A Dynasty Maker, Like No Other
Monday, October 30, 2006
There are some people you think will never die. No one ever fit that mold more than Red Auerbach. Five days ago, at the age of 89, he had a black-tie crowd at the United States Navy Memorial dinner roaring while he accepted the 2006 Lone Sailor Award. Ten days ago, at what turned out to be the last of the weekly lunches his close friends savored and planned their weeks around, he was -- as always -- looking forward to the start of another NBA season.
The NBA begins its 61st season this week. It will be the first one -- ever -- without Red. He died Saturday afternoon the only way he possibly could have -- a sudden heart attack. Anything less sneaky couldn't possibly have gotten him. He had been through kidney failure, heart failure, dialysis and almost as many surgeries on various parts of his body as he won championships (16) with the Celtics. In the summer of 2005, he had a cancerous blockage in his colon. The doctors said there was no choice but to try and get it out even though it was entirely possible the surgery would kill him.
He was sitting up asking for ice cream a few hours after the surgery was completed.
The obituary writers will explain his legacy: taking over an almost bankrupt team in Boston in 1950 and building it into one of the greatest dynasties in the history of sports. He did it with smarts and guts and, as he so indelicately put it, balls. For Red, there was no bigger compliment.
"He would always call me when I did something he didn't like and tell me I didn't have any," NBA Commissioner David Stern said. "One day he called me after I had done something he approved of and said that finally I had done something that showed I had them. One of the great days of my life."
One of the greatest breaks of my life was becoming his friend, very late in his life. I was lucky enough to become a part of his weekly lunch group -- which, at various times, included people such as Morgan Wootten, Sam Jones, Lefty Driesell, Bob Ferry, George Washington Athletic Director Jack Kvancz and Coach Karl Hobbs (actually, whoever was coaching at Red's alma mater was always welcome). Red was the best there ever was at assembling great players. He was also as good as it got at collecting people. Great athletes and coaches came to the lunches; so did Secret Service agents, sportswriters, lawyers and doctors -- Red was friends with almost as many doctors as basketball people.
The group would argue about anything and everything from politics to movies to music to, of course, basketball. The arguing always stopped when Red decided to weigh in. "Let me tell you about that guy," he would begin and everyone would shut up to hear the real story about whomever was in question.
It might easily be a former president -- Red met every one of them from Harry Truman on -- or it could be an actor, a director or an athlete. "I ever tell you about DiMaggio," he would begin. And then launch into a story about how lonely Joe DiMaggio was after he split up with Marilyn Monroe.
Red's reputation was for being tough, and that's the way he liked it. Everyone in basketball knew he was a hard-nosed negotiator who was always looking for a way to make the Celtics better. The most famous move he ever made, as most people know, was trading the Ice Capades for Bill Russell. That wasn't literally what happened, but he did get his owner, Walter Brown, to persuade Rochester owner Les Harrison to pass on Russell with the first pick in the draft in return for Brown sending the Ice Capades (which he owned) to Rochester for a week.
That may explain why, when Jack Kent Cooke owned the Los Angeles Lakers, he categorically refused to talk about any trades with Red. "I know you'll fleece me, Red," Cooke told him. "I'm smart enough to know I'm not as smart as you."
But Red's real secret was his heart. He genuinely loved his players and his friends, and they loved him back. He was intensely loyal. His motto seemed to be, "I can criticize my players and my friends but you can't."
Red taught a lot of people a lot of lessons. He was never one to mince words.