NBA CHAMPIONSHIP : WHAT’S RED, GREEN AND GOES PUFF? : Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire: Auerbach
All that is endearing or infuriating about Red Auerbach, depending upon your opinion of this famous curmudgeon, could be seen two weeks ago in New York at the NBA draft lottery.
On stage, which is where Auerbach always wants to be, he nearly stole the show--and the top pick. Auerbach, brandishing his customary cigar and smirk, did not sit silently in front of the cameras as did the executives representing the other six lottery teams. It was clear that, win or lose, Auerbach once again was not going to be gracious.
As always, Red was determined to make an impression on people. He blew cigar smoke at the other general managers. He turned to the crowd and held up five fingers when the Celtics were assured of at least the fifth overall pick. As the drawing continued, Red raised four fingers, then three, then two. By this time, Auerbach’s face was beaming as brightly as the lighted end of his cigar.
On this day, though, Red and his Boston Celtics finished second to Philadelphia. But Auerbach did not admit defeat or snuff out the stogie.
“I’m scared to death of the man,” said Pat Williams, Philadelphia’s general manager. “He fleeces everybody in the league. Just after we won it, Red, in his own gracious manner, leaned over and growled, ‘If you don’t take (Brad) Daugherty, we do.’ Now, I’ve got to figure out what that means.”
The first thing you see when walking into Arnold (Red) Auerbach’s office on the eighth floor of an old office building that connects to crusty, old Boston Garden is a life-size, cut-out poster of Auerbach smiling out from behind a smoldering cigar.
Next thing you know, the real Auerbach steps from behind his desk and strikes a similar pose. It is a look meant to impress but, physically, Auerbach, 68, is not an imposing figure.
The man whose accomplishments in half a century of professional basketball seem larger than life is considerably smaller in person. Auerbach shuffles around his office with cigar in hand as if impersonating Groucho Marx. Nearly all of his suits are either brown or tan polyester, so he sort of blends into the furniture. And, since his hair has been gray for years, there’s no longer a reason to call him Red.
But, after spending only a short time with Auerbach, his stature grows and you can’t help but be impressed by the aura of dominance he possesses. No other man has been as successful in pro basketball as Auerbach.
He won 11 NBA championships as coach of the Celtics, four more as the team’s general manager and now is shooting for his first as a team president.
Through the years, players such as Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and Larry Bird come and go, but Auerbach remains. And Red, even after slowing down in recent years, has been more than just a caretaker. Through shrewd trades and forward thinking, he has built championship teams, maintained them, rebuilt when necessary and then maintained them again.
You can write books--and, as a matter of fact, Red has--about how he romanced the drafting rights to Russell away from St. Louis in 1956. Or how he stole Havlicek with the last pick in the first round of the 1962 draft. Or how he drafted Bird as a “junior eligible” in 1978. Or how he got Danny Ainge from the Toronto Blue Jays in 1981. Or. . . .
To his many admirers, Auerbach is, simply, a sporting legend. A bronze statue of Auerbach, cigar in one hand and a rolled up program in the other, sits not far from other sculptures of Revolutionary War heroes at the Quincy Market area in downtown Boston. One former Celtic says that everyone considers Auerbach “lovably arrogant.”
But outside of Boston, people leave out the “lovably” part. The thinking is that it may be all right to win, even as often as the Celtics have over the years, but Auerbach refuses to do it graciously.
“I don’t really think I’m arrogant,” Auerbach said with a smirk. “I really don’t. I think sometimes I get sarcastic, which is part of my humor. I don’t do it to the point of becoming a Don Rickles or anything. I’m sometimes sarcastic, sometimes argumentative, sometimes confident. Arrogant? Nah.”
Auerbach was puffing one of the six cigars he smokes a day.
His ritual of lighting the infamous Victory Cigar on the bench when he coached and, now, in his private box as president has always irked opponents and other Celtic haters. It has been construed by some as a blatant form of gloating.
More than a few columnists, one even in Boston, wrote that Auerbach probably choked on his cigar last spring as he watched the Lakers dethrone the Celtics at the Garden in Game 6 of the NBA final series. Opponents no doubt wish that, just once, he’d light an exploding cigar.
“Let me clear up that thing about victory cigars,” Auerbach said. “It started a long time ago (the early ‘50s) in defiance. A lot of those coaches smoked cigarettes on the bench near the end of a game, but I was a cigar smoker. So, instead of yelling in the final minutes of an easy win, I’d light a cigar. That’s the time to relax.
“People started complaining, and the commissioner told me I had to stop. I said, what the hell is this, an airplane? Do you mean to tell me it’s OK for these old-timers like Joe Lapchick to smoke cigarettes, but no cigar for me? I kept doing it.”
