- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Red Auerbach took another puff of his fat stogie and blew smoke toward the ceiling of his Northwest Washington office. "I wouldn't want to live in New York," he said of his native city. "Everything's so competitive there."

It's hard to tell when Red is kidding because he dispenses funny stories and cigar smoke with equal aplomb. Nonetheless, this was good for a big inward chuckle. New York or any place else being too competitive for Red Auerbach winner of nine championships in 10 years (1957-66) as coach of the Boston Celtics and architect of seven more as president and general manager? Gimme a break.

Auerbach is 84 now and once more actively involved with the Celtics after four years in relative exile while Rick Pitino labored as coach, general manager, president and just about everything else. And though it might be a temporary coincidence, the Celtics recently put together a seven-game winning streak and stand second in the Atlantic Division with a 14-8 record. This after six seasons of not even making the playoffs.

"I didn't say a word to anybody with the club after Rick resigned [to go to Louisville]," Red was saying. "[Celtics owner] Paul Gaston called and asked me if I'd come back as president he didn't have to twist my arm. Then he said, 'You might as well be vice chairman of the board,' so I kept that title, too."

So what exactly does Auerbach do these days?

"My role depends on how I feel. I'll come up with an idea for a trade, or I'll scout a player, and I'll call Paul and tell him. After all, it's his money on the line he should be consulted. I don't want him to read in the paper about things we've done. That's how I always did it with Walter Brown back when he owned the team.

"I watch a lot of games on TV and go to as many as I can there's no substitute for being there. You can study a guy's body movements and mannerisms, things you don't get on TV. I want to be able to discuss as many players as I can with our scouts."

Happily, Auerbach works well with Celtics GM Chris Wallace and coach Jim O'Brien. It was different with Pitino. Red is reluctant to criticize Pitino "he was a nice guy and a damn good coach," he says but it's obvious he won't be sending Rick a Christmas card.

"Paul gave him total control and then regretted it," Auerbach said. "Most of these guys who try to do it all do too much they have this ego. It was frustrating for me. He would listen to what I said and then wouldn't do it. He didn't take advantage of my knowledge."

It's understandable if Pitino, a success in most of his previous coaching stops, didn't want to operate in Auerbach's shadow understandable but not very smart. That's the NBA equivalent of an NFL coach having George Halas at his elbow or a baseball manager sitting next to Connie Mack and then telling the old guy to shut up. Red is just as much a Living Legend in pro hoops, although I'm sure he hates the idea of dwelling in the past. He has been involved with the NBA since its start in 1946 as coach of a team called the Washington Capitols that played at rundown Uline Arena in Northeast.

His Caps were good, too. They went 49-11 during the 1946-47 season but lost the NBA Finals in five games to an outfit called the Chicago Stags when, Red insisted, "we got the worst hosing [by the officials] I've ever seen." Grudges apparently die harder than memories.

O'Brien's Celtics have been doing well this season with two players, Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce, who rank among the league's leading scorers and give indication of joining the club's lengthy list of superdupers: Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, John Havlicek, Sam and K.C. Jones, Dave Cowens, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, et al. But help is still needed, Auerbach said, for Boston to survive deep into the playoffs.

"We're two players away a point guard and a center," he said. "But Jim O'Brien has done a great job. When you have players like Walker and Pierce, you build around them. They're both captains, and they take the job seriously."

As does Auerbach, of course. Despite all the funny stories, Red has always taken basketball seriously, ever since the days when he played at George Washington University and then coached at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the District. You don't earn the right to smoke all those victory cigars (lifetime NBA coaching record 1,037-549 for 20 seasons) by clowning around.

And as with every successful person in sports, winning makes you want more of it. Auerbach has seen 16 NBA championships as coach or general manager, the last in 1986, but I suspect another one might mean more to him than any since the first in 1957.

"Retire? You don't ever retire from this," Red said. "As long as my mental faculties are in good shape, I can do a good job."

Pat Williams, senior vice president of the Orlando Magic, recently called Auerbach "a national treasure and certainly an NBA treasure."

Well, who's arguing?

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