Unless all signs are wrong, the Boston Celtics will die tomorrow. In name, they will go on. But new ownership of the Celtics is expected to be approved tomorrow. And the new owner will drive away the Celtics' last link to greatness, the genius Red Auerbach.
By the first week in August, Auerbach will be the general manager of the New York Knicks. That, or he will retire. For 25 years as coach, then president and general manager of the team he loved, Auerbach made the Celtics the measure of excellence in the National Basketball Association.
Bob Cousy retired. Bill Russell stayed on to coach. The Celtics have fallen in class of late, fallen so badly we shared Auerbach's pain when he had to fire the coach, Tom Heinsohn, once his firebrand forward. Now John Havlicek is gone, and tomorrow Red Auerbach will be going going . . .
That's because the new owner, John Y. Brown, is a meddler.
Brown now owns the Buffalo Braves. He has made arrangements to move the team to San Diego. As it happens, the Celtics' owner, Irv Levin, wants to live in Southern California. So Brown and Levin worked out a deal: Brown will take over the Celtics, and Levin will go to San Diego with the Braves.
Brown made his money in fried chicken franchises. He owned the Kentucky Colonels in the old American Basketball Association first producing an ABA champion and then disbanding the team rather than pay exorbitant fees to enter the NBA. He then bought into the Braves two years ago.
Both in Kentucky and Buffalo, Brown's methods have been sensational, if not sensible. At Kentucky, he sold the local hero, Dan Issel. He let go Hubie Brown, who became the NBA's coach of the last year last season. At Buffalo, he sold Bob McAdoo. The brilliant general manager, Eddie Donovan, resigned. Sixteen games over 500 three years ago, the Braves now are so bad they are leaving town.
And John Y. Brown now owns the Boston Celtics.
When Brown put together the championship Kentucky team, he often laughed about the contribution made by his son, John-John, then 10. Brown told everyone he acquired guard Ted McClain because John-John suggested it.
Another time, Brown traded two regulars to the New York Nets in exchange for a bench-warming guard. Brown never told his coach about the deal until it was made.
All of that is fine.
The man puts up his money, he can play with his toy.
But Red Auerbach doesn't have to watch.
Auerbach believes he knows basketball better than anyone else. He may be right. He certainly knows the game better than a fried chicken magnate who takes a 10-year-old's advice on a trade.
Independent, strong-willed, full of pride, Auerbach will not stay on with the Celtics in a figure-head role. And with John Brown operating, no one else in an organization has ever mattered. He is the show, just as Charlie Finley and Ted Turner are the shows in their sorry situations.
Auerbach sat in Duke's restaurant at lunch time the other day. He wore a yellow slicker and a white sailing cap against the drizzle. Both literally and figuratively, Auerbach was a man avoiding the storm.
"I can't talk about any of that yet," he said of the Brown-New York-retirement speculation. "I've got three weeks to go on my contract in Boston."
Auerbach said he didn't know Brown and so didn't want to talk about the new owner.
Someone suggested, though, that Auerbach, as the Celtics' president, was very familiar with Brown's work at Buffalo. It was suggested that an old NBA hand, so independent for so long, might not work well with an owner who made trades without telling the coach.
"It would be hard," Auerbach said.
The best we can hope for is that Auerbach takes the New York job.The NBA needs his kind. Once a star player at George Washington University, then coach of the pro Washington Capitols. Auerbach has been in the NBA since its conception 29 years ago. Now 61, he shows no signs of old age.
Listen to Auerbach . . .
On the third official, added for next season - "I'm all for it. The main reason is that the good referees, the ones that control games, are well past 40. And when you run as much as they do and do that traveling besides, they can't get up them, baseball has four, hockey has always had for all the games. Football has all so many of three - why not basketball?"
On violence - "The talk is way out of proportion of what's happening. There have been some good fights. But most of the time, they've just squared off and done nothing. Look at hockey. People think that's a violent game. How? They have no traction, so they're just grabbing shirts."
On the NBA preseason experiment with the three-point shot from outside 25 feet - "I voted for it, just to get rid of it. People were making so much noise about it. What the hell is baseball going to give you two runs if you hit a ball way over the fence? Do you get 12 points in football for a pass that's 90 yards? Do we make it one point for an uncontested layup?"
Or if he would go for the red-and-white-and-blue ball once used by the ABA - "Sure. I'll go for that on the beach."