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Still smokin'

The Celtics patriarch is feisty and opinionated at 86; here's Red on roundball . . . and a few other things

WASHINGTON -- Red Auerbach is happy. Today is a good day. A bunch of friends, including journalists, Secret Service agents, and coaches are scheduled to meet him in Chinatown for his informal weekly "Tuesdays With Red" lunch. Plus, he has front-row tickets to the Georgetown-Boston College game. Auerbach is treating two of the doctors who have helped keep him amazingly sharp at 86. He has had recent stomach problems but feels better. He's even talking about hot dogs for dinner. He is happy, all right, until he sees a photographer leaning over a half-dozen cigar butts piled in his ashtray. He blows smoke. "Hey! My doctors see that picture . . ."

But then the president of the Boston Celtics and the NBA's greatest coach softens.

"You think it's important?" he says, smiling. "Aw, all right."

Auerbach without a cigar is Russell without a rebound, Arnie without an Army, James Bond without a girl.

How important is that cigar? Cigar Aficionado magazine ranked Auerbach eighth among the greatest cigar smokers of the 20th century -- behind Winston Churchill, JFK, and Fidel Castro but ahead of Jack Nicholson, Babe Ruth, and Al Capone. And none of them ever won eight world championships in a row.

Auerbach pulls out a lighter and removes the cellophane from a new Hoyo de Monterrey. It's just past 9 a.m., and that's already cigar No. 2, but who's counting? Actually, his doctors are counting.

"Well, there's two counts," says Auerbach. "One officially and one unofficially. Officially it's supposed to be two. Unofficially it's three."

This is a man who had a quintuple bypass in 1993 and was recently in Massachusetts General Hospital for tests. The doctors don't tell him what to do, he says. "They suggest."

Auerbach stopped working out several years ago after he broke three ribs playing racquetball. Prior to that, he was a tiger on the court, making well-placed shots and running his opponent like a dog. He even beat an inexperienced Larry Bird in his prime on the tennis court.

"I finished and said, `How can you let a 68-year-old man beat you?' " says Auerbach, "and I threw the tennis racket down."

Bird demanded a rematch, according to Auerbach. "I wouldn't play him again," he says. "A month afterward he would've beat me."

He says he goes to the office every day. Today he's been in his office since 8:30, and by 9 he had talked on the phone with Danny Ainge, the Celtics' embattled director of basketball operations, whom he refuses to criticize.

"If I feel OK, I go to the club for a couple of hours," says Auerbach. "Then I come back and have dinner, watch a couple of games -- college games, pro games -- and go to bed around 1 in the morning."

The smoke swirls, and Auerbach sits back under a painting done by his brother that shows just a hand, a cigar, and the smoke spelling out "Red." Zang Auerbach also painted the leprechaun that graces center court of the parquet at the FleetCenter.

Auerbach says his trademark "victory cigar" routine started innocently.

"You got a team by 30 points, there's three minutes to go. The coach is still pacing up and down the sidelines and yelling. For what? He's on TV. He wants to show that his team fights and is active for the full 48 minutes and he's an integral part of it. My feeling was that once the game is decided -- and you could tell -- then sit down and relax.

"So we had a great team. We were ahead a lot of these games with four or five minutes to go, so I sat down on the bench. It came to be by accident. One day I just happened to pick out a cigar. The game was over. There were a couple of coaches that happened to smoke cigarettes on the bench. But I just happened to relax. All of a sudden it clicked. It became very charismatic. After that, there was no point in stopping it. Everybody picked it up."

Did he ever light up and then lose?

"Once we made the dumbest play I ever saw but we won in overtime," he says. "It was in Providence but I'm not going to tell you who it was.

"It so affected some of the teams that they were out to get me. So we go into Cincinnati one day, when they had Oscar [Robertson] and that bunch. They gave out 5,000 cigars to the men there. All the fans there were going to light up in my face. You talk about a motivating speech. I really got my boys hopped up. We beat the hell out of them, so they didn't get to light those cigars."

