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Red all over

Celtics celebrate 50 years of Auerbach's unique leadership

He remembers when Sheboygan was in the league and blacks weren't. He remembers when there was no 24-second clock, when Eddie Gottlieb scribbled the schedule on scraps of paper, when the playoffs ended in April and players sold insurance during the summer.

"When you get to be my age, you can't remember what you had for breakfast," Red Auerbach says. "But I could tell you stories from 50 years ago."

It has been half a century since the man with the Brooklyn accent and the argyle socks came to Causeway Street and took over a wobbly basketball team that was losing games and money at a dizzying pace.

The Celtics were a shamrock on a shirt in 1950. By 1966, Auerbach had made them into a dynasty, winning nine NBA titles in 10 years before moving to the front office, where he won another seven.

He is 82 now and still the club's vice chairman, still puffing on his trademark cigar, still the symbol of the game's most storied franchise.

"He's the Godfather of the Celtics," says John Havlicek.

A bronze statue of Auerbach has been in Quincy Market since 1985, the same year his mythical number (2) was hoisted to the rafters of Boston Garden. He was voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame more than three decades ago. And while the hat he wears now may be largely ceremonial, the Celtics without Auerbach are unimaginable.

"There was only one guy who was with one organization as long as Red has been," says Tom Heinsohn, who will emcee tonight's tribute to Auerbach at the Celtics' home opener against Washington at the FleetCenter. "That was Connie Mack with the Philadelphia Athletics - and he owned the team."

Auerbach never owned the Celtics (though he did get a 10 percent stake after Walter Brown died), but for more than a decade he was the Celtics. He was general manager, coach, traveling secretary, scout, marketing director - all without a contract.

Auerbach signed one with Brown ("Because I didn't know him") for $10,000 and a piece of the nonexistent profits. The rest was all done on a nod and a handshake.

"There were always people in Walter's office, so we'd go in the men's room to talk," Auerbach recalls. "He'd say, `What do you want?' I'd say, `Am I working next year?' `Of course you're working next year,' he'd say. `Why, do you want a raise?' Sometimes, I'd say, `Yeah, I do want a raise.' Other times, when we didn't make any money, I wouldn't ask for anything more."

In the early '50s, the Celtics were a fragile franchise in a dance-hall league. Seven of the NBA's 17 franchises folded before the end of 1950-51 season. Only three of the remaining 10 (Boston, New York, and Philadelphia) had been around since the league began in 1946, and the Celtics had lost nearly half a million dollars in four years.

They were a basketball team in a hockey town, playing in front of nearly 10,000 empty seats at the Garden. Brown had already mortgaged his house and sold most of his Ice Capades stock to keep the team afloat. Once, when Auerbach brought two players on the road and didn't use them, Brown gave him hell.

"What am I paying 10 men for," Brown said, "if you're going to lose with eight?"

There was never enough money, and Auerbach knew that as well as anybody. If he was a one-man band, it was because he had to be. Auerbach had no assistant coach. If he missed a practice or a game ("to my knowledge, I never did"), the players would have to coach themselves.

Auerbach had no scouts. He either watched college prospects himself, usually when they played at Madison Square Garden, or took the word of a trusted confidant.

"If we had a game in Boston on Wednesday and a game in Chicago on Friday, I'd have a practice on Thursday morning then go to New York or Philadelphia and watch a doubleheader," Auerbach recalls. "Then I'd go by myself to Chicago."

On the road, Auerbach handled the hotel bills and parceled out expense money with an accountant's eye.

"If Red's cab fare to the hotel was $2.85 and yours was $3.25 because the driver took a different way, you still only got $2.85," says Heinsohn.

And if someone was missing and his squad needed a 10th man to scrimmage, Auerbach would dust off his old set shot and step in.

"He'd be out there on these spindly little legs, trying to drive to the hoop," Havlicek remembers. "People would foul him and block his shots - and he'd foul the hell out of them at the other end."

