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King of the Garden

With a cigar in his hand, Red Auerbach guided the Boston Celtics to 16 NBA Championships.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

Hard by North Station, Boston Garden sits beneath an aging el-train. The top of the white brick building obscured, it looks like some vaudeville theater that time washed out. The square, hatbox structure sits amid forlorn storefronts, closed shops and the kind of grime found on parts of Eighth Avenue in New York. Strangers to basketball would have no intimation that enemy squads once came here to die. Despite its rickety appearance, the Garden--built in 1928--has been the St. Paul's of pro basketball since 1946, nearly 50 years. Inside, a coach and general manager with a lance of a cigar spearheaded the Boston Celtics to more world championships than any other two teams combined.

Red Auerbach saunters around the perimeter of the parquet floor at a recent Celtic practice. Slightly hunched at the shoulder, he looks as he ever did. Jammed between his index and middle fingers is a Hoyo de Monterrey, poking ahead of him, as if suggesting that the only way is forward. Walking with his friend John Poppell, Red appears ruddy, the forehead broad and freckled, the eyes wide and quick with apprehension. Larry Bird is being interviewed some 50 feet from where Red walks. "I would play with a broken arm for Red," says Bird, now scouting and making appearances for the Celtics. "Because he would do the same thing if he could. When he talked, you listened." When Red arrives, Bird bounces up, leaving the seat to Red. Call it Celtic protocol.

"Are those Converse?" the red-haired legend from Brooklyn asks the red-haired legend from French Lick, Indiana. "Yeah," replies Bird, with typical economy. "Here's the man you want," says Bird. "It's a cigar magazine, Red." Bird flies off to the baseline 10 feet away and starts dropping three-point bombs.

Although he still makes some phone calls from Boston and Washington, D.C., Red Auerbach no longer runs the day-to-day operations of the Boston Celtics. For that purpose he hired Dave Gavitt, senior executive vice president, some four years ago. But this weekend Red is dressed and ready.

That night Brandeis University will give a retirement roast-and-toast dinner for Kevin McHale. (Former Celtic Danny Ainge stole the roast, giving a Lettermanesque "Top Ten List" on why McHale retired. No. 3: "Never learned to speak jive."No. 10: "Realizes how goofy he looked in tank top and shorts.") Tomorrow, McHale's No. 32 will rise heavenward at Boston Garden, where it will rub shoulders with Bob Cousy and Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Bird and a dozen other immortals. There, championship banners and players' numbers hover like haunting sheets, mocking the efforts of opponents below.

Despite a team that languishes below .500 in fourth place--despite the fact that this is Super Bowl Sunday--Celtic glory fills the air. And not having Red there would be like having an old-timers' day and not inviting Mays or Mantle.

Red Auerbach is NBA basketball. He is the beginning and the end of the hardwood, the embodiment of a half century of the league's collective wisdom. When he began coaching professional ball in 1946, the league was on the brink of financial ruin.

Before the 16 world championships, before the victory cigar that announced that the enemy was somewhere between simmering and cooked, before Celtic mystique and the parquet on the causeway, there was Brooklyn.

Arnold Jacob Auerbach was born on September 20, 1917, the son of Marie Thompson and Hyman Auerbach, a Russian immigrant. Red grew up in the hardscrabble Brooklyn neighborhood called Williamsburg, where his father ran a dry cleaners. Red helped out with some of the pressing duties and also earned nickels washing taxi cabs. "I appreciated the fact that my father was a hard-working man," Red says, explaining his father's influence. "Also that he was well liked."

"In my area of Brooklyn there was no football, no baseball," he recalls. "They were too expensive. They didn't have the practice fields. We played basketball and handball and some softball in the street." The great pro teams of the 1920s and '30s were the New York Rens (short for "Renaissance," because the team played at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem), the Harlem Globetrotters and the original Celtics. The teams of 10 changed rosters, with players providing their services to the highest bidder. Fifteen dollars a game was a competitive price.

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