing well again. Since Bird and the gang brought him a 16th championship in ’86, the wheels came off quickly: Lenny Bias overdosed on cocaine; Walton’s career ended prematurely; Bird’s back gave out; McHale’s feet betrayed him; Lewis tragically died; Gavitt failed to resuscitate the franchise; the laughable Carr drove them into the ground; the Boston Garden was demolished; they failed to win the Tim Duncan Sweepstakes; Pitino floundered; Paul Pierce was nearly stabbed to death; and Pitino threw up his hands and skipped town. Fifteen years of basketball hell.
“The bad break of it all was that the league never gave us a chance to recover from Reggie Lewis,” Red says now. “Forget about Bias — they never gave us a pick or anything to recover from that — but they could have given us (cap) money to use for Reggie. They made us carry his salary on our cap for three years. Three! Today, they changed (that rule). They realized how shabbily they treated us.” He sighs. “When you lose two All-Star players and get nothing back … just think about that. Go to New Jersey and take away
Kidd and Van Horn. Where the hell would they be?”
Bitter? Hell, yeah. He’s still bitter. Red isn’t buying any of this “What goes around, comes around” bad luck crap.
“The league couldn’t wait to shove it to us,” he complains. “People don’t realize that we did a lot of things for the league over those years. (Former Boston owner) Walter Brown was the guy who pushed giving the two last-place finishers extra draft picks so they would be competitive (back in the mid-’60s) … I told him, whenever the time comes when we need help from the league, they’ll bury us.”
The subject shifts to Lenny Bias. I mention writing a column about Bias last summer, how I still think about him from time to time, how much he would have helped those Celtics teams. “People don’t realize how good he was, unless they saw him play,” says Red, nodding. “One of the early guys that was 6-foot-8 and could really run. I used to know him before it happened. Lefty (Driessel) was a good friend, still is.”
Some believe that a little piece of Red died on the day Bias died. He followed Bias at Maryland for three years. Bias’ coach — Driessel — doubled as one of Red’s closest friends. Bias worked as a counselor at Red’s camp in the summer of ’85. Auerbach traded a starting guard (Gerald Henderson) to Seattle in ’85, netting an eventual lottery pick in return. When the Celtics finished second in that lottery — in May of ’86, one spot behind the Philadelphia 76ers — Red whispered into the ear of Sixers GM Pat Williams,
“If you don’t take (Brad) Daugherty, we do,” a little reverse psychology to keep Williams guessing.
And then the Sixers tabbed Daugherty … and Red landed his guy. His last great coup. Right up until the point when Bias decided to celebrate with some
buddies, and the cocaine came out …
“He was not a drug user,” Red claims, more animated than ever. “That’s why he died — he didn’t know how to use them! We tested him out a week
before … so did a lot of other teams. He passed three physicals from three teams.”
Didn’t matter. Maybe Bias was a cocaine virgin, maybe the team misjudged his character … the fact remains, he threw it all away, taking the Celtics
dynasty with him. Within a few years, Red scaled back his involvement with the team, spending more and more time in Washington with his family (where
they lived even when he was coaching the Celtics in the ’50s). And the most successful franchise in the history of the sport suddenly turned into your
average “Behind the Music” special on VH1.
“What did you think of that Bobby Knight thing?” Red asks me. He’s changing the subject. I tell him that Brian Dennehy looked too old to play Knight.
“He may be a good actor, but he wasn’t good for the role,” Red agrees. “Not only was he too old, but he’s too short! He was looking up to Alford, they
told me! I haven’t seen it yet.”
Apparently I’ve asked my last question about Lenny Bias.
|***** ***** *****|
We spend the next 30 minutes talking about anything and everything. Red still ventures up to Boston six or seven times a year for home games, sitting in the same seat as always (Section 12, Row 7), adding, “I don’t sit in the (luxury) boxes with all that food and all that stuff in there … I like to hear what the people say, even at my age. I like to see if there’s any bitching and moaning during the games.”
