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Doctor's hours emptier

Lieberman misses his friend Auerbach

The patient was sicker than we thought. He would not reveal that in public, of course, because he was a proud man, a surprisingly private one, too, for someone who was so immediately recognizable and so candid during his long and wildly successful life.

Let's be honest: Red Auerbach wasn't too big on revealing his weaknesses.

When the new doctor first examined Auerbach, he wondered how managing this patient would work. He suspected it would take up a considerable amount of his time.

Murray Lieberman was right. In the final seven years of Auerbach's life, he did not make a single trip to Boston without the doctor unobtrusively by his side.

Auerbach has been gone nearly two months, dead of a heart attack at the age of 89. He was given a respectful sendoff and a lasting tribute in the form of a shamrock on the Celtics' uniform. We mourned, we reminisced, then we got on with our very busy lives.

Please pardon the doctor if he's having trouble doing that.

"It's very strange," said Lieberman, 53. "Every day I remember something I've wanted to ask him, something I really need to talk to him about. I shared so much with him. He had an opinion on just about everything."

In the beginning, the doctor kept a respectful distance. But the patient needed a medical escort to Springfield for high school coach Morgan Wootten's Hall of Fame induction. Could Lieberman come? The doctor, a sports fan, was happy to oblige.

The trip went well, so the patient invited the doctor and his son to a Celtics exhibition game in Virginia. The doctor drove Red's car. The patient smoked all the way there; father and son were so transfixed by his stories they barely noticed.

There were a number of health issues over the next several years. The doctor worried about his patient, who was notorious for staying up late, so he would call him almost every night, often as late as 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. When he didn't call, Auerbach would ask the following day, "Where you been?"

Over time, the trust between the two became apparent. They talked about food, music, movies, sports, world affairs. When Red's wife, Dot, fell ill and was rushed to the emergency room, he instructed the doctors on duty to call Lieberman. When Red experienced respiratory problems or heart palpitations, he called Lieberman, even though he was a urologist.

Once, three years ago, the doctor received a call at 10 p.m. The patient was shivering, feverish. He had what later was diagnosed as a severe urinary tract infection, an extremely serious condition for a man in his mid-80s. Lieberman stayed on the phone with Auerbach while he drove the 15 miles to Red's home. They called an ambulance, and it came quickly, sirens blaring.

"Coach, it's time to go," Lieberman told Red.

"No," answered Auerbach, pointing to the Celtics game on his television screen. "We gotta wait until the end of the game."

An incredulous staff of EMTs had no choice. They sat and watched the final six minutes with him.

The patient called the doctor even when he felt great. He invited him to his famous Tuesday lunches at the China Blossom, but that was a busy day for Lieberman, so most times he couldn't join them. This bothered Auerbach, so he started lunching with the doctor every week.

Wednesdays with Murray became a treasured tradition for both.

Red loved to eat. Often, after a trip to Boston, he'd invite the doctor in for some leftover chicken or a fried bologna sandwich.

But the health problems lingered. There were heart scares, infections, respiratory illnesses. Auerbach went on dialysis, and that limited his mobility significantly.

On the night Cedric Maxwell's number was retired in 2003, the biggest ovation was reserved for Red. But the patient wasn't feeling well and landed in a hospital in Boston. It was the first -- and only -- time Lieberman flew home to Washington without him.

There were moments when the doctor fretted whether the patient would recover from his latest ailment. Sometimes he would confide that to Bobby Knight or Larry Bird, two regular callers. Once, when former Georgetown coach (and Celtic) John Thompson checked in with Lieberman, the doctor was pessimistic.

"You should talk to him -- soon," Lieberman advised.

Thompson did one better. He jumped in his car and went to Red's house, but Auerbach wasn't there.

"He's gone to play cards," the housekeeper said.

"I can't tell you how many times he'd rally like that," said Lieberman.

Last June, doctor and patient were preparing to fly to Boston on Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck's plane when Auerbach told Lieberman, "I can't go."

He was too sick to make the trip, and it crushed him. Instead, doctor and patient retired to Red's home, where Thompson, his son, and Alonzo Mourning came over to watch the NBA draft.

By then, the doctor's young son, Brian, was in college. One day, Red autographed the famous photograph of him smoking a cigar in silhouette, with the championship banners as the backdrop.

"He said, 'I'm going to sign this for Brian,' " Lieberman said. "Then he held it in his hand for a long, long time before he wrote, 'To Brian. I'm with you.' "

The doctor knew what the patient was thinking. Red Auerbach was wondering if he'd ever see Brian Lieberman again.

Auerbach died without warning, when the doctor was out of the country, pheasant hunting in England.

"I'm not even a hunter," Lieberman said. "It was a trip my wife and I took. I'm rarely away like that . . . "

The doctor left on a Wednesday and called the patient before he got on the plane. He spoke with Red Thursday and Friday, but went to the theater Saturday, and it was late when he finally fell into bed.

"I was lying there thinking, 'I didn't call him,' " Lieberman said. "But I wasn't concerned, because I knew Red was always home on Sunday mornings."

The doctor woke at 8 a.m. London time and turned on the telly. The news of the basketball legend's death scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

"It was so horrible," Lieberman said. "Such a helpless feeling."

The doctor and his son flew to Virginia and Boston for the tributes. They were barely mentioned in the media, but that did not matter. Those closest to Red understood their profound loss.

Lieberman aches for the nightly calls, and the times he'd watch an entire Celtics game with Red over the telephone. He wishes he could walk into the Garden one more time and soak in the admiration Red received from generations of NBA stars.

"It was kind of like being with the king," he said.

He has been invited to Red's granddaughter Julie's house for Christmas, and has every intention of stopping by.

It won't be the same, of course. Just like his Wednesday lunches now, when he buys takeout and brings it back to the office, alone.

The doctor doesn't miss the patient. He misses his friend.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is

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