- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

“The first one is always the hardest and it’s also the most satisfying.”

— Red Auerbach, 2006

The balding coach with the fringes of red hair had to feel frustrated and worried as he sat on the home bench at steamy Boston Garden on the afternoon of April 13, 1957.

Red Auerbach had coached in the NBA for all 11 seasons of its existence without a championship to show for it. Now his Boston Celtics were only one game away, but ultimate success was hardly assured.

The Celtics and St. Louis Hawks were tied with three victories each in the best-of-seven NBA Finals, if anybody outside Beantown and the Big Muddy cared. The league was strictly small time then, with franchises in outposts like Fort Wayne, Ind., and Rochester, N.Y. On the scale of major professional sports events, it registered a tiny beep — or maybe a peep.

Of course, Auerbach cared very much. In the league’s first season of 1946-47 — it was called the Basketball Association of America then — he had led the Washington Capitols to a 49-11 regular-season only to see them self-destruct in the finals against the underdog Chicago Stags. Two years later, he left after a contract dispute with owner Mike Uline.

Now, at 39, Auerbach was in his seventh season coaching the Celtics. Despite the presence of star guard Bob Cousy and other talented players, the team had never reached the finals. Over his first six seasons, Boston went 241-181 during the regular season — fair but not much more. In those days, nobody mentioned the word “genius” in connection with Auerbach.

Suddenly during that frigid Boston winter, matters changed dramatically. After drafting superb rebounder and defender Bill Russell from the University of San Francisco the previous spring, the Celtics rolled to a 44-28 regular-season record, best in the four-team Eastern Division, and swept the Syracuse Nats in the division playoffs.

The Hawks were a tough opponent to figure. With All-Star forward Bob Pettit and talented guards Slater Martin and Jack McMahon, the Hawks inexplicably stumbled through a 34-38 regular season — good nonetheless for a three-way first-place tie in the pathetic Western Division. Then St. Louis got hot, sweeping the Minneapolis Lakers in the division finals and giving the heavily favored Celtics all they could handle through the first six games of the NBA Finals. But the Celtics had something of a secret weapon.

“We liked to play together, we liked to win and we liked to have fun,” Auerbach said nearly a half-century later. “You always hear a lot about chemistry, but we really had it. We’d take summer vacations together. We’d visit each other’s houses. We were really a family.”

In addition to Russell, who blocked shots and crashed the boards like a giant avenging angel, the “family” had other stars whose names would endure in fond memory for many Celtics fans. Tom Heinsohn, a rookie from Holy Cross, played with the savvy and coolness of a veteran. Veteran Jim Loscutoff was an effective enforcer in the paint. And Frank Ramsey started the tradition of the Celtics’ sixth man — meaning a guy who could come off the bench and take over a game.

The finals had been bizarre. The Hawks stunned the Celtics by winning the opener in overtime at Boston Garden. With the teams even at one victory apiece, Auerbach slugged Hawks owner Ben Kerner before Game 3 in St. Louis in a dispute over whether one of the baskets was too low.

“He ran out saying I was up to my old tricks and calling me every name in the book, so I hit him with a left hook — boom!” Auerbach recalled. “[The NBA] fined me [$300], but I said I wouldn’t pay it because I was right.”

Now it was time for Game 7, and a national television audience — rare for the NBA in that era — saw a genuine thriller with 36 lead changes and 28 ties. Two free throws by Pettit in the final seconds sent the game into overtime. Then Jack Coleman of the Hawks hit a basket at its finish to force a second OT.

At courtside, Auerbach frowned and fidgeted on the bench, an unlit “victory cigar” bulging in his coat pocket. The Celtics were so close yet so far away.

Finally, with two seconds left in the second bonus period, Loscutoff sank two free throws to give the Celtics a 125-123 lead. Hawks player-coach Alex Hannum called a timeout and set up a play for Pettit. Hannum fired a long inbounds pass that ricocheted off the backboard and into Pettit’s hands, but his shot bounced off the rim as the buzzer sounded.

Celtics fans stormed the parquet court. Auerbach lit up. A dynasty had its beginnings.

One year later, the Hawks gained revenge by winning the finals in six games, but then the Celtics hit their stride by collecting eight straight titles before Auerbach retired in the spring of 1966 and anointed Russell as his successor — and the first black head coach in major pro sports.

Then the longtime District resident and former coach at two local high schools settled in for nearly a half-century as a certifiable sports legend. And when he died of a heart attack Saturday at age 89, Red Auerbach was more than just a Celtics icon. For many around the country, he was the face of the NBA — complete with a big, fat cigar stuck in a corner of his mouth.

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