Norm enters the bar, brandishing a cigar, and walks past a table where CARLA is delivering a round of beers to TED WILLIAMS, JOHN L. SULLIVAN, HARRY AGGANIS, BOBBY ORR, FRANCIS OUIMET and DOUG FLUTIE.
COACH (behind the bar): What's with the cigar, Nahmie?
NORM (taking seat next to CLIFF): I wanted to salute Red Auerbach.
CLIFF: And if Nahmie just raised another beer, who would know it was for anything?
January 14, 1985
COACH: Oh yeah, Sam went to the celebration at the Garden.
DIANE (approaching the bar with a tray): One white wine spritzer and a sherry rocks, Coach.
NORM: Didn't Sam say not to serve Back Bay Yuppies anymore, or he'd lose his Perrier license?
DIANE: Very funny. I'll have you know that these Yuppies, so-called, are both associate members of the Museum of Fine Arts—and we certainly need some culture in this déclassé, Philistine town. Last week, all of Boston was carrying on about that little boy over there, just because he could throw a football, and now, a...coach!
COACH: But, Diane, I, I—
DIANE: Not you, Coach.
NORM (rising): Listen, Diane. Don't talk to me about art. Sometimes an athlete—like those guys over at that table—can be just as much a piece of work as a painting. And Red Auerbach has been even more than that because he's the only person in America in our lifetime who ever gave a city a whole museum, a Museum of Fine Sweaty Arts, all by himself.
CLIFF: Beautiful, Nahmie.
COACH: Look, Sam has a cigar, too. Must be a sale on.
SAM (an arm around Diane): O.K., Diane, I want you to go in for Nellie, post up, play D, fill the lanes with Hondo, get the ball to Cooz, pick for Heiny, screen for Satch and help Russ off the boards. (He slaps her on the rear.) Go!
DIANE: Oh! One hour at that raucous arena!
—with apologies to Cheers
It's been a pressing time for deifiers in Boston. Hardly had the celestial chariots returned from the heavens, whence the seraphim and cherubim had accompanied young Mr. Flutie, than did the devotional services for the venerable Arnold Auerbach commence, honoring him for the 35 years he has given to roundball in Beantown.
This extraordinary weekend celebration, which included a coronation at Boston Garden, a Celtics oldtimers game, a $500-a-plate dinner—all of which grossed the first $500,000 or so for the Red Auerbach Foundation to help expand recreational opportunities for Boston's children—also featured an original song written for Auerbach, two specials on local TV, endless newspaper paeans (THE AMAZING AUERBACH!!! headlined the Herald), the naming of the NBA Coach of the Year award as the Red Auerbach Trophy, the presenting of a lifetime free meal ticket to his favorite Chinese restaurant ("Is there any other kind?" Red would ask) and even the commissioning of a life-size statue of Auerbach that will be placed downtown, smack in the middle of Quincy Market. "This is not just ego talking," Red says. "But this is the biggest honor of my life: a statue while you're still living."
What more homage could possibly be paid to Auerbach—good grief, it has been almost two decades since he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. But, truth be told, there has been no franchise like the Celtics in American sports and no guardian of franchise ever like Auerbach. Old age even wore down the teams of Connie Mack and George Halas; 35 years after Auerbach arrived in a quaint outpost where many high schools didn't even have basketball teams, where on occasion Auerbach had to dig into his own pockets to pay bills for deadbeat owners, where he has built and rebuilt three championship units and won 15 world titles as a coach, general manager and, now, as president, his Celtics are still the champs, the team to beat and the team to see, a synonym for class and style.
The Celtics are different, this commemoration was different, but the man remains the same. It was only a year ago that Auerbach, in the middle of his seventh decade, stormed onto the floor, going after the 6'10", 260-pound Moses Malone during a preseason game. "You sonuvabitch, you never change," Billy Cunningham, Malone's coach on the Philadelphia 76ers, said affectionately the next day.
"You think I'm going to let you take over my building?" Red roared.
When he whipped his star player, Larry Bird, at tennis a couple of years ago, Auerbach snapped, "How could you let a 65-year-old man beat you?" And he never did let on to Bird that he'd pulled a groin muscle midway through. "They don't treat me like a different generation," Auerbach says. "I'm still fighting all the time."
Allegedly having retired as day-to-day boss last July, a month after major surgery for kidney stones, Auerbach roils at his desk, blinking at the unaccustomed sunlight of a new eighth-story office, after a lifetime of I working in the Stygian gloom of 5 the Garden. "I never had a view before," he says. Jan Volk, his protégé, the new G.M., comes by with the '84 championship watch. Good lord, how many championship watches pass before his mind's eye? But Auerbach has a new idea. "Listen, now don't argue with me, Jan, but I want the engraving on the clasp, where you can see it," he says. "What's the use of having it on the back? You ever met anybody who says, 'Let me take off my watch and show you my engraving?' " Volk shrugs and departs.
"There's always so much that can occupy you," Red says, "the business, the marketing. But don't ever neglect the product. And if you've got a good product, and the players care for you, then you've gat a fighting chance."
