WASHINGTON — At 86, the body is frail. The man who led the Boston Celtics to the top of the basketball world time and again over a span of nearly three decades requires a cane -- a Celtic-green cane, of course -- to walk.
The mind, however, is still sharp. Arnold "Red" Auerbach, architect of his sport's greatest dynasty, remains an avid observer, fascinating historian and honest critic of the NBA, and a fierce defender of his legacy. Yes, the Lakers may be dribbling within range of some of Auerbach's most hallowed marks, but don't expect him to fade meekly into history without taking a few shots.
If the Lakers beat the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, it will be the 10th NBA title won by Coach Phil Jackson, breaking the mark he shares with Auerbach.
"It wouldn't bother me," Auerbach said last week as he sat in his office, surrounded by memorabilia, speaking from behind a plume of smoke from his ever-present cigar. "The record I have is that I've been directly affiliated in some capacity with 16 championships, whether I made the deal for the guys or whatever.
"How he did it is a lot easier than how I did it, to be brutally frank. He has nothing to do with the organization of his ballclub. I had to do all my own scouting. I didn't have videotapes and four or five assistant coaches.
"And we didn't have the money to compete."
To be sure, there are differences. Jackson has served only in a coaching capacity in leading Chicago Bull teams blessed with the presence of Michael Jordan to six titles and the Lakers of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to three championships.
Auerbach coached the Celtics to nine championships, including a record eight in a row, before turning center Bill Russell into a player/coach. But as general manager, Auerbach also pulled off the deal that brought Russell to Boston in 1956 to launch the Celtic dynasty, and later drafted Larry Bird and traded for Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to complete the team's record run to 16 titles.
"You had to do it yourself in those days while still sitting on the bench," Auerbach said of his early success. "But I would still get out a lot. For example, if we had a game on a Wednesday and another game on a Friday, I'd have practice on Thursday morning. Then, I'd get on a plane and go to a college doubleheader in New York or Philly or wherever the games were. I'd see as many games as I could. And then on top of that, I would have my former players -- we had a family, an alumni -- steer me on which players to see and which to not bother seeing. I would save a lot of time that way.
"It was also tougher when I did it because you had the concentration of talent on fewer teams. The travel was a lot tougher. And it was tougher to win on the road in those days because of the officials. They were insecure, couldn't be independent the way they are today now that they have a union."
All that said, should the favored Lakers go on to win this season's championship, will Auerbach send his congratulations to Jackson?
"I don't know," Auerbach said. "I'll think about it. I'm not very friendly with him, and I'm not a hypocrite. If I feel like it at the time, I'll do it.
"When Lenny Wilkens broke my record for the most wins, even though it took him three more years than it took me, I talked to him on the phone and sent him a wire because he was a hell of a guy.
"Phil gets the idea I'm an old guy who's over the hill with my philosophy and everything. Naturally, I resent that because I don't believe it's so. He's got that Zen philosophy, and I just don't buy into that stuff."
Does he buy into Jackson's famed triangle offense?
"Way before Phil was coaching," Auerbach said, "the Celtics were playing a game and this announcer -- not our announcer -- said, 'Look at Red Auerbach's triangle offense.' What triangle offense? You put a guy in a high post and they throw the ball in to him, and the other players cut and they cross and they call that the triangle offense. Big deal. It works if you have good players.
"But in spite of all that, Phil's a good coach. He's in control, his players do what he tells them to do and his substitutions are good. But that doesn't mean I'll invite him to dinner."
Red the Critic
Nothing seems to invigorate Auerbach as much as a discussion about his archrivals, the Lakers.
* On Bryant's juggling act between basketball and his court appearances on felony sexual assault charges:
"People say, he comes from Colorado and gets there just before the game. It's like a miracle. What does he do? He's got a private jet and he's got a limo that takes him to the game. It's the same thing as a player who drives in from the outskirts of Los Angeles. If he gets caught up in traffic, it might take him two hours to get to the game.