But always, the red-haired man from Brooklyn was at the center of the franchise.

"He was the only voice," says Tom Sanders, who played half a dozen years for Auerbach and ended up coaching the club. "It was Red's show. Walter Brown had given him complete control."

Brown was an arena manager who carried the bottom line in his head. He knew ice shows and rodeos, track meets and come-to-Jesus meetings. But he didn't know basketball, and he admitted it. So Brown left everything to Auerbach: drafting, signing, trading, coaching, marketing, even proselytizing.

Taking to road

James Naismith had nailed his peach baskets to the wall down the road in Springfield and Holy Cross had brought the NCAA title to Worcester, but basketball in New England was still little more than an indoor diversion when Auerbach arrived.

So he took to the road like a traveling salesman, giving hoop primers to anybody who wanted one.

"I had a truck, and in the back of the truck I had a basket," Auerbach says. "We'd go to supermarkets and give a clinic in the parking lot."

Auerbach literally wrote the book on the sport: "Basketball For the Player, the Fan and the Coach." It was a simple game, he said, and building a winning team wasn't complicated. You found good players, got them in shape, taught them a basic system, and let them go to work. Auerbach just happened to do that better than anybody else in the league.

"Arnold knew how to judge talent, he knew how to acquire it, and he knew how to motivate it," says Bob Cousy, who played 13 years for Auerbach and won half a dozen championship rings.

Nobody was better at finding collegiate gems - like Bill Russell, Sam and K.C. Jones, Havlicek, Sanders - whom others had overlooked or undervalued.

Nobody was better at horse-trading to get them. Dealing Ed Macauley and a draft pick (Cliff Hagan) to St. Louis for the right to draft Russell was arguably the best move in league history.

And nobody was better at getting them to play more for pride than for money.

"Red created an atmosphere that allowed as many players as possible to do what they did best," Russell says.

Auerbach might have had complete control, but he was no dictator.

"He understood that the greatest use of power is not to use it," says Russell, who succeeded Auerbach as coach and will be on hand tonight to honor him.

Auerbach had all the natural leverage he needed. He controlled the playing time, and there was no free agency and no rival league. He had no need to play the martinet for effect.

"Some coaches have to show every day that they're in control," Auerbach says. "That's a sign of weakness in my book."

His players were superb athletes who had been to college and were playing the game for money. Why not treat them as professionals? They knew they were supposed to arrive in camp fit and ready to run. So if they were overweight, Auerbach told them, it was their fault. If they pulled a muscle, it was their fault. Threw up? Their fault.

Conditioning, fundamentals, execution, teamwork. What else was there?

"You don't want to overcomplicate it," says Cousy. "You set up the structure, but let the talent express itself. Arnold knew how to win with the least amount of wasted motion. That was the essence. He got it done without a lot of French pastry."

Seven basic plays, with options off each. Short, intense practices.

"I could do everything I needed in an hour," Auerbach says. "I tried to make the practices interesting instead of drudgery. Competitive games. The five big men against the five little men. Things like that. I didn't think they needed two hours. Because they might get tired of my voice."

Moving upstairs

By 1965, most of the Celtics had been listening to Auerbach's nicotine-cured growl for the better part of a decade. Not that they objected to it. How could you object to an annual ritual of champions' checks, bejeweled rings, and champagne?

But Auerbach was worn down from all the years of multiple identities.

"I was burned out," he says.

So he gave his rivals a year's notice: one last chance to shove the Redhead's cigar down his throat.

And in 1966, after an eighth straight flag, Auerbach turned the coaching job over to Russell and watched, literally, from the other side of the Garden. Auerbach didn't want anyone saying that he was pulling his successor's strings from behind.

"Red never came to practice unless I asked him to," Russell says. "He said, `You're the coach.' Because that was the way Walter Brown had been with him."

