Celtics In the Midst of a Season Auerbach Would Have Loved

By John Feinstein
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 28, 2008; 6:13 PM

There really isn't much doubt about which two teams the NBA would like to see survive the endless march to June and the finals, or, as the league so modestly calls them, "The Finals," as if no one else stages a final.

Everyone who follows David Stern's league knows he and his preening television partners in Bristol want the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers to be this year's conference champions. There's good reason for this: the league essentially is devoid of long-term rivalries other than Celtics-Lakers. In Washington, people think the Wizards and Cavaliers, combined owners of one NBA title (1978), are rivals because they've met in the first round three straight years. But the Celtics and Lakers have serious history, dating from the 1960s, when Red Auerbach's teams, led by Bill Russell and Sam Jones kept breaking the hearts of the Lakers teams led by Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and -- later -- Wilt Chamberlain. The rivalry was just as fierce in the '80s when it was Bird, McHale and Parish vs. Magic and Kareem.

Now it has Garnett, Allen and Pierce on one side, Kobe and company on the other, not to mention Phil Jackson trying to break Auerbach's all-time record of nine titles as a coach.

But it has been 21 years since the two teams last met in the championship round. The Lakers have certainly held up their end of the bargain since then, winning three straight titles from 2000 to 2002. It is the Celtics who have been missing in action.

For some of us, the Celtics' return as a force in the league creates mixed emotions. It has been 18 months now since Auerbach, the man who single-handedly made the Celtics the greatest dynasty in sports history, passed away at the age 89. Red died three days before the start of the 2006-07 season, meaning he missed watching a Celtics team that might have killed anyone who cared about the franchise's proud history.

Those Celtics lost 18 straight games during one stretch. They finished with a record of 24-58, so far from the playoffs that postseason play was little more than a rumor in Boston. Red hated watching the Celtics play poorly. He couldn't stand the fact that they had become a non-factor in the NBA.

"If I'm watching a game and we're up, I'll keep watching," he said once. "If we're down, I turn it off. I can't stand it. And if we start to lose a lead, I turn it off too. It's too hard to watch."

Red was the franchise's patriarch right to the end. The current team owners, Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca, kept an office for him when the team moved to new headquarters a few years back and frequently sent a plane to bring him to Boston for games. He wouldn't go to games in Washington when the Celtics were in town because he couldn't stand being surrounded by people who were rooting against them.

I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with Red in his last years because of the Tuesday lunches he organized for about 15 of his friends from all walks of life. If there was one thing that became clear to me after sitting next to him almost every Tuesday for eight years, it was his passion. Red rarely spoke on any subject without genuine emotion in his voice whether the subject was politics or hockey or tennis (which he loved to play) or telling his old pal Arnie Heft to knock it off with the stories about horse racing. "NO HORSES!" he would shout, and Arnie would change the subject.

But Red's greatest passion was always saved for the Celtics, long after he had stopped running the team.

A couple of years ago he was in the hospital, in intensive care, hooked up to more tubes and wires than you can imagine. He had a ventilator in his throat, preventing him from talking. I was visiting him along with Murray Lieberman, who was one of his doctors but also one of his closest friends. The Celtics had just traded Ricky Davis for Wally Szczerbiak. In spite of Davis's many issues, Red liked him and believed the team needed a gifted scorer like him in order to improve.

"Coach, the team made a trade," Murray told him. Red's eyebrows went up.

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