Red Auerbach was discussing Celtic pride when one of the building blocks of that concept, Bob Cousy, walked into his North Station office.

"Just down here for some business and thought I'd say hi," Cousy told his former coach. "Hey, did you hear . . ."

The two basketball legends, Auerbach, cigar-smoking, tough-as-nails, coach, and his ball-handling whiz, launced into an animated conversation concerning everything from soccer to trying to travel in the snow-bound midwest.

Later, Auerbach would recall Cousy's unannounced visit for a special reason.

"See," he explained, "that shows you what I'm talking about. These people, they talk about Celtic pride. They don't know what the hell they mean. They think Celtics pride means winning every game. Not true.

"Celtic pride is Bob Cousy keeping in touch all the time; it's K. C. Jones staying a week at Frank Ramsey's house; it's an ex-player calling me up and wanting to talk because he was lonely.

"Celtic pride is as strong as ever. Nothing's happened to it. Nothing."

He leaned back in his chair, took a puff from his enormous cigar and waited for his words to sink in. The frustration, disappointment and criticism that have made this the unhappiest of his 28 years with the Celtics, showed on his face and now he was releasing some of his pent-up anger.

"We've got a couple of jerks writing stuff and they panic, because we lose instead of win," he said. "Even a train has to stop sometime. Somewhere along the line you are going to lose. When teams are spending $1 million or more to build their talent and you are trying to compete by using saner methods, it's going to take its toll.

"But to say everything that the world 'Celtics' stands for has been wiped out because of this year, well, that is a lot of . . . It's got nothing to do with it."

This was the end of a hectic week for Auerbach. He had been of the phone non-stop through Wednesday, trying to make a trade or two that might revitalize his club. The best he could do was a 10-day contract for Ernie DiGregorio and a second-round draft pick in exchange for Fred Saunders.

Those moves hardly will reshape the Celtics' fortunes, although Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien's decision to let former Laker Kermit Washington play Friday is a plus. But Washington won't solve all of Boston's problems.

They run deeper. The veteran Celtics, the ones Auerbach loves and trusts, are troubled. Jo Jo White, once described as the very essence of what it meant to be a Celtic, is hobbled by bone spurs and angered by sputtering contract negotiations. John Havlicek, Mr. Captain and the epitome of Celtic hustle, has announced his retirement. Dave Cowens, whose blood once might have been colored green, is playing without his old enthusiam and desire.

Auerbach has no one to turn to. Certainly, newcomers Sidney Wicks or Dave Bing haven't been ingrained in the system long enough to understand what he wants. And the rest of the Celtic cast isn't talented enough to have an impact. So he must watch - chin stuck out but powerless to change things - as the Celtics are raked relentlessly over the critical coals.

Barring a miraculous stretch drive, they are headed toward their worst record since Auerbach became associated with the club. The descent has been sudden. Last year, they were 44-38; two years ago they won the NBA title. This season, only New Jersey has won fewer games.

The most obvious target to rip is Auerbach. Who else but Auerbach has been responsible for the club's poor drafts and questionable trades and free-agent dealings? The Master obviously has lost his touch; the game has passed him by, leaving this year's team as a reminder of his mistakes.

Auerbach, surrounded in his office by mementos from the success of Celtic past, has heard the talk. It tears at him so much that he mentions now the possibility of retiring after this current contract runs out in August. But as he sees is, everyone has missed the boat on what happened to his beloved Celtics this year.

"Five more lousy wins," he said spitting out the words, "and no one would be talking. We'd be in the middle of the playoff picture where we should be. No one thought we'd win the title.

"But when things start going bad for you, everything goes bad. Everything around you goes bad.

"Look what happened to us. Havlicek didn't especially want to come to training camp so he doesn't sign a contract and misses most of the workouts. Wicks doesn't sign until just before the season begins and Jo Jo has heel problems. Then we open with six games on the road.

"And did we get to play the Lakers without Jabbar? No. Injured players on other teams would get healthy when we played their team. It was incredible.

"When you get into a syndrome of losing, it's hard to snap out of it. I didn't panic, I didn't make trades just to make trades, but to help us. Now, if we could get everyone healthy, we might be okay."

By the time Auerbach finished maneuvering this week, he had a strange conglomeration of players. Up front, the Celtics are young and, with Wicks playing better the last two weeks, dangerous. But he needs a backup center behind Cowens and he has the oldest group of guards in the league. And now he has added the much-traveled DiGregorio to the backcourt in what can only be termed a longshot gamble.

"We could use a backup center and another guard" he admitted. "That would make us a top club. But no, I didn't think this team would play like this.How can you look in the future like that?"

A huge montage of pictures and newspaper clippings from Auerbach's days as Celtic coach covers one of the walls in his office. Earlier this season, team owner Irving Levin had asked Auerbach to again coach the club, replacing Tom Heinsohn. Auerbach refused.

