King of the Garden
With a cigar in his hand, Red Auerbach guided the Boston Celtics to 16 NBA Championships.
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With smoke and 13 years of Russell, the Celtics copped 11 world championships. But after Russell's retirement in 1969, hard times followed. Word around the league was that Red had won with Russell, but then came the challenge: "Let's see him win without him." Hubie Brown is unimpressed with that view. "He had Russell, and he won. You think about this," he pauses, measuring each word. "Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Don Baylor never won. That's the answer to that. Go up to when Red retired (1966, when he appointed Russell as player-coach)-- Baylor, Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, West and Chamberlain were the best all-time at that point. Los Angelesgot three of them and couldn't win."
And win again Red would. With former sixth man John Havlicek, Jo Jo White and Dave Cowens leading the way, Red the general manager managed two world championships in the 1970s--the only team besides the New York Knicks to accomplish that feat. Still, when great teams are discussed one hears that the 1967 Sixers and the 1972 Lakers--both Chamberlain squads--were the greatest ever. "They say that because they get tired of giving the Celtics all the awards," Red says.
Though his coaching was over, the wheeling and dealing was only beginning. After Havlicek departed in 1978, the Celtics went through lean times again. In two years the Celtics won 61 games and lost 103.
So Auerbach went to work on a junior eligible from Indiana State, Larry Bird. Five teams had passed on drafting Bird in the first round in his junior year. "They didn't know he'd be that good, and I didn't either," says Auerbach. "I only saw him play once." But Auerbach didn't pass on him. Picking sixth, he thought that Bird would be impressed with the Celtic history and mystique and eventually sign.
The Celtics won 29 games in the 1978-1979 season and won 61 the following season with Bird. He made an immediate impact, averaging 21 points and 10 rebounds a game.
The money paid to Bird--the largest sum ever for a rookie at $650,000 a year for five years--turned out to be one of the biggest bargains in the history of human employment. In Bird's second year, the Celtics would take their fourteenth NBA title, first knocking off Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers and then Moses Malone's Houston Rockets. Two more titles in 1984 and 1986 made the total 16. The Lakers (Minneapolis and Los Angeles) won 10, the Sixers four and Chicago three.
A glimpse of what made Auerbach singularly great was apparent in 1986. Auerbach was plotting the future, even while the Celtics played with what Bird called "the best team I ever played with." Auerbach had been observing the fortunes of the Seattle Supersonics. In the previous two years they had won only 31 games, and Red knew he could trade a respectable player for a draft pick or two. For Gerald Henderson, he swapped Seattle's second pick.
He snapped up a most unusual athlete. In University of Maryland's Len Bias, Auerbach would get the size of a Karl Malone and the deft ball handling and perimeter shooting skills of a guard in one package. When Bias came to Boston for a visit, he said to Celtic executive vice president Jan Volk, "please draft me." As commissioner David Stern announced the selection of Bias on national television, the young man beamed and wore a Celtics hat to the podium.
Hours later he would be dead of a cocaine overdose. "I was shocked," Red recalls, saying no more. Beginning with Bias' death and then the early retirements of McHale and Bird and the sudden death of Reggie Lewis last summer, Boston has endured a most un-Celtic-like string of bad luck. No one dares to speak about the lucky leprechauns who sleep in the floorboards of this hallowed building. Bias would have been 30 now. His presence would probably have extended the careers of Bird and McHale and almost certainly would have given the team another title or two in the late 1980s. It will be a while before the team recovers from that 10-15 year loss.
Forget Irish fable. For the past eight years, the Celtics have been part of a Greek tragedy, as if paying off a debt for all their hubris and good fortune. When will the Green Wave return? "We need a superstar," says Red.