There was plenty for Auerbach to do in the front office. Brown had died in 1964, the ownership was shaky, and the core of the dynasty - Cousy, Heinsohn, Russell, Frank Ramsey, Sam and K.C. Jones - was gone or going. Lean years were on the horizon and Auerbach's role was to rebuild from behind a desk and keep the interregnum short.

It was no different from what he'd always done, finding talent and figuring inventive ways to acquire it. Auerbach had always relished finding heirlooms (like Don Nelson and Bailey Howell) at rummage sales. He enjoyed picking up merchandise for a bargain price when nobody else realized it was available.

He'd always had the blood of the Levantine merchant in him. When Auerbach went overseas on State Department tours, he haunted the marketplaces playing "Let's Make A Deal."

"He loved to go to the bazaars in Egypt and haggle," Heinsohn says. "It was a ritual with him."

Auerbach got Jo Jo White in 1969 because White was military draft bait and other clubs were reluctant to take a chance. Auerbach drafted him, then got White into a reserve unit. Almost nobody outside of Tallahassee knew who Dave Cowens was because Florida State was on probation and off TV. Auerbach did.

"We got us a hoss," Auerbach concluded, watching Cowens yank down rebounds in rookie camp.

So it went, as Auerbach supervised one Reconstruction, then another. He traded the rights to Charlie Scott for Paul Silas. He drafted Larry Bird as a junior and waited a year for him while five other clubs passed, preferring instant gratification. He dealt two draft picks to Golden State and ended up with Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. He drafted Danny Ainge when everybody else figured he'd play baseball.

A local institution

The most important thing, more than the deals, was that Auerbach was still working on Causeway Street, decade after decade.

"Having him there told the world that the Celtics were a stable situation," says Sanders, now the NBA's vice president for player programs. "Auerbach's still in place, the Celtics are still in place, so business is still being taken care of."

The owners came and went: Jack Waldron, Marvin Kratter, Woody Erdman, Bob Schmertz, Irv Levin, John Y. Brown, Harry Mangurian. Auerbach almost went, too, in 1978 when Brown's Kentucky fried meddling drove him nuts.

"I told him one time that we needed a backup guard," Auerbach says. "He called me up the next day and said he'd gotten one. I asked him how much. He said $50,000. That's not too bad, I said. `By the way,' he said, `I also gave them a first-round pick.' I said, you did what?"

Where would it end? He was afraid he would pick up the paper one day, Auerbach said, and find out he'd been traded. So when the Knicks offered him their presidency at a record salary, Auerbach decided he'd take it - until everybody from truck drivers to shuttle pilots to former players to his wife Dot bade him reconsider.

He had enough money, Auerbach concluded. And even though he'd been born on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, Auerbach couldn't imagine himself working in New York - and coming back to Boston as a visitor.

"I thought about what it would be like to come back up to play the Celtics, to watch the ballgame and look up at the flags," Auerbach said then. "And I didn't know what my reaction would be."

He had become as much a part of the city as Durgin-Park and the Ritz and Filene's basement. Auerbach spends most of his time in Washington now. He has survived heart surgery and 100,000 stogies and enough plates of late-night Chinese food to top the Great Wall. He still plays racquetball ("With Sam Jones's son. He's my guru.") and goes to his office and plays cards at his club and keeps up with the game he helped shape.

It is a different game now, with 29 franchises and overseas offices from Paris to Taipei, with rookies making more in a season than Cousy did in a career, with salary caps and lockouts and seasons that go to the middle of June and games that end up 85-79 and have viewers reaching for the clicker.

"David Stern has got the right idea," Auerbach muses. "The best way to save the game is to clean it up so you can see some of the skills."

Tonight he comes back to Causeway Street, a living bronze statue who is still on the masthead, right below the chairman. There will be video highlights and oral history and Auerbach's image on every ticket for every home game.

For 50 years, through the best and the worst, Arnold Auerbach and the Celtics have been mentioned in the same sentence.

"Red's been the glue that's been there for everything," says Havlicek. "When he's gone, people will look at the Celtics - and think they're like anyone else."

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