Wrongs and rights

Auerbach is president of the Celtics again after being unceremoniously demoted to vice chairman when Rick Pitino was anointed president and head coach in 1997. He does not harbor ill will toward Pitino or former owner Paul Gaston.

"Pitino, he sold them a bill of goods," said Auerbach. "They didn't consult me on Pitino. He's a hell of a coach in college, but I never would've OK'd what they gave him.

"The money was way out of whack. We could have gotten him for half of that. Once he has the players, he's pretty good. But he comes in here, and his assessment that Rick Fox and [David] Wesley can't play . . .

"Make an assessment like that and you're going to have trouble."

Auerbach also didn't like Pitino's assessment of Danny Fortson, one of his favorites.

"Fortson is a great rebounder," says Auerbach. "[Pitino] says he's a little bit of a pain in the neck. Well, that's why they pay you the big bucks, to straighten that out. He fought for the wrong things."

Auerbach fought for the right things. He was the first person in the NBA to draft an African-American (Chuck Cooper, 1950). The first to start five African-Americans. The first to name an African-American coach (Bill Russell).

When Auerbach left the Boston bench in 1966 to concentrate on being general manager, he was the winningest coach in NBA history with 938 victories. He was the first to use a "sixth man," he ran a simple offense of seven set plays, and he never had a league-leading scorer. "I was never big on statistics," he says. He was around when the NBA was born, and he's still scouting now.

But he says some of his legend was just plain luck.

"I remember one championship, actually two," he says. "Don Nelson took a shot, the score was tied, it was overtime against the Lakers. It hits the rim, hits the backboard, bounces to the rim, hits the other rim, rolls around and goes in, and that makes me a hell of a coach. So if that's the difference between being a great coach and a not-great coach, why do you worry about these things?

"There's no substitute for winning -- that's the bottom line. When you win, you're a genius, regardless of what it took. Who knows how much I would've won without Bill Russell? Probably very little, but we were always competitive."

Although Auerbach has been a part of 16 NBA titles, it has been nearly 18 years since the Celtics last won one. He will not concede that he might not see another one.

"We've got to get lucky," he says. "A lot of teams have gone longer than 18 years. Washington's been in existence 50 years and they've won one championship. Portland's been around 30-40 years and won one championship. A lot of teams have never won a championship."

He said the leprechaun is not cursed, despite the tragic deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, the lottery loss that cost them Tim Duncan, Vin Baker's drinking problems, and the recent resignation of coach Jim O'Brien.

"We lucked out on [Paul] Pierce," says Auerbach. "He slid all the way down there [to the 10th pick in the '98 draft]. You've got to be lucky. Sure, you've got to be prepared to take advantage of the luck, but you still gotta be lucky.

"Who the hell wants to finish last for two or three years in a row and get those high franchise players like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony? We don't have a chance at that. We're making the playoffs.

"I used to tell everybody, `I don't care what the hell happens. Let the chips fall where they may.' Go in the tank? You can't do that ever."

Current assessments

Auerbach watches most Celtics games on satellite television at home if he's not out scouting.

"They need a big body who can shoot it and put it on the floor," he says. "I want them to be an instigator instead of a retaliator. Preferably a big guy so if you're going down the middle he's going to cream you."

He says the Celtics today lack "firepower," but he doesn't blame Ainge.

"I like the way Danny approaches things," says Auerbach. "He's a thinker. He's a hard worker and he's a very intelligent guy and competitive guy."

On the trade that sent Antoine Walker and Tony Delk to Dallas, for Raef LaFrentz, Jiri Welsch, Chris Mills and a first-round draft pick: "I can't second-guess that deal, I really can't. You've got to try something. You weren't winning. You weren't going anywhere, either."

He also misses the hard-nosed play of Eric Williams, who was sent to Cleveland with Tony Battie in the December deal that brought Ricky Davis and Chris Mihm to Boston.

He thinks Walker has tons of talent.

