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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

(continued from page 4)

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.

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