Many Good Memories on a Sad Occasion

Members of the Georgetown basketball team return to the team bus after paying their respects to the legendary Red Auerbach, who died Saturday at 89.
Members of the Georgetown basketball team return to the team bus after paying their respects to the legendary Red Auerbach, who died Saturday at 89. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The deep, booming laugh could be heard from outside the entrance of Joseph Gawler's Sons last night. The man behind the recognizable laugh was none other than former Boston Celtics great Bill Russell. Russell, with his hand placed upon Indiana Pacers President Larry Bird's shoulder, was sharing a story and a chuckle with Bird and Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle.

Just outside, former Georgetown coach John Thompson was chatting with Celtics legends Jo Jo White and Robert Parish, expressing his shock over the reason they had been brought together this night and his joy about knowing the man responsible for the gathering: Arnold "Red" Auerbach.

"I'm so glad you guys were able to come down," Thompson said.

"This is the least we could do," Parish said.

"He meant so much to the game," Thompson said.

"He meant so much to us all," White added.

One by one, they arrived in black limousines or sport-utility vehicles and gathered inside this funeral home in Northwest Washington to pay their respects to Auerbach, the architect of one of the most dominant franchises in sports history who died Saturday of a heart attack. He was 89.

The scene was like a walk down Celtics history -- Russell, Bird, Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Chris Ford, Tom "Satch" Sanders, Celtics Vice President Danny Ainge and Celtics Coach Doc Rivers, Parish, White, Thompson and Carlisle, just to name a few. But friends from rival teams (76ers great Billy Cunningham), the college ranks (Lefty Driesell), other sports (Washington Nationals President Stan Kasten) and professions also stopped by. John Thompson III brought along the Georgetown basketball team.

They came to sign the guest book, glance at the closed, cherry wood casket where Auerbach's body now rests -- and talk. They reflected on Auerbach's memory; his legacy as the greatest coach in NBA history and a shrewd talent evaluator; his impact as a pioneer of social change; and his oversized heart and loyalty to any member of the Celtics family.

It was a reunion of sorts, and while the viewing room was filled at times with smiles and some laughter, the mood was mostly somber. "It's a sad time," said Jones, the former coach of the Celtics and the Washington Bullets. "I thought Red would be around forever. And, that's the truth."

Auerbach managed to dodge death a number of times, including his most recent scare in the summer of 2005, when he had a cancerous blockage in his colon. Cousy, the point guard for six of the 16 championships Auerbach won as a coach and executive for the Celtics, was making his second trip to Washington in a week. He was in attendance at the United States Navy Memorial dinner where Auerbach made his last public appearance and won the Lone Sailor Award.

"In retrospect, I was pleased to spend a few moments with him. He wasn't looking too good, but once he got on stage, he mentally became his old fighting self and handled himself very well," Cousy said. "What he accomplished in the industry will never be duplicated. They claim records were made to be broken in sports, but 11 championships in 13 years will never happen again.

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