BOSTON — He's won more NBA games and titles than any coach. He entered the Basketball Hall of Fame 24 years ago. And, at age 75, he still has a hand in his life's work--building the Boston Celtics.
Arnold Jacob Auerbach, born in Brooklyn during World War I and now president of basketball's most famous franchise, has come a long way.
Does his place in history have a special place in his thoughts?
"Nah, I don't think about that," he says. "I just do what I have to do."
His hair has been gray for many years now, but he's still Red--direct, opinionated and fiercely loyal to the organization he calls a family. Many Celtics retired as players but stayed with the team as coaches, broadcasters and scouts.
As Auerbach approaches his 43rd season with the team for which he is both cornerstone and pinnacle, he has no plans to leave.
"As long as I'm able to," he says. "I'll be active."
"He's pretty darn vigorous for 75," says Dave Gavitt, who took charge of the team's daily operations on May 30, 1990. "We play racquetball a couple of times a week. He makes his own rules."
Auerbach did things his way--from putting a match to a victory cigar after burning an opponent on the court to sealing sharp deals that scorched other teams.
"It's not a matter of dislike," he says of how rivals viewed him, "it's a matter of jealousy."
He was never shy about berating referees. He still bolts from his seat in the Boston Garden stands and shoots daggers at officials when they make calls he feels unjustly hurt his beloved team.
But those on his side revere him for the loyalty and kindness that sometimes was obscured by a crusty exterior.
"He'd like to have everybody think that he's mean and nasty, but the fact of the matter is he's the reverse," Gavitt said. "He's a puppy dog. He really cares about people, especially the Celtics."
Many of his ex-players were expected at Saturday night's black-tie birthday bash at a posh hotel ballroom. A crowd of 800 was anticipated to honor Auerbach, who turned 75 Sept. 20. Proceeds were earmarked for the Red Auerbach Youth Foundation, which provides recreational opportunities for Boston-area youngsters.
"It's the old cliche," Auerbach said. "You've got everything you have from Boston, you've got to give something back."
As if nine NBA championships, 885 wins and so many memories that he can't pick one as the best weren't enough.
The Celtics had losing records in their first four seasons. Then Auerbach, who had winning records in three of those four seasons, moved from the Tri-Cities Hawks to the Celtics in 1950.
In his 16 seasons as coach, none of his Boston teams had a losing record.
After guiding the Celtics to their eighth straight title, he retired as coach and became general manager after the 1965-66 season. He became president before the 1984-85 season.
Throughout his Celtics career his primary home has been in Washington, D.C. Concern for his family--his daughter had asthma and couldn't take the Boston climate--is partly responsible.
His trips from Washington have decreased as the years have passed. He figures he commuted to about half the team's home games last season.
But he still fits in.
At practices, he gives tips to players one-third his age. Gavitt, now the team's major decision maker, frequently consults him. He recently sat in on a long day of negotiations with Xavier McDaniel, who signed as a free agent.
"His mind is still sharp," Gavitt said. "He's very vibrant and he's very interested. He obviously can't be as current as he once was. I think he understands that. That's why I was hired."
"He can help carry on the tradition," Auerbach said of Gavitt, "because he, too, treats people very, very well."
Auerbach almost watched the tradition crumble under John Y. Brown, co-owner during the 1978-79 season. Brown made personnel decisions without consulting him, and Auerbach worked out a deal to move to the New York Knicks. But he stayed when Brown sold out to co-owner Harry Mangurian Jr.
Current owners Don Gaston, Alan Cohen and Paul Dupee are continuing the family tradition in which retired Celtics "feel they're still a part of it," Auerbach said.
"I had many, many opportunities to leave" for more money, he said. "Money isn't everything. As long as you're comfortable, what more do you want? And my wife said, 'hey, you're a Celtic, you should stay there.' "
He's never left through all the changes as the sport grew from small arenas to big bucks.
"It's something to be concerned with," he said. "Years ago when a guy would come to practice he'd have a gym bag with his own stuff in it. Today they come to practice with an attache case and they can't wait sometimes for practice to be over so they can meet somebody to talk about a commercial or a business transaction or an investment."
It was far different when Walter Brown owned the Celtics from 1950 through 1964.
"I never had a contract," Auerbach said. "We had a year-to-year deal. We'd shake hands. We'd go in the bathroom or something. I'd say, 'what's the deal for next year?' He'd say, 'what do you want?' I'd tell him and it was over in 30 or 60 seconds."
From the front office to the basketball court to the racquetball court, Auerbach had, and still has, his own way of doing things.
"As I told him" Gavitt recalled, " 'you don't cover as much ground as you once did but when you get your racquet on the ball, you still know what to do with it.' That's probably a good analogy for his professional life as well.
"He doesn't cover as much ground as he once did, but when you present him with a scenario, he still gets his racquet on the ball."