But, during the Celtics’ string of 11 championships in 13 seasons in the ‘50s and ‘60s, didn’t the Victory Cigar infuriate people?
“Sure it did,” Auerbach says, smiling. “But I’m not concerned about guys being mad. They’ll bitch about the cigar, bitch about this and that. They’d do everything to try and disrupt us.”
Just as the cigar seems an extension of Red’s face, a gruff and antagonistic manner is part of a persona that Auerbach has conceived. You get the impression he likes being called a shrewd curmudgeon or worse. When a player agent once said Auerbach was inflexible, Auerbach took it as a compliment.
Tom Heinsohn, a former Celtic player and coach and now a CBS analyst, may have been exaggerating only slightly when he said: “Everybody in the NBA hates Red.”
Heinsohn explains: “Red won so much--and still does--that people got jealous. And when he lost, he didn’t want you to think that you deserved to win.”
Milwaukee Buck Coach Don Nelson, who played for Auerbach in the late 1960s after being cut by the Lakers, said former Laker Coach Fred Shaus used to get unraveled by Auerbach’s barking and chomping on the cigar.
“Poor Freddy,” Nelson said. “He hated Red for lighting that cigar in his face. I mean, he hated him with a passion, especially when Red said things in the paper just to upset him. . . . Many times we’d be in the locker room listening to Fred go on and on about Auerbach. All of a sudden, it would be time to go out and we hadn’t even discussed our assignments. That’s what Red did to his head.”
Auerbach laughs at the story in a low, throaty tone that might be a result of too many cigars. He laughs even more heartily when the subject of referee abuse is brought up. Red, the coach, was the original ref-baiter.
“One time I made a statement that this one ref’s ambition in life is to work the game that would knock the Celtics out of the championship,” Auerbach said. “That was a pure psych job. And it worked. Where coaches today make their mistake is that they bitch on every play. I never did that. You got to pick your spots. The only time I argued was when I knew in my heart I was right.
“And you can ask Sid Borgia or Earl Strom or any old-time ref. I was always right.”
Most sports fans in Boston truly believe that Auerbach is always right and can do no wrong. Just like Ted Williams, John L. Sullivan and Bobby Orr--other local heroes.
“If you talk to 85 or 90% of Bostonians, they’ve got nothing but positive things to say about him,” said Clipper Coach Don Chaney, another former Celtic and Auerbach supporter. “Red has an air about him. He puts himself on a pedestal. He’s built this Celtic family and made himself the father.”
Those in this supposed Celtic family do not even pretend that Auerbach is the kind of affable father who’ll bounce you on his knee and tell stories of the old days.
At least twice a week during the season, a former Celtic will call or visit Auerbach. From the way they tell it, it is not an altogether pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Havlicek remembers the time a few years ago when he dropped by the Celtic office to look in on Auerbach. As a conversation piece, Havlicek brought along a cordless telephone he had recently purchased. Auerbach told Havlicek that, in the first place, he paid too much for this newfangled piece of machinery and also that he could never learn how to use it.
But Celtic players know that Auerbach usually is just blowing smoke.
“I still think it’s fun to sit and let Red tell you what to do and reminisce about the old times,” Nelson said. “It’s always, do it his way or not at all. I try to do it his way as much as I can.”
Most important to Auerbach is loyalty.
“If employers want their employees to be loyal, then they have to be, too,” Auerbach said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t trade a player or make moves to help the team. But as long as they are there, you treat them as people.
“If a guy does the best he can when he plays for us, whether he’s a substitute or a star, we do whatever we can to help him. I can name you all the coaches that played for me that, some way or another, I’ve helped get a job or keep one. Nobody’s ever played for us who’s had to buy a ticket to a game.”
One recent day, Auerbach’s secretary informed him that Sen. Edward Kennedy called and needed two tickets for the next game. Red told her to make sure the former players were taken care of first.
Heinsohn said: “Unlike pro basketball, nowadays when there is free agency and long-term contracts, you only had a one-year contract back when I played. Everybody on the team did. You could be gone any time. But Red assured us that if we did our job, you’d play your whole career in Boston.
“The guys liked that because they could buy a home and feel settled. Maybe that’s why the veterans weren’t afraid to train the rookies to eventually take their places.”
Like many families, there have been times when the Celtics struggled to make ends meet. But Auerbach, the father figure, never wavered.
Under original owner Walter Brown, who died in 1964, the Celtics had to skimp to get by. For a long time, the front office consisted of Auerbach, a secretary and a public relations director. What was the reason the Celtics first wore black basketball shoes? It was because they lasted longer than white shoes and didn’t need to be replaced as often.
Since Brown’s death, the Celtics have had 13 owners. As late as the mid-70s, Auerbach occasionally had to write personal checks to cover traveling expenses or office supplies.