But Red is not as active in the day-to-day operations as he once was. "I don't have the desire and the say anymore," says Red in a Chinese restaurant, surrounded by shrimp and lobster sauce, fried rice and a platter of fish and beef goodies. "In other words, I can't see myself getting on the phone three and four hours a day and calling this owner and wheeling and dealing. I don't wanna do that. I hired Gavin. To make a deal, you gotta be on the phone all the time. I don't have that kind of patience anymore. I mean, look at Don Nelson. When he made that deal--Chris Webber for Anfernee Hardaway--he musta called 50 to 100 times in a month. You don't make those kind of deals overnight in one call. I don't have that kind of desire anymore."
Recovering from heart surgery, Red plays racquetball three times a week and does two days on the treadmill. And his Hoyo de Monterrey cigars? "I like them because they're big and mild," he says, slightly evasive. How many a day? Two? "Yeah, put down two." 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."
And diet? "I have no diet."
Despite retreating from the basketball scene, Red still fires off bold opinions. He says that a "dream team" made up of players from the 1950s and 1960s could beat a new dream team. Considering that such a team would include Russell, Pettit, Baylor, Robertson and West (with Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Barry, Havlicek, Cousy and Erving off the bench), it's hard to argue. That squad would be competitive with anyone.
Auerbach also chooses an all-time squad. "If I was starting a team, I would take Russell. If I was picking 12 guys, I would also include Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Bird, Baylor, Pettit, Dr. J [Julius Erving], Magic [Earvin Johnson], Jordan, Oscar [Robertson], Cousy and Havlicek. You can make a case for about five or six guys being the greatest of all-time: Bird, Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan, Russell, Oscar." Making a case for anyone but Jordan is now increasingly difficult, given his individual and team accomplishments. Cousy may have said it best after the 1993 NBA Finals. "Most of the great players had a weakness; Jordan has none." Still, Auerbach's loyalty to his own players is understandable. They emerged victorious in 16 NBA wars. Loyalty, like the cigar, is omnipresent.
At McHale's retirement ceremony, fans shower a five-minute standing ovation on the athlete. For one day, perfection returns to Boston Garden. Like a bottomless well, Celtic glory is there to be tapped at any time.
Still, cigar--aside from victory--may be the word most frequently associated with Red Auerbach. "I think of a penguin with a cigar," says Danny Ainge, kidding about Auerbach's deliberate style of walking.
Jeff Twiss, head of public relations, thinks cigars, too. "When I started here 13 years ago, I was an administrative assistant. One of my duties was to drive Mr. Auerbach to certain functions, affairs and games. One night, on the way to a preseason game in Worcester, it was really rainy and foggy. John Poppell and Jack Satter (the owner of Colonial Meats) are in the back and Red is in front. Satter and Red lit up, and my eyes were watering. The smoke has no place to go, and I'm scared out of my wits. I can't see. I didn't open the window because it would let rain in, and I didn't dare let Red know I couldn't see. It was my job to escort all these important people, and I thought I wouldn't make it. That's my baptism story."
Gavitt waxes philosophical. "I'll always think of the cigar. And another thing. Bob Lanier said to me, 'you guys up here must be doing something right: all your players stay in the organization as coaches and front-office positions.'" Indeed Auerbach has the most extensive network of alumni and bloodhounds known to sports.
"On my seventy-fifth birthday party, about 45 of these guys showed up from all over the country." Red says. "When you treat people good, they will want to reciprocate. We're the only team with alumni like that. We're a real group. And they become scouts." If Red wants to know about a player's character, he can make a call and get an answer.
Auerbach's manifold talents were summed up in three beats by Hubie Brown. "As an outsider looking in, I thought he had a keen ability to judge talent, acquire the talent and force them to play as a team."
At halftime, Auerbach tugged on a rope with McHale's children, and the No. 32 rose up and up. He is not smoking his victory cigar. "After I retired, they stopped smoking in the Garden," he later explains. On this day, the Celtics will beat Phoenix. The day is perfect enough to be included in 1961 or 1969 or 1986. Then the Celtics will fail to win a single game for a month.
What they need is one more superstar. One more deal from Red Auerbach. Then--in next year's new Boston Garden next door--puffs of smoke would once again return. Seven rows up-front, center court.
Ken Shouler is a sportswriter and author based in White Plains, New York.