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Auerbach has become the ultimate winner

Red Auerbach is at the wheel of his car, descending from the hills of Virginia and the home of Ralph Sampson. He is trying to find Washington D.C. through the rain and fog that cloaks the interstate highway.

It has been a long day, made longer because Auerbach already knows in his heart that he has spent it in a futile chase after a 19-year-old college freshman he wants for the Celtics.

"Will you tell me," he asks of his companion riding shotgun, "what a 62- year-old man is doing this for? Why am I out here on a night like this, kissing some kid's butt? Do I need this?"

There is no answer to the question, and the ride continues in silence, Auerbach squinting throuh the cigar smoke that clouds the windshield, trying to read the signposts for home.

The minutes and the miles pass before he answers his own question. "I'll tell you why I'm doing it," he starts up, his eyes hardening, and the bite coming to his words, "because this is one 62-year-old man who still wants to win. And you want to know something else? I like the feeling. When you lose that, baby, it's time to go home."

Red's time to leave Boston hasn't come yet. That's programmed for two years from now, when he is 65. Meanwhile, the fire simmers in his heart, and he can do the job on his own terms.

"I admire him because he is a man who has set goals for himself his whole life and reached them. He has done it on his own," says his wife, Dot Auerbach, with great pride. "He really doesn't have any more goals. But I don't want him to come home until he is ready. What good would it be for him to come home and be miserable?

"When he talks to me about it, he says, If I come home, I play gin, I play tennis, I talk to you, I go crazy.' He asks me, What can I do?' I tell him take piano lessons."

He has had a great life. He will tell you this. He is what the rest of us would like to be in our own Walter Mitty subconscious. A winner. Perhaps the ultimate winner of our time with all those championships, all the great victories, the aura of being the Godfather of the greatest sports franchise of our times.

He has had a lonely life. He will tell you this. To accomplish what he has, he has sacrificed what the rest of us consider a normal life. He has been here 30 years. During that time, Dot Auerbach has stayed in Washington where she has been more comfortable with her life and family.

"Sure, it gets lonely," says Auerbach, the living basketball legend, a celebrity who spends most of his nights at home in his Boston apartment watching television, his preference being old movies.

He is happiest around his family, his two daughters and his granddaughter Julie. Red Auerbach is not the man that people who don't know him think he is. Most of us, from his foot-stomping, referee-baiting, program-waving days, got the image of a cocky guy, fueled by a cold, hard streak.

"Basically, he is a shy person, not at all like most people think he is," says Dot Auerbach. "He is a very generous man, always ready to give something away. When he goes out to buy something, he'll buy it in triplicate, one each for myself and our two daughters.

"I don't think he's cocky. To use the colloquialism, I think he's got guts. There is not one ruthless inch in his body. He's a humble person. I've never seen him come on strong."

Red Auerbach is still a good athlete, and he takes pride in it. Even at his age, he can still shoot foul shots with the best on his team. A few years back, for charity, and wearing street clothes before a sellout gathering in Boston Garden, he sank 23 in a row at halftime.

He is a good tennis player, with a great touch and a drop shot close to perfection. He took up racquetball just two years ago and plays as well as could be expected in such a short period.

"I marvel at him," says coach Bill Fitch, a regular opponent in some testy racquetball matches. "To compete the way he does at his age is incredible." Two years ago, he broke a rib diving to get a shot while playing tennis against a teenager.

He is still an amazing physical specimen, considering the way he lives, chain-smoking cigars and feasting regularly on Chinese food. "When I go for my physical each year, the doctor, who's known me for years, can't believe it. No trace of cholesterol. I tell him I just live right."

Red Auerbach has been successful in basketball for two basic reasons: 1). He knows the game, 2) He knows the type of people it takes to win at the game.

To hear him explain it is to learn the secret of the Celtics' success.

"You can build a good team with good players. You can only build a great team with great players who are good people. The person is as important as the player when you are thinking in terms of championships. The person in the great player will do the extra things to win. The little things. The unselfish things that have to be done to go all the way. Some people think the hardest thing to do in sports is get to the top. It's not. It's to stay on top. A lot of people get on top. Very few stay there any lengthof time. And this is the real test."

This year has been especially pleasant for him. He is thrilled with the way the fans feel about his team. He is ecstatic about the championship, more for his owner, Harry Mangurian, and his coach, Fitch. To be honest, he did not feel that they would get this type of reward so quickly.

"There were several times in the series against Philly that I thought we were finished. I had just given up. When we kept on getting up after being down so many times . . . well, I went to bed the night we knocked out Philly thinking it was a miracle. I still do. I believe in miracles."

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