It was the middle of the downtown lunch hour, and Red Auerbach wandered out of a Washington restaurant and into the Connecticut Avenue crush. As he walked down the sidewalk, a few people paused a moment, glanced his way and wondered if the fellow in the corduroy pants and the plaid sports coat, with the cigar dangling from his lips, was really who they thought he was.
After all, the National Basketball Association season was in high gear. So why was Red Auerbach in the heart of the Nation's Capital? Shouldn't this man be back in Boston? Didn't the Celtics need him? Weren't there tickets to sell, speeches to make, trades to be contemplated, draft choices to scout?
Of course there were, but that still didn't mean that Red Auerbach had to leave his home town for very long to take care of business.
For most of the last 30 years, first as coach of all those championship Celtic teams -- nine in all -- then the last 14 as the team's general manager, with four more titles, Auerbach and his family have lived in Washington. Make that thrived in Washington.
"Look, it's only an hour and 10 minutes flying time to Boston," he said. "Sure there are times when it's been difficult, but circumstances have always been such that this was the best way to do it.
"To do a real good job coaching in this league, you can't have all the distractions. If your family is with you, you naturally have family obligations. You have to go out to dinner, you have to go out to a show, you have to do this, you have to do that. As a coach I didn't have that luxury of time to do those things. If my wife was with me in New England, I might never have had a chance to see her. Every night there's something up there. So we have this arrangement, and it's worked out fine."
Dorothy Auerbach, who has been married to Auerbach for 40 years, agreed.
I believe in stability and a family and there is no such thing as continuity in the NBA," she said. "Our kids (two grown daughters) were born here, went to schoopl here. They had grandparents and family here in the area. Basketball is not conducive to family life, so we had a mutual understanding right from the start.
"Anyway, I always tell Red he wouldn't have been as successful if he had his wife and his kids with him. But don't misunderstand it. He called all the time and he was always there when we needed him. And now, ever since he got out of coaching, he's got the best of all possible worlds."
These days, the arrangement works like this: Auerbach has an apartment in Boston, a 10-minute taxi ride to his office in the Boston Garden. Most weeks, from Monday through Thursday, he lives in Washington in an apartment off Massachusetts Avenue in upper northwest.
When he's in town, he frequently plays racquetball at the Smith Center at George Washington University, where he went to college, often with Athletic Director Bob Fairs. In the spring and summer, he switches outdoors for tennis at Woodmont Country Club, playing with a cluster of longtime cronies. He used to be a frquent visitor to the old Duke Zeibert's restaurant, and spends a lot of time these days at Mel Krupin's. The waiters call him "Coach."
On weekends when the Celtics are playing at home, he will take a quick flight to Boston on Thursday and usually return to Washington Monday morning. Jeff Cohen, Auerbach's chief assistant until he took the general manager's job in Kansas City last month, said Auerbach averaged about 3 1/2 very long days a week at the office.
"He's gotten a little older (64) and he travels a little less than he used to," Cohen said.
"But he's still the Boston Celtics, and always will be. I joined the team in 1965, and over the last few years I pretty much handled a lot of the details, the day-to-day things. But Red always knows what's going on. He handles all the contract rengotiations.He knows who the players are. He works on trade with (Coach Bill) Fitch."
Other friends describe Auerbach as operating mostly on automatic pilot these days. He has a workaholic coach in Fitch and an owner, furniture magnate Harry Mangurian Jr., who also is very involved. He is no longer the man who has to worry about selling tickets, getting publicity, scouting America for prospects.
Most of all, Auerbach is the figurative chairman of the board (Mangurian holds the official title), a man who can sit back and exult over his team's rise from the ruins several years ago to a position of dominance in the NBA. He also has a very large ego, his friends say, and that is why he's also enjoying every minute of his team's success. Red Auerbach, they say, simply loves being Red Auerbach, the potentate of basketball.
And what's not to enjoy?
Once again, the Celtics are in the finals for the NBA championship. The team is young, superbly balanced, with hardly any head cases and one of the game's most charismatic players, Larry Bird, helping pack crowds into the ancient Garden just as in the days of Bob Cousy, Bill Russell and John Havlicek.
Two years ago, Auerbach nearly left the Celtics. The team, with a number of players who simply did not fit the unselfish Celtic mold, had back-to-back disastrous seasons, finishing with the worst record in the NBA in 1978-79. Auerbach was criticized for poor draft choices and rotten choice of personnel, and worse, he didn't get along at all with one of the owners, John Y. Brown, now better known as Phyllis George's husband, not to mention being the governor of Kentucky.
Auerbach says he does not like to talk about his problems with Brown, though he will tell you that he was on his way to becoming general manager of the New York Knicks. But Mangurian bought out Brown's interest in the team and told Auerbach he wanted him to stay.
"It was agony what happened to Red," Dorothy Auerbach says. "Who was John Y. Brown anyway, and what did he know about basketball? I figure if you've got the best man in the NBA running the show, you should let him run the show. That was the problem. Red is the man in basketball. He knew what he was doing."
He was the clear winner over Detroit in the deal that shipped away Bob McAdoo and brought in M. L. Carr and two No. 1 draft choices. He drafted Bird in his junior year, gambling that he could sign him before the next draft. (He did.) He traded two first-round picks to Golden State for Robert Parish and the third choice in the draft, a pick he used to select Kevin McHale. Parish and McHale made a major contributions as the Celtics posted the best record in the NBA during the regular season.
And, of course, he also hired Fitch after unsuccessfully trying to woo Bobby Knight away from Indiana. Fitch, it must be noted, also had a major role in formulating the trade to get Parish and McHale, but he gives Auerbach much of the credit for helping rebuild the team.
"We have a very close relationship; we've been good friends for years," Fitch said. "And since I've been here, anything we've put together, we've all had a pretty equal say. On the Parish deal, Red had one vote, I had one vote and Harry (Mangurian) had one vote, and we decided beforehand we wouldn't do it unless it was unanimous.
"As far as Red interfering with the team itself, he never has. He doesn't suggest anything on the court unless he's asked. And yes, I ask. If he did make suggestions, I'd take no offense at all. As far as the way he runs the team, he's been doing it this way for 30 years, so he must known what he's doing. When he had one title and five different jobs, that was the tough time for him. Now, it's a way of life, and a way of life that works."
Mangurian recently signed Auerbach to a 10-year contract to stay on as president and general manager of the team. It basically amounts to a lifetime pact for a man who has made a lifetime commitment to the Celtics, anyway.
Auerbach has no intention of changing the habits of his life. "Oh, you think about retiring, I suppose," he said. "But I'm still in good shape. I'm still alert. I'm sure I'll slow down some. Maybe teach a course in sports management, do some lectures. But I don't even think about being away from the game."
"Don't let him kid you," says Dorothy Auerbach. "He's having a ball. He'll never slow down. Oh sure, the agents and the contracts and all that can be aggravating sometimes. But he really does love it.It's his life."