That's what he said: a fighting chance.
And, amid all the reverence paid the man and his team last week, two bits stood out. There was K.C. Jones, the present Celtic coach, saying simply: "If it weren't for Red Auerbach, I wouldn't be anything." And there were Bailey Howell and Pete Maravich, two stars who came to Boston late in their careers, reminiscing. "Well, you were lucky, Bailey," Maravich said. "You got four years as a Celtic. I only got a few games at the very end."
They raised Auerbach's banner—a symbolic No. 2 (Walter Brown, the team's sainted first owner, long ago had been granted No. 1)—on Friday evening, before a Celtics-Knicks game, and it was by far the most precious part of the jubilee. First, the alumni paraded, decade by decade, and alphabetically within each decade, except if you were Bob Cousy or Bill Russell or Bird, and then as the best of your decade, you came last. The oldtimers arrived to the tune of With a Little Help from My Friends and the incumbent Celtics with The Best of Times—surely the first time an athletic unit has been serenaded with a song associated with transvestites. Then Auerbach was ushered in with an original composition, Light It Up, written and performed by Terry Cashman, of Talkin' Baseball fame. Red then trooped the line to Night and Day (his favorite song), and turned the Garden on its heart when he got to old No. 6 and suddenly found himself in a bear hug, the lean, bearded man lifting the short, bald one high.
How dear Russell was, what a sweetheart. Though Russell vowed never to come back to Boston Garden on a ceremonial occasion, he came back for Red. "You see," he said, "Red and I were always friends. They always wrote that it was mutual respect. But it was much more than that. I liked Red, and he liked me. And we still do."
Russell was saying this at a buffet before the Garden rites. Suddenly, Auerbach swept in. Russell greeted him, and in his most melodramatic tone, rhapsodized, "Red, I just want to tell you one thing."
"Yes?" Red swooned back.
"I'm already sick of all this," Russell cackled. But then, when Auerbach had passed out of earshot, Russell paid him the ultimate compliment. "Very simply," he said, "I don't feel I'd have been nearly as effective with any other man who ever coached a basketball team."
Russell coached against Auerbach the next afternoon in the Celtics' intramural, which included 14 players whose numbers have been retired. Only Bill Sharman, who has been ill, and Don Nelson, who was occupied coaching the Milwaukee Bucks, were absent.
Tom Heinsohn, 50, opened up by sinking a nifty, long hook, which was one of his staples when he played for real. Howell, 48, was the most impressive genuine oldtimer (under-40s should be handicapped weight-for-age in. all oldtimer competitions), while John Havlicek scored 20 points and seemed like one of those ageless old frisky dogs who are passed off, straight-faced, by their owners as possessing some incredible number of "dog years." Havlicek would be 308 if he were a wolfhound, 44 if he were a human being.
Rather than by athletic feats, the exhibition was most enriched by classic Auerbachian abrasiveness and chicanery, on both Celtic sides. Red drew a T, while the Russells protested nonstop, after Heinsohn—"giving my best Groucho Marx"—sneaked behind the benches to take a long layup pass, only to have the basket disallowed for such knavery. "Half the fun," Havlicek said, "was to see Red suffer through the antics he taught us, our throwing them back into his face." At the end, pulling out all the stops, Auerbach went into a four-corners delay and was—Scout's honor—actually making strategic substitutions with as little as two seconds left. His club won 93-90, but failed to cover.
Even now, no one, not even Auerbach, can completely explain what has made the Celtics so special. As the old sixth man, Frank Ramsey, mused the other night, looking around at his colleagues, "The only thing we ever all shared was frugality. Never met a Celtic who picked up a check fast."
Did Auerbach instinctively draft winners or did the Celtic experience alchemize mere mortals? "He never made any pretensions about treating players the same," Russell says. "In fact, he treated everybody very differently. Basically, Red treats people as they perceive themselves. What he did best was to create a forum, but one where individuals wouldn't be confined by the system. And he understood the chemistry of a team. People tend to think teamwork is some mysterious force. It isn't. It can, really, be manufactured, and he knew how to do that, to serve each player's needs.
"And people always say you need to know how to win. But that's not enough if you want to keep winning. You also have to know why you win. Red always knew that, too."
Anyway—and always—Auerbach has been the Celtic constant. Mystique? "When Arnold steps down," Cousy says, still, alone, calling him by his square name, "I think the Celtics will then be susceptible to what happens to other teams."
David Stern, the NBA commissioner, who grew up (poor thing) a Knick fan, rooting desperately against Auerbach's green monster, says: "At some point, a certain company, a certain law firm, a certain team becomes an institution within its own universe, and the loss of no one individual can damage it. Red Auerbach made the Boston Celtics an institution."
By that Stern meant that the Celtics could recover from the departures of mere superstars—Cousy, Russell, Havlicek, Dave Cowens, whoever. Auerbach is so much one with the team himself that it won't be until after he finally leaves Boston that anybody will know whether the Celtics really have been an institution. It may well be that Red has only borrowed them for four or five decades. He has a fighting chance to be an institution himself.