For the past nine years, there was enough bitching and moaning to last an entire lifetime. With the franchise finally back on track, with the team in good hands, Red can concentrate on the other things about the NBA that drive him crazy. Like all the crap that happens during timeouts. Kids running around and shooting T-shirts into the crowd. Guys jumping on trampolines. Jumbotrons showing annoying movie clips. Worst of all, scoreboards imploring the fans to make noise.
“I think it’s horses—,” he grumbles. “Nobody’s gonna tell me when to holler! If I had my own mind, just because some idiot on a punchboard puts up a thing that says, ‘YELL!’ like I’m not gonna yell. It’s stupid. And another thing … they do it in a lot of cities … they introduce the visiting team, then they put the lights out, and they go thru all that bulls— and introduce the Celtics … I don’t believe in that stuff. Show a little class.”
He’s just getting worked up. Red attended a game three weeks ago when Delk, the newest Celtic, knocked into an opposing player, then leaned over to help
the guy up. After the game, Auerbach headed over to Delk in the locker room and busted his chops, right in front of reporters and teammates. Poor Delk
was practically speechless.
“You don’t kiss your enemy!” Red yelps, getting agitated all over again. “You see, theoretically, if I’m playing against you, if you make me look bad and I get fired, you’re my enemy. That means you’re taking the food out of my mouth, out of my family’s mouth. So as long as you’re my enemy, let’s be enemies! I saw a game the other night, after it was over, guys from both teams were hugging each other … We never did that! Until the game was over, we were (mimics fighting), we were fighting for our life! We zoomed right into the dressing room afterward.”
So much has changed. Things happened during Red’s era that would be replayed endlessly on “SportsCenter” now. For instance, before a playoff game at St.
Louis, Red dropped Hawks owner Ben Kerner with one punch … and the game hadn’t even started yet. I’ll let him tell the story:
“Cousy and Sharman come over to me and say the basket was too low. They’re saying, ‘We can touch the rim on this basket — we can never touch the rim!’
So we’re having a rhubarb with the refs. Finally, they bring out the (measuring) stick. So Kerner comes out of the stands, and he starts cussing
me, and he takes a step toward me … so I hit him. (Dramatic pause.) In front of 8,000 people. They pick him off the floor. Then they measure the basket and they put it this way (slanting the stick) to make believe that the rim wasn’t short. And they never fixed it! Ask Cousy to this day, and he’ll tell you that stick was slanted.”
Now he’s going. Red’s like an NBA jukebox. Pop in a request, and he has the story ready to go. I ask him about the famous Game 7 with the Lakers,
when Frank Selvy missed a potential championship-winning shot at the buzzer, then the Lakers blew the game in overtime. Even as I’m getting the words
“Selvy” out of my mouth, Red jumps in:
“No-no-no-no-no … that was no buzzer-beater. We were cheated. By our own timekeeper. Lemme tell you exactly what happened. I can envision it like it
was yesterday. There were three seconds left. They got the ball at midcourt. They throw it in to Jerry West, he takes a fake, tries to take a shot, we’re
all over him. Can’t take a shot. So he throws it all the way across the court to Selvy. That’s three seconds right there. Selvy gets the ball. Fakes, takes
the shot. Hits the rim — misses it. They get the rebound, Baylor takes another shot and misses it. All in three seconds! Our timekeeper was in his
70s, he froze on the clock. That was his last year anyway.”
How does he remember all this stuff? Don’t all these seasons just blend together?
