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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Tough man had a tender side

The first time I met Red Auerbach, I was 22 years old, and I was terrified.

It was January 1983, and I had been working at the Globe as a full-time writer exactly two months. My assignment was the Boston College-St. John's basketball game, which seemed manageable enough until five minutes before tipoff, when this silver-haired gentleman in a blue blazer plopped himself down next to me and lit up a cigar.

Of course. What else would he do?

No one dared to instruct Arnold "Red" Auerbach to extinguish it. We were in Boston Garden -- the house Red built -- and he did whatever he wanted when he roamed that creaky old arena with the hallowed banners hanging from its rafters.

I wanted so desperately to impress him, but I couldn't think of a single intelligent thing to say. Instead, I diligently took notes while Boston College and its waterbug point guard, Michael Adams, wreaked havoc on the heavily favored St. John's team. Red didn't say much to me, other than offering to buy me an ice cream midway through the first half.

At the intermission, as the cheerleaders sprinted to center court to began their spirited, peppy routine, the greatest coach in basketball history gestured toward the parquet -- his parquet -- and asked, "So . . . what do you think?"

It was the moment I had been waiting for. I immediately explained how I thought BC's full-court press was particularly effective, and if St. John's didn't begin to respect the Eagles' perimeter shooter soon, maybe BC could pull off the upset.

"No, no," Auerbach interrupted. "I meant the girls. Aren't you the cheerleading coach?"

Well, no. I wasn't. Red would learn that soon enough. Over nearly 24 years, our paths would cross on a regular basis. I was a young reporter trying to capture the Celtics' mystique, and he was the man who invented it. In the beginning, he vociferously objected to everything about me, particularly when I entered his team's locker room.

"You don't belong in there," he'd bark.

"What if you were trying to decide whether to draft a player, and everyone got to talk to him but you?" I'd retort. "Would that be fair?"

"It would never happen!" he'd bellow. "I would already know more about the kid than everyone else anyway!"

This, of course, was true. Back when Auerbach's staff consisted of himself, and, well, himself, he relied on a Rolodex full of numbers for nearly every prominent college coach in the country to glean his scouting reports. He was always one step ahead of the competition. And, when he'd fleece his fellow NBA executives, he did so without a trace of humility.

"If you do something great, kid, then don't apologize to anyone," he told me. "If you're a winner, then act like one."

He called me "kid" right up until yesterday, the day he died of a heart attack. He had battled respiratory problems in recent years, and I suppose none of us should have been shocked that an 89-year-old man's time finally had come.

Still, the news took my breath away. Forgive me. Red was so stubborn, I assumed he would live forever.

Or maybe I just hoped that was true.

I know how people felt about him outside of Boston. They felt he was arrogant, superior. They hated the fact he lit up that cigar in the waning moments of a sure victory. It was showboating, they said, a galling lack of sportsmanship. The book on Red outside of our city was he was a graceless winner and sore loser.

Maybe so. I asked him about it once. He smiled, took a puff, and blew it in my face.

Our relationship was a work in progress, but over time, I grew to love Red Auerbach. We developed a quirky sort of professional friendship that included spirited debates on women's issues, on the merits of different eras, on the best blacktop playgrounds in the country. He grew to appreciate my love of the game, and became one of my most trusted sources.

In the early '90s, he fell ill and almost died. Naturally, the Celtics insulated him, so the public (and most of us in the media) didn't completely grasp how close he came to leaving us. I didn't realize it myself until I went to see him in Washington after he had recovered. I was asking him how Reggie Lewis's shocking death affected him, and, after taking a long draw of his cigar, he admitted he was so sick during that time, he had little or no idea what had happened to the young star.

It was a beautiful spring day in Washington, and he asked me when my flight was leaving. I told him I had some time. We hopped into his Saab convertible (really now, how many senior citizens do you know drive a Saab convertible?), and he took me to the Smithsonian. There was a great Duke Ellington exhibit, he explained, and he felt I should see it before I left.

Who knew? Red loved Chinese food, and owned an eclectic collection of letter openers ("Go to the back of the store," he always insisted. "The best stuff is always in the back."), but until that day, I didn't realize he was tuned into Sir Duke as well.

As we pulled up to the entrance, he parked his car in the little cul de sac in front of the building. A uniformed guard immediately approached us and said, "I'm sorry, sir. There's no parking here."

Red got out of the car, patted him on the shoulder, and said, "That's OK, son."

Then he walked inside. One hour later, we returned to the cul de sac, where his car remained, untouched.

You know most of the facts concerning Red. You know about the championships, his willingness to hire the first African-American coach, his unparalleled tenure as a cunning and ruthless general manager.

I wish he showed his softer side more. It was there, particularly when discussing the two daughters who made him so proud, or his wife, Dorothy, whom he missed terribly after she died in 2000, or when he called to console a young reporter who had experienced her own devastating personal loss, not six months after he had blown smoke in her face.

In recent years, the trip to Boston was increasingly difficult for Red. He walked with a cane, which he hated ("Ask me about it and I'll hit you with it," he groused). He couldn't quite keep up with the team as he once did.

Two years ago, I stood with him in the hallway of the FleetCenter outside the locker room, when one of the young players (who shall remain nameless to save him the embarrassment) came up to the Celtics patriarch.

"Coach Auerbach," he said. "I just want to shake your hand. It is such an honor to meet you."

As the player walked away, Red turned to me and said, "Who the hell was that?"

In his final years, he spent most afternoons at his club in Maryland, where he played cards and held court. He still attended games at his beloved George Washington and took in some of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament last spring.

"If you come down, we'll go together," he told me.

"I should do that," I said.

I didn't. I got busy with my life and my work and my kids. It sounded good at the time, but I couldn't get there.

I talked to Red for the last time about three weeks ago. I had written a story on Doc Rivers and his attempts to balance his job with commuting to Orlando where his family lives. Red had done a similar juggling act when he was coaching the Celtics in Boston, and his family remained in D.C.

"I don't blame Doc," Red told me. "At the end of the day, your family is the only thing that matters."

He told me he was flying up for the season opener, which is Wednesday.

"Are you coming?" he said. "I'll see you there."

I wish.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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