There are people among us in the sporting world, athletes, coaches, owners, who transcend everything that sport — not just THEIR sport — is about. It’s no secret that Red Auerbach was among these pioneers.
The patriarch of the Boston Celtics died over the weekend at the age of 89, leaving behind a legacy never to be matched in not just the NBA, but sporting history. An integral piece of Boston history was lost with the passing of Auerbach, who leaves behind impossible shoes to fill. The mere images of him blowing celebratory smoke evoke memories of glory days passed by.
Of all the terms associated with Auerbach over the past two days, “larger than life” is the most often used. A week after NBA commissioner David Stern asked his players to leave their firearms at home, we are reminded what a different basketball landscape it is today. Many young fans, and even players, might not even know what all the fuss is about this week. Who was this old man, anyhow?
In Boston, we remember the life of a sporting figure whose persona and success were the stuff of legend. And nationwide, his legacy is being celebrated this week:
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers asked Red to talk to the team after the game, which he always enjoyed doing. He gave them a mini-pep talk, clearly pumped by the opening night win. As he turned to leave, he saw Dan Dickau, who was then one of the team’s backup guards.
“Hey Dan, can I ask you a question?” he said.
“Sure, Coach, anything,” Dickau said.
“Are there baskets these days on the sides of the court?”
Dickau was puzzled. “No coach, there aren’t,” he said.
“Well, then, will you quit dribbling from side-to-side all the time and go to the basket?”
Dickau was stunned for a moment — and then he got it. He laughed and nodded his head.
“I’ll try coach,” he said. “I’ll try.”
The stories coming out of Los Angeles and Philly and all the cities where the Celtics were despised cannot be written without mentioning that Auerbach ‘s cigar smoke could be very annoying, that he did devious things like cut off the hot water to the visiting locker room in Boston Garden, or remove some of the light bulbs or turn up the heat to the point of unbearable. The very mention of Len Bias’s name turned his voice into a whisper. It was one of the very, very few moves that didn’t turn out the way Auerbach thought it would.
Even so, it is impossible to imagine the NBA without Red Auerbach, the man who built the NBA’s greatest dynasty, who on the Mount Rushmore of Coaches sits right there beside Wooden and Lombardi. Fortunately, the greatest contributor in the history of professional basketball has left his signature in enough places that it’s not possible he’ll ever be forgotten.
At Legal Seafood in Boston, an item on the menu reads: No cigar or pipe smoking, except for Red Auerbach. “One time a waitress comes over and says, ‘Sorry, sir, no smoking,’ ” Red smiles. “I told her that there was a mistake, that she should look at the menus. She realized and laughed.
“Snarky comments come naturally to Jackson. It’s almost as if they’re an essential part of his being, like swimming to a shark. He has made dismissive remarks about opposing coaches, entire cities, even religions. But not Auerbach, he writes. “He let Auerbach get away with blast after blast, all the while biting his tongue so hard it’s surprising it didn’t bleed.”
The modern era Celtics open their season Wednesday night at the TD Banknorth Garden against New Orleans/Oklahoma City, complete with the brand-new Celtics dancers, the final nail in the coffin of the franchise that clung to its illustrious past with a refusal to do business the same way as the rest of the league.
Bob Ryan relates a story today in which Auerbach told a friend in the early ‘90s that he would decide when his time would come.
Perhaps with a league that looks less and less like the one he worked so diligently to build to prominence, he decided this was as good a time as any.