Q. If you had accepted, how would you have done?

A."I'd have been great. With my reputation, they would have listened to me and done exactly what I wanted. But if I was young and was just starting, I don't know what would have happened. Who knows if I would have got their attention? But I would, or I would have killed them."

Q. But haven't you said coaching today's players is harder than coaching the ones you had?

A. "They are. A generation normally is 20 years. In sports, it's six years. If you are a coach, you have realize that every six years you are coaching a new generation of people and you have to adjust your philosophy.

"The kids today are better players but they are coddled and spoiled. They aren't as intense. If you don't recognize that as a coach, you can't make it, I think that is what happened to guys like Heinsohn, (Red) Holtzman and (Gene) Shue."

Q. You look tired and things have been frustrating. How close are you to retiring in August?

A. "Hey, all I did was say I would have to consider it. Anyone who is going to be 61 (in September) would consider it before signing a contract.

"This has been a hell of a long frustration year. But in August, things might be different.

"You know, this is only the second contract I've ever had in my life. When I was coaching, I had one-year verbal agreements. I told them, if I was losing, fire me. If I was winning, give me a raise. I wasn't afraid.

"One year contracts are the only way to get maximum production. It makes you work. A coach or a player with a long-term contract, they want to win but if they lose, so what? They don't lose any sleep over it. They have security.

"People laugh at me and say, sure you can talk about one-year contracts now, you've got it made. But they forget I did it when I didn't have it made. I did it year to year. For 16 years, it was me coming into a room, asking them what was the deal, and then saying okay and working for another year."

Q. What about your draft choices as a general manager. Some of the No. 1 picks haven't worked out.

A. "We've had some disappointments but people forget we were drafting in bad spots most years. And no one in the league has more people that they've drafted on their roster than we do. Havlicek, White, Cowens, Maxwell, Boswell, Stacom - I drafted all of them.

"Even Adolph Rupp was surprised that Clarence Glover (No. 1, 1971) didn't make it. he recommended him highly. Norm Cook (No. 1, 1976) never was tough enough. he was a hardship and he never matured. Glenn McDonald (No. 1, 1974) helped us win a title and never got better.

"For 28 years, you make decisions and you do things right. You are going to make a few mistakes, too, along the way but when you do, people hop all over you."

Q. Sidney Wicks has been criticized heavily for his lethargic play. Has the criticism been justified?

A. Yes, until recently. Now he is playing tremendously. Before, I regretted we signed him, almost every day. Maybe he has finally seen the light at the end of the tunnel. I think he knew what his future would be if he didn't start playing better."

It was time for lunch, but first Auerbach stopped to talk to K. C. Jones, the former great Celtic guard who now is assistant coach under Tom Sanders.

"You have to check out this player from Cincinnati," Auerbach said, and then he rattled off a uniform number. "I always remember guys by their numbers. Last names aren't that good. Hell, there are a million Jones."

"Now you are going to make me mad," said Jones, tongue firmly against his cheek. "Picking on my name like that."

They laughed and Auerbach left. Jones was asked why he took the assistant's job, considering the season already half over.

"Because this is family," he said. "Satch called and asked me and all I said is 'give me time to pack.' He needed me, so I came."

Yes, Jones said, Celtic pride was involved in his decision to return. "The older players know what that means," he said. "We played on the winning teams. The younger players weren't around. We hope we can transmit some of how we feel about this team to them.

"There's been improvement. We are playing better defense and we are hustling. The first game I saw after I got here, there wasn't much defense. On our teams, three guys were defensive players and only two were shooters. Now everyone can put the ball in the hole, but it doesn't do much good to try to outscore the other guy."

Auerbach likes to let Celtics solve Celtics problems. When he retired, he turned to Bill Russell and then to Heinsohn to coach and now he has turned to two other former players, both quiet and easy-going, to try to smooth out the ruffled feelings disrupted by Heinsohn's volatile ways.

Auerbach says the firing of Heinsohn was the roughest decision he has ever made ("Hell, I still buy insurance from the guy"). It meant casting off one of family, something Auerbach never would do to one of his veteran players.

"When a guy is here for five or six years, he is one of us," Auerbach explained. "That is what Celtic pride is built on. He knows he is secure. We don't trade the old timers, Heinsohn, Russell, Cousy, Sharman.

"We figure we can get our value back in other ways. We find jobs for each other, we help each other scout. They never cut the tie.

"On other clubs, 90 percent of the time, once you've played for them, it's over."

But not with the Celtics, the team built on the pugnacious personality of one man. If the Celtics and Celtic pride are to be restored to their once lofty perch, Auerbach will do it by following the directions of a sign in his office:

"One Way - My Way."