Still Seeing Red

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

BOSTON This is the first playoff run the Boston Celtics have ever had without Red Auerbach. He's not in the building. Not coaching, not smoking, not ordering somebody to turn the heat up or the lights down in the visitors' locker room . . . well, not that we know of. During those epic battles the Celtics had with the Pistons and Lakers in the 1980s, no matter what was happening on the court, I'd always sneak a peek at Red. He was to the old Boston Garden what Ruth was to Yankee Stadium, what John Wooden still is to Pauley Pavilion.

After all the years of runnin' the joint, of ownin' the joint, the late Arnold Auerbach simply isn't there anymore. I imagine what he'd say about Kevin Garnett wearing green, about the Celtics' playoff struggles on the road, about Ray Allen's shooting slump, about these new Pistons.

Sadly, an imaginary conversation is all we can have. Bob Ryan, the Boston Globe columnist who began covering the Celtics, and therefore Red, nearly 40 years ago, said Tuesday: "He would love being back in the national dialogue. He would love people talking about the Celtics, about them being deep in the playoffs again."

He'd be watching most likely from his own seat in the new Garden, Section 12, Row 7, Seat 1. Red had a seat in the new building just like the new owners made sure he had an office when the club moved into new digs across the street. M.L. Carr, the towel-waving reserve with a sharp sense of basketball history from the 1980s championship teams, sat in Red's seat for Games 5 and 7 of the conference semifinal series against Cleveland. "Humbled . . . very humbled" is how Carr described simply sitting in his mentor's chair.

And when Paul Pierce's critical free throw bounced impossibly high off the rim before falling good to help clinch Game 7, Carr said he thought to himself, " 'Red, you're at it again.' He's still in there. He doesn't like the [pregame] noise and he doesn't like the [new] cheerleaders . . . but he would change with the times . . . just like he did with no-cut contracts and going from car to train travel. He was always a step ahead. Arnold's spirit will forever be with the Boston Celtics no matter who owns the team, no matter who's on the floor."

Author and longtime Washington Post columnist John Feinstein wrote "Let Me Tell You a Story" with Red in 2004, and believes the enjoyment from going to games, particularly as he was in his 70s and 80s, "kept him alive. When the new owners bought the team they told him, 'Red, we want you up here as much as possible.' . . . All you need to know is that when the city of Boston passed a no-smoking ordinance in public buildings they included a clause that made an exception for Red smoking cigars at Celtics games. Everybody knew he was in the building."

Everybody knew when he walked to his seat and acknowledged him. "When he walked to his seat in the 1970s, even after retiring from coaching, he still had the fire and physicality of a young man, and the occasional rage. Carr said: "I can see him going out onto the floor and grabbing Billy Cunningham [the Philly star, then coach]. And in the later years, he was getting to his seat with his cane. . . . But that spirit and that fire was always there."

When I first moved to Washington, in 1980, I was stunned to find out that the man who coached and ran the Celtics for all those championship seasons lived in the District. He loved Boston, but Boston was where he worked.

Washington was home till the very end in October 2006. I was even more stunned to fly to Celtics playoff games from National Airport and see Red on the flight. Okay, flying commercial was still the order of the day then. But as Feinstein points out, Red would use his senior citizen coupons to get a discounted fare. He wasn't about to waste the company's money. If memory serves me accurately, Red would be carrying what amounted to a nylon gym bag, never a briefcase. Somebody would be waiting to pick him up at Logan. More than once Red told me to get in the car and I'd be treated to stories of Russell and Cousy and Heinsohn from the great Red Auerbach during my ride to my hotel. I don't think my father believed me when I told him.

I don't recall any specific conversations about the Pistons, though he couldn't have liked them considering just how contentious and at times violently confrontational those Boston-Detroit series were in the late 1980s, when the Bad Boy Pistons were surging and the Celtics, post-1986, were trying to squeeze another title out of Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson. With the threat of the Knicks having subsided after the mid-1970s, Magic's Lakers were Public Enemy No. 1, just as the Wilt/West Lakers had been before them, just as Wilt's Philadelphia Warriors had been before that. But it's not like the Pistons escaped Red's scrutiny.

As Feinstein said: "Red didn't like Laimbeer. And what Isiah Thomas said about Bird [the infamous comment that if Bird was black he'd be just another player] ticked him off because he hated when smart guys said dumb things. He loved nothing more than when Bird stole the ball from Isiah. He got a kick out of that."

How would he not get a kick out of possibly beating the Pistons and Lakers this postseason, like old times? Remember, it was Red who got the league to replace the center jump and begin every quarter with alternating possessions because Kareem would win all the jump balls . . . not that Red explained it that way officially. Red would get a kick out of this latest Celtics run to the conference finals because he so liked Paul Pierce, and it's Pierce who at critical times, like Game 7 against Cleveland, has been the team's most clutch player in this postseason. It was Pierce, in an interview with ESPN immediately following his brilliant Game 7, saying that he was sure it was Red Auerbach reaching down to make sure that free throw bounced the Celtics' way.

Red would not get a kick out of the aforementioned Celtics dance squad and certainly not the pyrotechnics (stopped recently) that featured shooting fire and a virtual off-Broadway production for pregame introductions. For the longest time, the Celtics' big entertainment move was to play barely audible organ music during timeouts.

Carr, hoping to attend his first championship games in Boston since Celtics-Lakers in 1987, had a message for Rasheed Wallace and the Pistons. "Tell 'Sheed," Carr said, "that they're not going to get out of this. Red is still there. His spirit fills the building now. He's watching everything . . . but his eyes will not be on those cheerleaders."

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