"Oh, I loved Walker," says Auerbach. "A couple of years ago, he didn't make the All-Star team. I said, `You know why you didn't make the All-Star team? You make that 3-point shot and then you taunt with that wiggle. I know it makes you feel good, but as a rival coach, I say I'm going to get that SOB because he's going to throw it in my face. If you build up stats on rebounding and cut back on threes and cut down on the wiggling, you'll make the All-Star team,' and that's what happened."

He says he's not focusing on the Knicks, who recently passed the Celtics for second place in the Atlantic Division. But Auerbach does love to beat them in Madison Square Garden. It goes back more than 60 years when Garden promoter Ned Irish snubbed Auerbach's George Washington team in the NIT. Auerbach also remembers Isiah Thomas's comment in the '80s that Bird would be "just another good player if he was black."

"You forgive, you don't forget," he says.

Some say Thomas, the Knicks' new president of basketball operations, has already outdone Ainge by acquiring Stephon Marbury.

"You don't worry too much about other teams," says Auerbach. "He may be upgrading the Knicks on paper but it may be affecting the chemistry. You don't know if [Penny] Hardaway and Marbury are going to have a real effect on [Allan] Houston. So instead of being a better team, they may be worse. You don't know. You don't win on paper. Marbury is a great, great player; still, you've got to win it out on the court."

Chewing the fat

Auerbach drives himself around town in a Mercedes with vanity plates that read "CELTICS." The overflowing ashtray looks like a crematorium. There are legendary stories of Auerbach speeding around New England at 100 miles per hour to get to exhibition games. Once on the Maine Turnpike, one of his players yelled at the toll taker, "Check the time. New world record."

Now Auerbach drives slower, but he's still a master of boxing out other vehicles. He can't walk much these days, he's slump-shouldered, and he uses a Celtic-green cane because he suffers from vertigo. But he says he's as sharp mentally as he was 30 years ago.

"The toughest part when you hit 80 is not the activity," says Auerbach, "it's dressing and undressing."

Lunch is at China Doll, and Auerbach is seated at a table over which is a newspaper article about him dining at China Doll. He orders chicken chow mein, no MSG. It's a wiseguy lunch, high-spirited, and covers topics such as Pete Rose and the Baseball Hall of Fame. ("Not as easy as people think," says Auerbach.)

Karl Hobbs, the basketball coach at George Washington, is here, but Auerbach offers him no advice. "I never give advice without being asked," he says later. "No one likes advice from an old man."

Reid Collins, a retired CBS and CNN news correspondent, is here. He's family, having married one of Auerbach's two daughters (one lives in the Washington area, the other in California; he speaks to both every day). Author John Feinstein is here, working on a new book with Auerbach.

Auerbach tells stories, eats half his lunch, picks up the check, and brings his leftovers home to Inez Spencer, his housekeeper of 40 years. His fortune cookie reads, "You will have much success in the future."

His spacious apartment on Massachusetts Avenue looks like a combination of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Museum of Fine Arts. There are ivory and jade collections from his numerous basketball trips to the Far East. There is a letter opener collection and a watch collection and humidors with police badges and Cuban cigars. There's a collection of boxer dog figurines that belonged to his late wife Dorothy.

There is an exquisite hand-carved boat that Auerbach bought decades ago. "Nine bucks," he says. "I saw it in Bloomingdales for $3,000. I called Cousy, he almost died laughing."

He rests for a while in front of his new plasma TV. He still doesn't know how to work the VCR. Another cigar is lit, one culled from six boxes sent by fans.

Spanning the eras

Auerbach says he would take his old school guys against anybody. Asked if he could draft one player from any era, he refuses to pick between Russell and Michael Jordan.

"It's highly debatable," he says. "Depends on the other four. If you've got no center to get you the ball, you're in trouble. With Jordan, as great as he is, you can't do anything without the ball."

Auerbach continues in fantasy mode.

