By John Feinstein
Special to The Washington Post
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.
Except with kids. He was an absolute sucker for kids. He adored his three great grandchildren. He loved discussing their exploits as much as he enjoyed talking about any of his titles or trades. He became close with my son, Danny, who is now 12. Danny and I would sit with Red at George Washington games, and I became, for all intents and purposes, invisible.
"Hey Danny, want to go to Ledo's after the game?"
"Sure. Hey, Dad, we're going to Ledo's with Red after the game."
They let me come only because Danny needed a driver.
Once, when we were having trouble getting Danny out of bed to go to school in the mornings, I had what I thought was a brilliant idea: I would get Red to call him and tell him how important it was for him to get to school on time.
"No way," Red said when I asked him if he would do it.
"I don't want him to get mad at me for siding with you."
He was supposed to have flown to Boston on Wednesday for the Celtics' home opener. It would have been the 57th straight opener he had attended in Boston. The Celtics owners, Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, sent the team plane for Red whenever he wanted to go. Red went through at least a dozen owners. He liked Grousbeck and Pagliuca as much as any of them -- more than most.
Red actually fired an owner once. In the 1970s, he simply couldn't get along with John Y. Brown, who would go on to be the governor of Kentucky. Brown was one of those owners who thought being rich meant he knew more about basketball than Red. When Sonny Werblin offered Red the chance to take over the New York Knicks, Red went to Brown.
"Look, this is your team, you're the owner, you can do whatever you want," he said. "But I told Sonny Werblin I'd give him an answer in two weeks. If you still own the team then -- I'm going."
Brown knew he would have no chance to survive in Boston if it came out that he had driven Red into the arms of the Knicks. He sold the team with two days to spare.
Red was perhaps most famous for the victory cigar. Many saw it as the ultimate symbol of arrogance, of rubbing defeat in the face of a vanquished opponent.
Actually, it started out as just the opposite.
"I never believed in jumping up and down and getting on my players when a game was won," he said. "I thought it was out of line -- showed up the other team. So, I'd get the subs in, sit and fold my arms. But I had no one to talk to -- there were no assistants in those days -- and I felt silly just sitting there. I always had a cigar in my pocket, so one night, I took it out and lit it up. It gave me something to do. Then, after a while, it became a big deal. I never meant for that to happen."
Of course these days, Red's cigar would be banned in most arenas. In fact, there is a Boston city ordinance that bans smoking in all public buildings. There was one exception to the rule: Red Auerbach in the arena whenever the Celtics were playing.
Stern had planned to be at the Celtics' opener Wednesday for one reason: Red.
"If it turns out to be his last one, I want to be able to say I was there," he said.
I was fortunate enough to be there for what turned out to be his last one. Red had been very sick last September, in intensive care for five weeks. And yet, there he was, on opening night against the Knicks, walking to his seat just before tip-off to a wild standing ovation from the crowd in TD Banknorth Garden. One of Red's cardiologists turned to me as Red was sitting down and said, "You understand, it would be a miracle for a man of 50 to be here tonight after being where he was a few weeks ago. This . . . " he gestured with his hand at Red, "is simply unbelievable."
Celtics Coach Doc Rivers asked Red to talk to the team after the game, which he always enjoyed doing. He gave them a mini-pep talk, clearly pumped by the opening night win. As he turned to leave, he saw Dan Dickau, who was then one of the team's backup guards.
"Hey Dan, can I ask you a question?" he said.
"Sure, Coach, anything," Dickau said.
"Are there baskets these days on the sides of the court?"
Dickau was puzzled. "No coach, there aren't," he said.
"Well, then, will you quit dribbling from side-to-side all the time and go to the basket?"
Dickau was stunned for a moment -- and then he got it. He laughed and nodded his head.
"I'll try coach," he said. "I'll try."
Red retired as the coach of the Celtics in 1966. But he never stopped coaching.
Or being Red. He was the first of his kind. And the last.