- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

The nets had hardly descended after Phil Jackson's ninth NBA championship last week before he was talking about collecting No. 10 and breaking his tie with the heretofore unapproachable Red Auerbach. Which was fair enough because Red has been thinking about Phil Jackson, too.

"Records are made to be broken," Auerbach suggested in his Northwest Washington office this week, offering a rare cliche. "He can flat-out coach. His teams win too many close games and come from behind too often for it to be luck."

OK, so winning may not be luck but what about finding the likes of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant on your side (not to mention an executive VP named Jeanie Buss who happens to be the owner's daughter and your significant other). With help like that, Gar Heard might have snatched a title.

Puff! "I like to kid Phil that he really knows how to pick his spots," Red said, grinning around his cigar of the moment. "Heck, when I was coaching, we had to teach and develop our players."

Which Auerbach did very well. Perhaps a reintroduction is in order for younger fans. His Celtics won eight consecutive NBA titles from 1959 to 1966 and nine in 10 seasons. His 1,037 wins (and as many "victory cigars") was a record until Lenny Wilkens surpassed it some years ago. Only two other team leaders enjoyed that sort of sustained success, and their names are John Wooden and Casey Stengel.

Once again the Celtics' president at age 84 after a lamentable period when Rick Pitino tried to handle every basketball job in Beantown except jumping center, Auerbach is right in the middle of today's NBA as well as being a living, smoke-blowing legend. And that, of course, presents him with the same problem confronting every NBA team this side of La La Land: How do you stop Shaq, or at least reduce him to the status of a mortal?

This is more than an academic matter to Auerbach. Jim O'Brien's Celtics, anchored nicely by Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, improved from 36-46 to 49-33 during the regular season and gave the Nets a fierce fight in the Eastern Conference finals. "We're an impact center away from getting to the finals," Red said. "You don't have to give us Shaq or Tim Duncan," Red said generously. "Just somebody like Vlade Divac."

Vlade, get packing. Besides, Boston's a much more interesting place than Sacramento.

But seriously, Red, how would you stop Shaq, without using illegal substances?

Puff! "On defense, you'd need to play it by the seat of your pants. Double-team him part of the time, single-team him part of the time, leave him alone part of the time. We never had anybody on the Celtics that opponents double-teamed, but we won games when [Elgin] Baylor scored 61 points and when Wilt [Chamberlain] scored 50 a couple of times. And Wilt did that against Bill Russell, the greatest defensive player ever. You can't stop great players all the time."

And how would you stop Shaq from destroying your offense?

Puff!

Some questions even Red Auerbach can't answer.

One of Jackson's biggest challenges next winter will be to keep his three-time champions motivated. At times, the Lakers appeared to be sleepwalking through the regular season and playoffs, although Shaq and Kobe covered up a multitude of such sins. Auerbach was the master of keeping his players motivated, and the NBA's relatively meager salaries in those days helped.

"I usually didn't do too much talking during the playoffs, because the guys were sick of hearing my voice," he said. "But one year, Frank Ramsey gave a very brief speech in the locker room: 'Win and you get $10,000 [as a playoff share]; lose and you get $5,000.' In those days, that was real motivation."

And how did Red impart his two cents' worth?

"After the season, I'd say, 'You're a member of the greatest basketball team in the world, so act like it.' In the fall, I'd say, 'Did you have a good summer everybody looking up to you and all? Now it's time to tighten your belt and get in shape because they're coming after you.'"

Everybody connected with the Celtics knew Auerbach was in charge, but he didn't belabor the point. When you're really the boss, you don't have to keep reminding people how tough you are. Jackson operates the same way, which should send a message to younger coaches at all levels.

"Some coaches fine players $500 if they're five minutes late to practice that's [bird droppings]," Red said. "In 20 years, I never fined anybody. The players did that to themselves; if you were late, it might cost you a nickel per minute. I mean, what difference does it make if a practice starts at 10 or 10:05 c'mon."

After nearly half a century operating in Boston though his permanent home has been in D.C. since he attended George Washington before World War II Auerbach is a Celtics fan as well as icon. As such, the team's return to the top of the NBA might mean nearly as much as all those earlier titles. After all, Shaq has to retire sooner or later.

"And when we get back to the top, we'll become the most popular team in the NBA," Red said. "There's just something about the name and the way we won. People relate to us."

Will it happen again?

Puff!


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