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The Red saga

Red Auerbach is surprised as he walks into his office early one Sunday morning last spring to find a group of his friends gathered around his desk. ''Haven't you guys got anything better to do," he says defensively, putting a briefcase on the floor and buying time to figure out what is going on. He knows one thing, he is not happy that a meeting is going to prevent him from watching his favorite TV show, Hawaii Five-0, which is the way he usually relaxes before a game. "We are going to honor you, and we want to know when you would like to have it done," general manager Jan Volk says, not knowing whether to expect Mt. Vesuvius or Walden Pond. Auerbach's face lights up. He is pleased, even forgetting about Hawaii and Danno for a second.

"Why?" he asks with a puckish grin.

"Because," answers another member of the committee, "if we don't get you out of the way soon, how the hell is Jan going to get your job?"

Have you ever noticed, when you've been to the Boston Garden over the years, something unusual about all of those Celtics' flags dangling from the rafters? What about the one space that has been left open on the banner bearing all of the numbers retired by the organization?

There have been many times when Red Auerbach has sat in his seat in Section One at the Garden, looking up at the incomplete banner. And when he let his mind wander, he could see that flag being raised one more time with the last piece in place. A green No. 2 would fill the square. His number, even though he never wore the Celtic uniform for even one game.

Tonight he will see that dream become a reality when, before a sellout crowd in Boston Garden, surrounded by family, friends and almost all of the other "numbers", Auerbach takes his rightful place in Celtic Heaven.

"To me, Walter Brown (original Celtic owner) will always be No. 1. People have talked about putting a flag up there with the name Red on it. Or having the number of world championships (15) I have been involved with, or the number of wins I had coaching, on the flag. I don't want any of that stuff. Just my number."

But that number, or any of his other numbers, really do not tell the story of Red Auerbach and why he will be honored by this region tonight and over the weekend.

Numbers do not reveal the struggle he had growing up during the Depression, the son of Russian immigrants, living in Brooklyn in a second-story flat.

"Red was always a hustler," says brother Zang. "He always knew how to make money, and you always knew he was going to be successful. He had a way of making things work.

"When he was a little kid, we lived right up the street from a garage where taxi cabs used to come to get gas. They would generally be waiting in a long line. Red would jump on the running board of a cab and start to wash the windows. He knew if he could get them clean before the cab pulled into the garage, the cabbie would probably give him a nickel. He knew how to make those nickels."

"When I first met him," says Dorothy Lewis Auerbach, "he was a junior at George Washington (University), and I was a freshman. As I got to know him, the thing that struck me was that he was a good guy and a humble guy. I knew he wanted to be a coach, but we never expected anything like this. And you know something? He really hasn't changed. He's still a nice guy, and he is still humble."

Beyond his managerial record, which is unmatched in modern sport, there are stories that will never make their way into the NBA guide.

At one time, he was general manager, coach, personnel director, promotion director and traveling secretary; now seven employees tackle those roles.

Another time, not that many years ago, the team actually went bankrupt, under a group of less than elite owners. Auerbach dug into his own pocket and came up with thousands of dollars to pay bills, while he maneuvered the ownership group out of the league, all the while protecting the franchise from the stigma of going Chapter 11.

A few years later, he found himself in a similar bind when he was forced to serve an ultimatum to then owner John Y. Brown.

"I told him he had two weeks to sell the team or I was gone. I told him there was no way I was going to work for him anymore. That's when he sold the team to Harry (Mangurian).

"This was right after I almost took the job with the Knicks. I actually had accepted their (Knicks) offer and was going to take the job when I changed my mind."

Red likes to write that one off to history ("the people of Boston got to me"), but closer to the truth is that Dorothy got to him.

"I told him he was a Boston Celtic, and not a New York Knickerbocker. I told him if he were finished in Boston, I wanted him to come straight home to Washington. I didn't want him stopping in New York for a few years first. He was not a Knick or anything else. He was only a Celtic."

It is three hours before the tipoff of last season's final game, June 12 versus the Los Angeles Lakers (to be shown in its entirety on Channel 56 tomorrow night during a Red Auerbach telethon). Auerbach is extremely loose considering the circumstances. In fact, he is in front of his desk, dissertating on the evolution of dancing from the foxtrot to breakdancing, all the while giving a demonstration.

Deep down, he is not troubled. He is sure his team is going to win. Just nights before, he had been told for sure it was going to happen. That was when Auerbach, dejected when the Celtics had a chance to put away the Lakers in Game 6 and didn't, was taken aside by Larry Bird for a man-to-man conversation.

"What are you worrying about?" Bird asked Auerbach.

"We should have had them," Auerbach answered.

"Doesn't make any difference. No way they are going to beat us in Boston. If I have to play the greatest game in my life to do it," said Bird placing both hands on Auerbach's shoulders and looking him in the eyes, "we are going to do it."

When it was all over that night, and indeed Larry and his friends had delivered, Auerbach returned to a celebration in his office. There were three bottles of champagne to be opened; one each for owners Don Gaston, Allan Cohen and Paul DuPee.

Auerbach put the festivities on hold for a minute, went to the desk, dialed a number in Washington and turned his back to the rest of the group.

"Told you we'd do it," he said quietly to Dot, "what a perfect ending."

Not quite. There's still a matter of filling in that final square.

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