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Auerbach's legacy remains unflagging

Red Auerbach's legacy has been fluttering above the parquet floor on Causeway Street for more than three decades now, a row of white world championship banners unmatched in basketball history. Nine of them in 10 years.

"I would wager two months of my life that that record will never be surpassed," said Bob Cousy, who had a hand in six of them. "It took another 20 years before another NBA team even won back-to-back titles."

Between 1957 and 1966, the Celtics won every year but one. They won 554 of 770 games and were 80-41 in the playoffs. Yet the man from Brooklyn, who directed them with a tart tongue and a rolled-up program and prodded nearly a dozen of them to the Hall of Fame, was Coach of the Year just once.

Maybe it was because he annoyed the hell out of his rivals by firing up his victory cigar once he decided that a game was in hand. Maybe it was because the visitor's locker room at the Garden never had hot water. Maybe it was because everyone figured he shouldn't lose with the likes of Cousy, Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, and the Jones boys. Or maybe it was because Auerbach, No. 9 on the Globe's list of the top 100 New England sports figures of the century, made winning seem so damnably simple.

If it was simple, it's because Auerbach refused to complicate things. He found talented players, got them in shape, and let them play. "He knew how to do it," said Heinsohn, who directed the Celtics to a pair of titles in the '70s by "updating and codifying" what Auerbach had done.

The Celtic offense, seven plays with options, was so basic that everybody in the league had it memorized. "I was on an All-Star team with guys like Bob Pettit, Jerry Lucas, and Oscar Robertson that went behind the Iron Curtain in 1964," Russell said. "When we got to Poland, Red says, `I don't know what kind of plays we're going to use. We've got guys from five different teams here.' Pettit says, `Let's use the Celtics' plays. Everybody knows them.' "

But nobody could stop them. It wasn't the plays, it was the players - and the way Auerbach got them to play night after night, season after season, pushing them toward yet another ring when they already had a handful.

"He had a touch with people and could get them committed to what he was doing," said Heinsohn, who won eight rings as a player. "He made the Celtics into basketball's Cosa Nostra. We believed it was our thing."

Nobody had a keener sense of a team's delicate chemistry than Auerbach. Nobody had a defter touch with his players' emotional levers and buttons. "Good motivation is basically common sense," Auerbach says now.

He understood that he was dealing with smart, competitive men who had always been winners. "We didn't need any screaming to motivate us," said Cousy. "I was up so high most nights that you could have played a tune on me. I didn't need any win-one-for-the-Gipper speeches."

Auerbach's best motivation was man-to-man. "He would listen and see where you were coming from and that's how he'd deal with you," Russell said. He dealt with Russell subtly, usually privately.

"Any time he found me drifting, he found a way to call me back," said Russell. "Not order me back, but call me back. He always let me know that more than anybody else, he knew what I was doing. I really loved working with him. It was almost like we were soul mates."

If Auerbach wanted to chide Russell in the locker room, he did it by osmosis, by yelling at Heinsohn. "He'd say, `Tommy you gotta do this, Tommy you gotta do that - and that goes for you, too, Russell,' " Heinsohn recalled.

Heinsohn, the thickest-skinned Celtic, was Auerbach's whipping boy. If his teammates were playing poorly, Heinsohn felt the lash. "One time I said, `Look, Red, I got a problem here,' " Heinsohn said. " `You've been on my ass so much the last three months that the rookies are stealing my socks. I have no respect. Do I deserve to be starting or not?' `You certainly do,' Red told me. `Let me handle this.' Then he said, `Hey, I don't want you guys stealing Tommy's socks again.' "

Auerbach always had the last word. He was coach, general manager, traveling secretary, scout. "It was Red's show," said Tom Sanders, who played 13 years with the Celtics. "[Owner] Walter Brown gave him complete control."

Auerbach had drafted or traded for all of his players. He controlled their playing time. And he determined their salaries, unless they could cut a deal with the soft-hearted Brown first. "He basically told you what you were going to get," said John Havlicek, "and you had nowhere else to go."

Want more money? Win another title. "Once during the playoffs Red told us: `I've run out of things to say. Frank [Ramsey], why don't you say something?' " Havlicek recalled. "So Frank went up to the blackboard and wrote `$10,000.' End of pep talk."

Yet it was never as much about the money as it was about the bonding and the rings and the pride that came from being champions. "When the players came back for the next season, we'd have a meeting," Auerbach said. "I'd say, `Did you have a good summer? How did it feel to be a member of the greatest basketball team in the world? Now, do you want to give that away?' "

It's easier to win a title than to keep it, Auerbach preached. So he pushed his Celtics even harder when they were playing well. "When we were winning, he was always on our case," said Havlicek. "When we lost, he didn't say anything."

Unless they lost again the next night. "If we lost two in a row, Red would make practice extremely difficult," said Sanders. "He just became a real pain in the ass. Want to keep practices at 45 minutes? Just keep winning."

The mystique was based on an aura of invincibility. The Celtics expected to win, their rivals expected to lose. That must never change, Auerbach said.

"I'm so mad at you," Auerbach once told Russell, while the team was sitting on a 12-game lead. "You're easily the best player in basketball but you're coasting to get ready for the playoffs. You've got to terrorize the guys you're playing against. Every time they come out there, they have to know they're going to get their asses kicked."

So it went for a decade, with one banner hoisted next to another. After the eighth one went up in 1965, Auerbach put the league on notice. Last chance to beat me, he said. Because I'm retiring after next season.

It wasn't the coaching, Auerbach said. It was all the hats he had to wear. He had been doing it since 1950 (since 1946 in the league) and now he was 48 and worn down. "I could have coached for another 10 years, but I couldn't do all those jobs," Auerbach said. "I was burned out, and a lot of it was mental."

The final banner was the toughest. The Celtics had won "only" 54 games, their fewest in seven years and lost the division to the Philadelphia 76ers. The Cincinnati Royals pushed them to the brink in the opening playoff series and the Los Angeles Lakers took them to seven in the final before the Celtics won by a basket.

"I feel drunk and I haven't even had a drink," declared Auerbach, depleted and giddy and soaking from a celebratory shower.

He shook hands all around, went back to his two-room suite at the Lenox Hotel for Chinese food - and wept. After 16 seasons and 1,340 games on the Boston bench, it was over.

Auerbach turned the team over to Russell, who won two more titles as player-coach, and went off to sit across the Garden floor in Loge 1, Row 7, Seat 1. To sum up his career, he needed only look up at the rafters.

"The Yankees won 25 championships. What did it take them, a hundred years?" said Russell. "Red won nine in 10. He was the best coach in the history of professional sports. Period."

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