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Celtics run with this topic

Auerbach stories touching, revealing

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / October 30, 2006

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WALTHAM -- Drawing from an incomparable wealth of life and basketball experiences, Red Auerbach was a master storyteller.

His failing health in recent years never compromised his total recall of events from decades past. When Auerbach attended games at TD Banknorth Garden, he would hold court postgame in the coaches' office beside the locker room regaling anyone who stopped by with a story, usually a precious nugget of Celtics history that came with a humorous kicker.

So, it should come as no surprise that remembrances of Auerbach yesterday from the Celtics and the NBA centered on anecdotes, some touching, some revealing, many humorous.

The stories told by former Boston players, including Danny Ainge, Kevin McHale, and Rick Carlisle, were not about recent conversations, but rather quick exchanges they had with Auerbach as rookies. McHale shared his first memory of Auerbach, when he went directly from Logan Airport to the Celtics' offices downtown.

"As soon as I got there, Red said, 'Practice starts in 20 minutes. We've got to go. Sign the contract,' " said McHale. "I don't think I even read it. Red drove to practice, which was at Hellenic College in Brookline. We were missing cars left and right. I was happy to get out of that car alive. [As practice is about to start], Red said to me, 'I drafted you because I thought you were good. Now go out and show me.'

"He had a knack for making you feel good. He was bigger than life in so many ways, but he always made you feel good about your contributions. He knew you played better when you felt like an integral part of the team."

Carlisle recalled a brief encounter with Auerbach two weeks into his rookie season. During the final few minutes of a blowout victory over Dallas, an opposing guard made a backdoor cut on Carlisle and scored a wide-open layup. Auerbach came into the locker room and approached Carlisle, who braced for criticism.

"He got you, didn't he?" asked Auerbach.

"Yep," replied Carlisle, who was surprised to hear Auerbach offer invaluable encouragement.

"This is how you learn," said Auerbach. "Next time, you know better."

As he turned to walk away, Auerbach added: "That was a good pass you threw to [Scott] Wedman, by the way."

Carlisle said, "I thought I was going to get crushed, but Red made a point and then offered a compliment that had me fired up for the next two months."

Ainge sought Auerbach's counsel during his playing days to "put things in perspective," looking at the patriarch as "kind of like a grandfather." As the Celtics' director of basketball operations, Ainge gained new admiration for the way Auerbach dealt with people, calmed egos, and handled the jealousies that can exist on a team of talented players. But when Auerbach wasn't finding ways to instruct and motivate players, he was making them laugh.

Yesterday, Ainge remembered some of the funnier lines Auerbach delivered.

"I found myself reflecting on Red quite a bit the last couple years as his health has been struggling and all I can do is smile at all the fond memories I have of Red, at all the fun times that we had, the funny things that he said and did," said Ainge. "Red was a lot of fun to be around.

"I remember when Red first picked me up at the airport after I was drafted by the Celtics. We went out to eat and just talked about basketball and the Celtics. Then, when my wife was coming into the airport a short time after, Red said, 'How many wives do you Mormons have, anyway?' He was fun that way."

When asked for his funniest Auerbach moment, Ainge told of playing racquetball against Auerbach between two-a-day training camp workouts. At the time, Auerbach was in his mid-60s and getting the better of Larry Bird and McHale on the racquetball court. Then, he challenged Ainge to a game. Ainge promptly beat Auerbach three straight times.

"I beat him the first three games and he wouldn't let me quit," said Ainge. "I said, 'Red, I've got a second practice. I'm trying to win a job.' But he made me stay and play racquetball. Well, Bird and McHale came in for the later part of this, probably only an hour before our second practice is going to start. He still wants to beat me. So, Bird and McHale noticed that I didn't have the string around my [wrist] and that's illegal. They tattled on me . . . He had to make me put the string around one hand [so I couldn't switch hands], then Red beat me. He went and bragged for the rest of camp that he beat me in racquetball."

It was no secret how competitive Auerbach was. When Pat Riley coached the Lakers in the 1980s, he learned that.

"I remember one time at Salt Lake City at the All-Star Game, I jumped on an elevator and he was standing on the elevator all alone," Riley told reporters in Miami yesterday. "It was right in the middle of our fiercest time competing against the Celtics for championships in the '80s, and he didn't even look at me. He taught me that this is what it's all about. This is about showing respect by showing none."

Playing for the Hawks, Doc Rivers also experienced Auerbach's competitiveness.

"Before practice [yesterday], I talked to the team about a lot of things," said Rivers. "I told them the story about the first time I had ever had a conversation with Red. Typical Red, he was tampering. I was with the Hawks and I was going to be a free agent and there was discussion about me signing an extension with the Hawks. I was in a restaurant and Red walked up to me . . . He didn't address me by name. He just said, 'I think it would be very wise if you didn't sign an extension.' Then he just walked away. I guess that was his way of telling me there was interest [in Boston]. We've laughed about that ever since."

Rivers also told the current Celtics about the impact Auerbach had not only on the franchise, but on the NBA. He talked about how Auerbach promoted the team to New Englanders in the early days, how he coached the first black player in the NBA, how he had the first all-black starting lineup, how he hired the first black coach.

Although Paul Pierce never played for Auerbach or knew him at the height of his powers as president, the captain relished simply talking to him.

"I remember the first time I came here, playing in his golf classic," said Pierce. "And I sat down and talked to him for about an hour. I was just thinking, 'Red Auerbach is taking time to sit down and talk to me, a rookie who's unproven and hasn't done anything in the NBA. I thought that was something special. I'll remember that for the rest of my life."

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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