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Fans join franchise in tribute to Auerbach

A single, empty seat, adorned with 16 green roses and a Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur cigar, remained unoccupied last night for the Celtics' season opener. It was Red Auerbach's customary seat at TD Banknorth Garden -- Loge 12, Row 7, Seat 1 -- and the makeshift memorial served as a final reminder to all.

Auerbach had planned to be in attendance last night. His daughter, Randy, served as the family representative, and accepted a "Heroes Among Us" award on behalf of her father during a break in the game. She was accompanied by four others close to the former Celtics patriarch, who died Saturday night of a heart attack at age 89.

The Celtics will dedicate this season to Auerbach and, in his honor, black shamrocks had been stitched onto their uniforms with "Red" written in green letters. Those in the expensive courtside seats were given a commemorative cigar, identical to the one left in Auerbach's seat.

NBA commissioner David Stern, who attended Auerbach's funeral service in Virginia Tuesday, flew in from Miami to represent the league, while nearly a dozen ex-Celtics were present, including Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, and Robert Parish.

Auerbach coached the Celtics to nine NBA titles in the 1950s and '60s, including a record eight in succession from 1959-66. He then moved to the front office, where he was the general manager, president, vice chairman of the board, and franchise guru, helping the team to seven more championships, the last in 1986. Auerbach was, truly, an NBA original, starting in the league when it opened for business in 1946, as coach of the Washington Capitols. This would have been his 57th season with the Celtics.

Stern, subject to many Auerbachian tirades over the decades, recalled last night how he once forgot to mention that the Coach of the Year trophy was named after Auerbach. Even worse, Stern used a sponsor's name instead.

"Red called me up to express what could mildly be described as his displeasure, directed that his name be forcibly removed from the proceedings, or else he was going to come down and remove it himself," Stern said. "By the end of the phone call, he accepted my assurance that it would never happen again and that the Red Auerbach Trophy would henceforth always be presented with mention of the person after whom it was named. He was very proud of that."

What, specifically, did Auerbach tell Stern? The commissioner declined to elaborate, telling reporters, "most of you print family newspapers." The commissioner acknowledged that after their chat, "I felt as though I was being watched, which, in fact, I was."

Before the current Celtics were introduced last night, a short video tribute to Auerbach was played on the new video scoreboard, showing grainy black-and-white footage of Auerbach in his coaching days as well as more current video of him celebrating his most recent championships. The tribute's musical accompaniment: Frank Sinatra's "My Way." All the time, a spotlight shone on Auerbach's retired No. 2. That was followed by a rendition of "Amazing Grace" by the Boston Police Pipe and Drums Gaelic Column.

Celtics captain Paul Pierce, who wore a white headband with the number 2 on it all night, addressed the fans and reminisced about his first meeting with Auerbach, which he said lasted 45 minutes. "I couldn't believe I was speaking to Red Auerbach," Pierce said, as the crowd roared. "I then called everyone I knew and told them I had just spoken to Red Auerbach. It was one of the best days of my life."

At halftime, White, Tommy Heinsohn, and M.L. Carr joined WEEI's Glenn Ordway for a panel discussion at midcourt. The Hornets returned from their locker room and began shooting before the discussion was finished, and were booed by the Garden crowd .

The tribute at the Garden ended a daylong Red fest, which began at noon at City Hall Plaza, where speakers ranging from Cousy to Governor Mitt Romney (who was booed) spoke about Auerbach. Fans stood 20 deep at four tables to sign guest books. Mary Sweeney, who works at the JFK Library, wrote, "We'll never forget the great one, and how he was like a father for all in the city." Fans watched FSN's show "Red, the Legend" on a large screen.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino declared yesterday "A Day in Memory of Arnold 'Red' Auerbach," and an emotional Cousy finished up the speaking chores. "They said they saved the best for last," Cousy said. "I don't know about the best, but certainly the oldest. This has been an emotional week."

Cousy thanked everyone for attending and Celtics managing partner Wyc Grousbeck asked for a moment of silence. Hours later, Stern talked about a side of Auerbach that few knew.

"He was a real gentleman," the commissioner said. "If there was something that you or your family needed in New England, and you didn't consult Red, he was offended, because he considered it his sacred duty to help his friends. Aside from all of the talk about his competitiveness, and people sharing stories of Red yelling at them, I don't want [it] lost that this was a real gentleman and a real good friend. That's a great memory for me. I can't help smiling when I think of Red. Although it may be sad, and it is, when you talk about Red, to anybody, they start smiling. What a legacy on top of everything else."

Globe correspondent Matt Tice contributed to this report. Peter May can be reached at P_May@globe.com.

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