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He did it his way, and rarely lost

October 29, 2006|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

Goodbye to the one and only Red.

There's little remaining of the dynasty Red Auerbach built. The Celtics mystique is a memory and Boston Garden has been torn down.

The team plays on a copy of the old parquet floor in a new arena that opened as the FleetCenter until a merger gave the bank the idea of holding a promotion, auctioning off naming rights weekly to fans. It ended after someone from New York won and tried to call it the Derek Jeter Center.

The Celtics won nine titles with Auerbach as coach and seven more when he was the general manager, but Boston hasn't been to the Finals since he retired in 1990 and doesn't make the playoffs regularly now.

Nevertheless, no one has to build Auerbach a monument because he has one. It's called the NBA.

The Celtics were the first stars of a league often sneered at as "bush," in a game the big sports columnists thought belonged in YMCAs.

In 1957, when Boston won its first title, the eight league cities included Rochester and Syracuse, N.Y., and Fort Wayne, Ind.

The Lakers, who won four titles in the '50s, were still in Minneapolis, playing in three arenas around town. In the words of a recent Converse commercial, it was "before the money, before the fame, before new and old school, before school had a name."

Auerbach built a dynasty with three distinct eras. The greatest was 1957 to '69 when the Celtics won 11 titles, the last two under Bill Russell, whom Auerbach made the league's first African American coach. They won two more in the '70s with John Havlicek and Dave Cowens and three times in the '80s with Larry Bird.

Auerbach did it the old-fashioned way, outsmarting everyone. He didn't have the first shot at any of his key players -- Russell, Bird, Havlicek, Cowens, Kevin McHale, Bob Cousy, et al. Some other team passed up or traded them all to him.

Being Red Auerbach, he also lorded it over everyone, firing up his victory cigars on the bench before games were over. In real life, he was actually a kindly father figure who was close to his players, but in competition, he was perfectly graceless.

No one hated him more than the Lakers, who lost to the Celtics in their first eight meetings in the Finals, including the 1969 series when owner Jack Kent Cooke penned the victory balloons up in the Forum ceiling before the 35-year-old Russell and his aging teammates stunned his team in Game 7.

By the time the Lakers broke the curse, beating the Celtics in 1985, they were leery of Auerbach to the point of paranoia. Coach Pat Riley, who was of Irish descent, told his players the Celtics had been named after a "cunning, secretive" race.

In a practice at Boston Garden, Riley once had trainer Gary Vitti dump the water barrel in case Auerbach poisoned it. During the Finals, both teams routinely had staffers calling the other team's hotel in the middle of the night to wake the players.

In the '70s, Auerbach was so identified with professional basketball, ABC had him do a halftime feature on its game of the week called "Red on Roundball," teaching fundamentals like the pick-and-roll in his gruff style.

Nevertheless, Auerbach wasn't a fancy tactician. His Celtics ran a few basic plays that everyone in the league knew backward.

Auerbach's genius lay in his vision. He understood Russell, a cat-quick defender but a klutz on offense, could be a new force and persuaded the cash-strapped Rochester owner, Lester Harrison, to pass him up in the 1956 draft. In return, Auerbach got Celtics owner Walter Brown's ice show to play in Rochester.

The St. Louis Hawks had the No. 2 pick but with owner Ben Kerner leery about his border town's reaction, Auerbach got Russell for "Easy" Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan.

Auerbach was still at it when he was 62, using his sixth pick in the 1978 draft to take Bird, a junior at Indiana State, after teams ignored the opportunity and took Rick Robey, Purvis Short and Micheal Ray Richardson. Bird returned for his senior season, but the Celtics retained his rights.

Outside Boston, Auerbach was seen as a lovable churl or just a churl. In 1987, after the Lakers won the pivotal Game 4 of the Finals on Magic Johnson's "junior, junior skyhook," the 70-year-old Auerbach chased the referees to their dressing room and banged on the door.

"Arnold," said referee Earl Strom, addressing Auerbach by his real name, "you're showing all the class I always knew you had."

Manners are for mere mortals. He was the one and only Red Auerbach. He was bigger than that.

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