No question about it: He was the real deal

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / October 29, 2006

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Former Celtics coach Bill Fitch remembered Red Auerbach as a "great shopper." When the two traveled to Hawaii with an All-Star team, they stopped at a local store for some souvenirs. Fitch settled on a piece of ornamental jade and showed it to Auerbach. Fitch thought it was a beautiful piece before Auerbach took one look and told him, "It's fake."

"How do you know it's fake?" asked Fitch.

"Because it's too close to the door to be the real stuff," said Auerbach.

To Fitch, that story captured the savvy and intelligence Auerbach used to build Boston into a basketball dynasty and leave an indelible mark on the NBA game.

"He was always a step ahead," said Fitch, who won one NBA title while coach of the team from 1979-83. "That was the way he thought. I called him a one-up guy. He was always one-up on you. When we played racquetball, he was always negotiating for the serve, for points, for something. He was a fierce competitor."

Although Auerbach required regular dialysis, needed a wheelchair and oxygen, and did not look well when honored by the US Navy in Washington last Wednesday, his passing at 89 from a reported heart attack still shocked those connected to him through the organization. Tommy Heinsohn said Auerbach always seemed tough enough to carry on despite his health problems. M.L. Carr said it was "a sad day." Jan Volk said "it's very, very hard." Fitch said, "I had my cry."

Those who were lucky enough to know and work with Auerbach during his nearly 57-year affiliation with the franchise shared stories about the Celtics patriarch and praised him for his many contributions to the city and the game.

"I remember my first year in Boston, we clinched the best record in the division and we were celebrating a little bit in the locker room when Red came in and he said, 'What's all this,' " said Carr, who won titles as a player in 1981 and 1984 and coached the team from 1995-97. "We told him what had happened. And he said, 'We don't celebrate division titles. We celebrate championships.' He set the bar high for everyone.

"This is not the passing of a man, it's the passing of an institution. He came into a hockey town with a 6-9 black guy [Bill Russell] and sold professional sports in a racially charged city. That was one sales job."

With the regular season starting Wednesday at TD Banknorth Garden, the Celtics are dedicating the season to Auerbach and plan to honor him opening night. Listening to Bob Cousy, Danny Ainge, Carr, Heinsohn, Fitch, and others, it's clear any tribute would have to recognize his devotion to the Celtics and the game.

"I've been accused of being competitive, but [Auerbach had] total and absolute commitment," said Cousy, who played for Auerbach from 1950-63, winning six titles. "He was the most relentless person I've ever met in terms of achieving his goals. He did back then what it takes about eight people to do today. I've never seen such dedication. You can argue about this, but I think he produced the greatest dynasty in the history of sports, certainly in basketball. He knew talent. He knew how to acquire it. He knew how to coach it. He knew how to motivate it. His legacy in terms of sport achievement is unparalleled."

Added Ainge, the team's executive director of basketball operations, "I loved Red. Red was the guy who drafted me. I have a lot of fun and fond memories of Red from early in my career. I don't think there's a legend who was as beloved as Red is in Boston.

"This was going to be his [61st] opening night and we were looking forward to that. To endure for [57] years with the same organization, through all the ownership changes, the coaching changes, it's amazing. He was one of the greatest coaches, one of the greatest managers, in the history of our game."

Heinsohn remembered Auerbach as both "a guardian of the game of basketball" and a practical joker, recalling times when the two exchanged "loaded cigars."

"He was an original," said Heinsohn, who played for Auerbach from 1956-65, winning eight championships. "He left an indelible mark on the game of basketball and the NBA. He was a champion and he made champions."

Added shaken former general manager Volk, who worked side-by-side with Auerbach for almost 30 years: "He was one of a kind. We will never see his kind again."

On Friday night, Fitch was flipping channels when he saw a special on the auditions for the Celtics' dancers, who were scheduled to debut opening night. Knowing Auerbach's dislike for such sideshows, Fitch thought to himself, "I wonder if Red's watching this."

The dancers reminded Fitch of a long-ago conversation with Auerbach that took place over plates of Chinese food. "I remember asking [Red], 'When are we going to get dancing girls,' and he said, 'Over my dead body,' " said Fitch. "And I can't help but think he'd be laughing at that now. We had a lot of good laughs. Red was definitely of the old school. I think he liked being unique in Boston. Now, I'd like to think he's somewhere having a good Chinese meal."

Tributes came in from the political arena, too.

Senator Ted Kennedy said, "Red was a true champion and one whose legacy transcends the Celtics and basketball. He was the gold standard in coaching and civil leadership, and he set an example that continues today. But more than being a legendary coach and Boston institution, Red was a person of the highest caliber with a heart and generosity that knew no bounds."

Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, a collegiate star at Providence who was cut by Auerbach, said, "Boston lost one of its greatest citizens. He cut me from the Celtics, but I've never admired a person more."

Shira Springer can be reached at Peter May contributed to this report.

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