Page 2 columnist
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 dependent solely on what I see with my eyes.' Statistics don't matter, contributions matter. Winning matters.' You rewarded people that way. Today, you can't do that -- it's all about stats and who's getting theirs. So I would have had to change my approach. You adapt." 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 starting a team, then it's debatable." 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, but he's not Jason Kidd." 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 don't have the horses, you're not gonna win. But if you're in the ballgame, he's gonna help you with his poise. The players respect him, they like him, they play hard for him. You couldn't say that about too many coaches these days."|
"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?" "ESPN.com." "ESPN-what?" "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.
|***** ***** *****|
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|
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.
|***** ***** *****|
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.' ”|