"You talk about the Dream Team we had in the Olympics. In my day, we could put together a team as good as the Dream Team. Lord knows I'm not taking anything away from Magic and Bird and Jordan and those kind of guys. But how would you like to face a squad that had Chamberlain, Russell, Jabbar? Up front, you got Pettit, Baylor, Dr. J, and Schayes, and backcourt you got Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Cousy and Havlicek.

"See, the only difference is -- and I saw 'em all -- you got more of them today. Some of them are a little more spectacular, so what? It don't make any difference."

Auerbach said Bob Cousy started it all.

"Cousy and I had an understanding," he says. "I said, `Bob, I don't care how you throw the ball or dribble the ball, around your neck or through your legs, but somebody better catch it.' "

Auerbach's list of achievements is eclectic. He was a high school player of the week -- back when he truly was a redhead -- and had his picture published in the New York World Telegram circa 1935. According to a 1943 article, he invented an indoor obstacle course when he was a high school teacher that was later used by the Navy during wartime. One time he went to the White House without an appointment and saw both Vice President Al Gore and President Bill Clinton, who left Bill Gates waiting while he talked hoop.

Auerbach won't discuss fear of dying or epitaphs for his gravestone. "Nah, too morbid," he says. "Don't even go there." He won't discuss the furor over Ted Williams's remains, but chooses only to remember their friendship. "He was a very bright guy," says Auerbach. "He had everything figured out real good. He had innate talent and then he worked hard to be super great."

He said Williams once asked him about his players' diet.

"I say, if the game is 7:30 p.m., eat no later than 3 p.m. I like a player to go in hungry. Ted said, `I feel the same way. Have a couple of lamb chops and eat after the game.' "

They are two Boston icons, Williams and Auerbach. Ted has a tunnel named after him, Red has a statue -- which he says makes him nervous. "They also named a street after me," says Auerbach.

What about renaming the FleetCenter after him instead of attaching another bank's name to it? "That'll never happen," says Auerbach. "There's too many millions in a name."

Game night

Auerbach shows up an hour before the Georgetown-BC game at the MCI Center and holds court.

"I scout from memory," he says. "I've been blessed with the ability to read people. I can tell the way they practice, sometimes more than during a game. I have enough of an ego even at 86 to feel that I can spot talent."

Legendary Georgetown coach -- and former Celtic -- John Thompson gives him a hug and tells an Auerbach car story.

"I was scared to drive with him because he drove so fast," says Thompson. "One day, we just played the Philadelphia Warriors and we're driving back together. All of a sudden there was all this smoke from a fire and I was scared. You couldn't see. I asked Red to pull over. Red wouldn't stop. He said, `If we stop, you know we're going to get slammed.' He was right. We kept going, and all you could hear were cars getting smashed and glass breaking.

"He means the world to me. He's the greatest manager of men, in all walks of life. I just love him to pieces."

With his doctors seated beside him, Auerbach devours a hot dog, ice cream, and half a pretzel. Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell comes over to chat. "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert. Congressman Edward Markey. His picture is put on the Jumbotron, with the caption, "Red Auerbach, Celtics legend." Somebody asks him about the FleetCenter. "They're just waiting for me to die," says Auerbach, "so they can get cheerleaders."

The next evening, at a George Washington-Temple game, Auerbach is seated at midcourt, equidistant from a Red Auerbach banner and the brass plaque of his likeness on the entrance. When he takes his seat, the man in front of him hands him a bag of Swiss chocolates, the man behind him a Dutch cigar.

When a player makes a good pass, Auerbach pounds the cane against the floor. When a referee makes a bad call, he still yells, "For Chrissakes."

Eight times during the game he taps his watch and his urologist, Dr. Murray Lieberman, checks the score of the Celtics game from his cellphone. Both the Celtics and George Washington win, and Auerbach shuffles slowly into the crowd filing out. When fans recognize him, they whisper and gently part, as if he were Moses at the Red Sea.

"Sometimes I sit back and say, `I'm just an [expletive] from Brooklyn,' " says Red, getting ready to launch that Dutch cigar.

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