- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

BOSTON — More than a decade ago, a reporter nervously approached Red Auerbach at a Boston Celtics practice wanting to say that his mother and the sometimes gruff Hall of Famer had been high school classmates.

Auerbach listened with a serious look on his face. Then he smiled and chatted pleasantly about the old days at Eastern District High in Brooklyn, N.Y.

That side of Auerbach conflicted with his public image of a straight-talking, cigar-puffing guy who delighted in tweaking opponents verbally and outsmarting them in trades. His players, though, loved him as much as he loved the Chinese food that was a staple of his diet.

At a Celtics game in 1999, Hall of Famer Bill Russell explained why he decided to succeed Auerbach as coach for the 1966-67 season.

“That’s the one time I could make sure I have a coach I like as much as I like you — maybe more,” Russell recalled with his characteristic cackle.

Auerbach, 89, died of a heart attack Saturday outside his home in the District. The Celtics plan to dedicate the season to him.

Auerbach’s Celtics won nine championships before he became general manager and then president and led them to seven more. But there were sad times.

University of Maryland star Len Bias, one of Auerbach’s counselors at a summer basketball camp, died two days after Auerbach drafted him with the second overall pick in 1986. Rick Pitino stripped Auerbach of the president’s title when he became coach in 1997. Auerbach’s wife, Dorothy, died in 2000 and his brother Zang, a former staff artist for the Washington Evening Star, in 2004.

Still, Auerbach kept advising the team wisely. But as age took its toll, he showed up at Celtics games using a cane. Last April, he appeared at one in a wheelchair.

He had planned to attend Wednesday’s season opener in Boston on the 60th anniversary of his first pro victory as coach of the Washington Capitols. It would have been his 57th season with the Celtics.

“To this day, he’s the sharpest mind I’ve ever met,” team owner Wyc Grousbeck said last week.

Before last season’s opener, Auerbach traveled to Boston with one of his daughters and two doctors. He had been hospitalized just two months earlier, but he didn’t want to miss the game.

“I’ve been to, oh, about 50 of them,” he said at the time. “It’s always a great thrill, it really is.”

As his role in the organization diminished in the 1990s, Auerbach still watched from his seat in the loge, sometimes razzing the refs, always rooting for the Celtics players.

He commented to reporters on players — Paul Pierce is a future Hall of Famer, he said — and insisted the age of the young Celtics wasn’t a factor in the team’s performance as much as the absence of outstanding veterans.

Auerbach never was shy with his opinions. He said Phil Jackson, who matched his record nine NBA titles, was an outstanding coach but “picked his spots” in signing with outstanding teams.

But Auerbach wasn’t afraid to make jokes at his own expense. When he was honored 3 years ago with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sports Museum of New England, he told the adoring crowd, “Usually, these kind of affairs bore the [heck] out of me. I get fidgety.”

Then he reminisced for 20 minutes, entertaining the audience with a comic’s sense of timing.

Steve Grogan, the former New England Patriots quarterback, also was honored at the event. He couldn’t wait to visit his family members the next day so he could deliver this message: “I was at the same event with Red Auerbach. I’m going to be a hero in town.”

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