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Fans gather to remember Red

Before Red, a ceremony like this might not have been possible in the city of Boston.

People from all walks of life -- the young, the old, the rich, the poor and people from all races -- came together to honor the man that was not simply the greatest NBA coach of all time, but a true civil rights pioneer in a city that was once strongly socially divided.

A number of speakers came to remember what Red Auerbach meant to them, including former Celtics players Bob Cousy and John Havlicek, as well as members of the Massachusetts community, including Mayor Thomas Menino and Senator Edward Kennedy.

''I thought it was great," former Celtics star and now announcer Tommy Heinsohn said. ''I was very happy to see the outpouring of affection from the city for Red. It was very special."

The diverse crowd that came to City Hall Plaza was a testament to his life's work in basketball -- from drafting the first black player, having the first team with five black starters, hiring the first black coach, and bringing the youth from all points of Boston together to play basketball.

Children left school early, and their parents snuck out of work to head to the public ceremony for Auerbach, the Celtics coaching legend that died earlier this week. Before a number of speakers began their memories of Red, visiting fans could sign leather-bound guest books with any message that they'd like to leave in the memory of the patriarch of the Celtics.

Mary Sweeney came earlier than most to the ceremony to get a good seat. Sweeney, who works at JFK Museum, left a touching message in one of the books: ''We'll never forget the great one, and how he was like a father figure for all. He always directed us in the right path, and now he's on a green path of his own."

Others were more brief, like the Mulvay and Morgan family of Boston: ''He was the greatest guy we ever knew."

As the ceremony moved along to the speakers, the lines for the guest books thickened, and more pages filled with New England's memories.

A lesser-known group also owes Auerbach some credit for their recognition in basketball.

Tip Thiboutot, 69, rode his wheelchair from the North End to City Hall Plaza, and found a spot close to the stage.

''I came to remember Red's contributions to the game, and to the Celtics," Thiboutot said. ''He was a symbol of integration, not only to African-Americans, but to the integration of wheelchair basketball."

Thiboutot coached the Boston Mustangs wheelchair basketball team in the 1970s (as well as a women's team in Paris last year), and along the way, caught the attention of Auerbach.

''He invited us to play two preliminary games in the Garden," said Thiboutot. ''I was told [by him], in 1946, the Celtics played a group of veterans at the Shrewsbury VA hospital, and they defeated the Celtics!"

They beat them alright, a tromping 16-3.

''Through the grapevine, I heard he never would let the Celtics play a wheelchair team again."

Thiboutot takes it as no insult, as he knew the nature of Red's competitiveness.

Thiboutot was once a season ticket holder in the original Boston Garden, but when the FleetCenter opened, it was too difficult for fans in wheelchairs to see the court.

''The sightlines for people in wheelchairs were terrible. Too many people in the way," said Thiboutot.

In the old days, Auerbach, showing his seldom-revealed softer side, used to remove a row of seats for the wheelchaired fans to get a better view, according to Thiboutot.

A younger fan, donning Celtic green from his cap to his wind pants, came all the way from San Diego to see the first three Celtics games of the season, a tradition he's had for years.

''It's a tradition. When I heard about Red, of course I had to come," said Ron Flanders, a 10-year member of the Navy. The lieutenant's family ties hail from Southborough, and he's made sure, even as the Celtics have declined in quality play over the years, to still keep tabs on the team and keep that Celtic Pride. Going to the Middle East for a tour of duty changed nothing. Seeing only one or two Celtics games while on duty, Flanders got a thriller: a triple-overtime 125-124 loss to the Sixers.

The devastating loss didn't bother him. He's a Celtics fan, and was just happy to see them play.

Flanders didn't realize until a few weeks ago that Auerbach was also a member of the Navy, and that knowledge now adds to the already immense respect he feels toward Red.

''I take pride in the fact we wore the same uniform," Flanders said. ''The way he ran his team was similar to how we do. No one was more important than anyone else out there. ... We have the greatest Navy in the world, and this city has the greatest basketball team in the world."

Flanders' father wasn't at the ceremony, but is joining him for opening night, in their usual under-the-basket seats. ''I don't know, if they're winning near the end, my Dad and I might light up [cigars]," Flanders said.

As the ceremony rolled along, the scent of cigar smoke came from all ends of City Hall Plaza, with everyone in the crowd, young and old, listening closely to the people that knew Red best, and in essence was their final farewell to Red.

Many parents brought their children, who were never able to see Red, or the Celtics he coached, in action, but still have enormous respect for the coach they've only heard their parents and grandparents talk about.

''He's a legend, or that's what people have to say about him," said the Dalton boys of Bridgewater. ''We're here to see what people say about him."

And as the kids listened to Cousy, a player they only know by his legend, they understand. "We're very proud of what the Red Sox, the Patriots, and the Bruins have contributed to New England," Cousy said. "But Red and the Boston Celtics created bragging rights for your children and after them...11 championships in 13 years."

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