“Obviously, I can’t remember everything,” Red says. “You gotta be statistically minded to remember everything. People ask me questions sometimes about what happened in ’58 or something like that … hey, that was 44 years ago! They think I’m supposed to remember every little thing. I can tell you a lot of stories about those days and give you the minute-est details, but certain games I can’t remember.”
|“||You’re disillusioned by what you read by some a–hole writer. This is the truth — I had absolutely no control of that Garden over anything. They treated us like s—. If (the Lakers) had cold water, don’t you think we had cold water? The Lakers used to complain how hot it was at the Garden, that it wasn’t air-conditioned. I said to them, ‘Hey, I don’t blame you for complaining, because the half-a-court we play on is air-conditioned.’ ”|
So be it. But for a guy who can’t remember everything … well, it sure seems like he remembers everything. We’re talking about the famous ending to Game 7 of the ’57 Finals — when Alex Hannum threw the ball the full-length of the court, from out of bounds, and aimed for the backboard so it would bounce to teammate Bob Pettit, and it actually worked, but Pettit missed the shot — and Red points out how Rick Fox tried the same play in a Celtics game five years ago.
When I mention that Russell seemed undersized for a center, Red harrumphs and rolls off the details from a sweep over San Francisco in ’65, when the Warriors couldn’t play the Twin Towers at the same time (Nate Thurmond and Wilt Chamberlain), because the Celtics ran them off the floor.
Losing his fastball? Knocking on death’s door? Hardly. Red even gets riled up once, when I ask about Pat Riley’s claim that Red turned off the hot water in
the visiting dressing room every time the Lakers came to town.
“You’re disillusioned by what you read by some a–hole writer,” Red gripes. “This is the truth — I had absolutely no control of that Garden over anything. They treated us like
s—. If they had cold water, don’t you think we had cold water? The Lakers used to complain how hot it was at the Garden, that it wasn’t air-conditioned. I said to them, ‘Hey, I don’t blame you for complaining, because the half-a-court we play on is air-conditioned.’ I mean, how f—ing stupid can you be? It was the same for us.”
Red also turns serious whenever the 2002 playoff picture gets brought up. He’s not messing around. Whenever people say things like, “If Boston gets the
third seed, and New Jersey and Philly end up matched up in Round Two, then we play Detroit” and all that speculative stuff, Red waves it off.
“I’ll be happy when we make the playoffs,” he says. “Anything that happens after that is a bonus. I just want to make it. That’s all. I just want to go to a playoff game again.”
Suddenly it’s 11:15 a.m. Red needs to leave. He offers me a ride downtown, which I eagerly accept. For the past 50 years, there have been three famous stories
about Red: He loves cigars, he could exist solely on Chinese food (and sometimes does), and he’s the world’s worst driver. Now I’m about to find out
Before we leave his office, he hands me a plant (“Take this downstairs, I need to throw this out”) and shows me a framed picture hanging on his wall,
taken from a magazine, that depicts a bunch of celebrities eating at a giant dinner table. For some reason, the table includes Doug Flutie, Larry Bird,
Fidel Castro, Bill Russell, Jimmy Carter, Red, and six other people we can’t recognize. “Isn’t that the damnedest thing you ever saw?” Red asks. “What the
hell’s going on in that picture?”
Red slips on his green Celtics jacket and finds his cane. We proceed to the elevator, gabbing about Red’s famous racquetball/tennis feud with Larry Bird
(“Used to beat his ass,” Red says proudly) and his daily gin games with his buddies at a local Washington club. He tells me about his family — two
daughters (one of whom lives in the area), three grandchildren, even three great-grandchildren.
“You know you’re getting old when you have great-granchildren,” he says, smiling.
We proceed to his car, which features a license plate that reads “CELTIC.” Of course, it does. Once upon a time, Red was the craziest driver on the planet, a full-fledged menace, the guy who once returned a borrowed car to a buddy and said, “You should have this thing checked out, it shimmies when it goes over 100.” Now he’s just an old guy drifting between lanes, going 25 in a 25, looking at me as much as he’s looking at the road. For some reason, I’m not even remotely terrified. I’m with Red Auerbach, the greatest winner in the history of sports. What are the odds that I’m crashing in a car being driven by Red Auerbach?
“I don’t drive crazy like I used to,” he says, smiling. “Some people are surprised that I still drive myself around. What do they think, I’m not gonna
get in a car anymore just because I’m old? Geez, I’m not dead yet.”
Not even close.
Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.