“We didn’t have any money,” Auerbach said. “But when I used to tell a kid something, he could take it to the bank. You got to maintain your integrity, keep your word. If I told a kid he was going to get a bonus and the owner reneged, then I’d pay for it myself. You must establish credibility with your players and staff. Otherwise, it’ll catch up to you.”
Former and current Celtics say that if Auerbach makes it a point to hassle you about something or otherwise bother you, it must mean he likes you. If he ignores you, watch out.
“Red used to come by and flick his cigar ashes on my bare legs,” Nelson said. “I didn’t mind because it meant I still had a job.”
Jan Volk, who took over as general manager in 1984-85 when Auerbach was named president, says Red acts the same way to all his friends and associates.
“One thing Red does to me is spit on the floor of my office,” said Volk, laughing. “He knows I don’t like that, but that’s Red.”
If you’re a Celtic player, though, loyalty must be continually proven. Over the years, several players have been booted from the family for not living up to Auerbach’s code of honor.
For instance, Paul Silas, after playing on two championship teams in Boston, was abruptly traded to Denver after staging a holdout. Only after retiring as a player and becoming a coach, was Silas taken back into the Celtic family.
The most recent example is Cedric Maxwell, cast adrift to the Clippers last season after seven years as a starter in Boston.
Maxwell, who had never missed more than four games since his rookie season, had arthroscopic knee surgery in February of 1985 and was expected to be fully healthy by the playoffs. When Maxwell hobbled through the playoffs, Auerbach said Maxwell had not worked hard enough to rehabilitate his knee.
Maxwell, in turn, broke the Celtic code and publicly criticized Auerbach.
“It’s like, Red Auerbach is this legend and no one else can be right,” Maxwell said. “If Red says the sky’s green, then it’s green even though when you look outside it’s blue. Red’s always right.”
Auerbach later had his publisher take out every reference to Maxwell before his most recent instructional book went to print. They forgot, however, to take Maxwell’s name out of the index, where the numerous pages on which Maxwell was mentioned are listed.
“Unless you’ve done something terrible, you’ll be a part of the Celtic family forever,” Chaney said. “Maybe Red will take Max back into the family some day. I was the first and only Celtic ever to leave the team and jump to the ABA. They called me a turncoat. But a few years later, Red traded back for me. I considered that a compliment.”
Auerbach despises agents. Mal Graham was the first Celtic ever to bring an agent into Auerbach’s office. He was thrown out--bodily.
One of Auerbach’s concessions to the changing times is that he now tolerates agents. It should be noted, though, that both Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale recently negotiated contract extensions without using agents.
Auerbach: “I get mad when a guy who’s worth $500,000 comes in and his agent asks for $2 million. . . . I don’t insult the player and I don’t want to be insulted. No agent is going to tell me how good a ballplayer is. I watch the games. Unfortunately, a lot of these agents rip off these players. My advice to players is to let a bank handle their money. Or E.F. Hutton.”
When Red Auerbach talks trades, other general managers listen--and hold onto their wallets.
“We all start trembling when he picks up the phone,” Philadelphia’s Williams says. “In many cases, the Red Auerbach Fan Club could meet in a phone booth. But he’s done the job. It’s not happening with mirrors.”
Not all of Auerbach’s famous deals were made by Auerbach alone. Most recently, it was Volk who talked Auerbach into trading guard Gerald Henderson to Seattle before the 1984-85 season for the SuperSonics’ 1986 first-round draft pick. That pick, of course, was turned out to be the second overall in the lottery.
And it was Volk who did most of the work on last summer’s Maxwell-for-Bill Walton trade.
“It’s fine that Red gets the credit,” Volk said. “It’s like what somebody said to me on lottery day. Why aren’t you there with the other GMs? I said that Red’s the lucky one. He’s better at stuff like that.
“Red doesn’t make a lot of trade calls anymore. I do it. It works out well because Red is still very much involved and, it is true, other teams are wary to deal with him.”
In his day, Auerbach was a master trader. Most people know how Auerbach had the foresight in 1956 to trade Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagen for the rights to Russell. And they know how he coerced Phoenix to part with Dennis Johnson in 1983 for Rick Robey and two second-round draft picks.
But Auerbach’s favorite deals are the ones in which he can milk a trade for all he can. Charlie Scott, a multi-purpose guard, served as a good trading tool for Auerbach in the early 1970s.
In 1970, Auerbach drafted Scott in the seventh round after Scott had already committed to the ABA. Two years later, he traded the rights to Scott for Silas, who helped the Celtics win two titles. In 1975, the Celtics traded Paul Westphal for Scott, who was vital in Boston’s 1976 championship team. Finally, in 1978, Auerbach traded Scott to the Lakers to re-acquire Don Chaney.
“My whole theory about trading is that if you don’t look ahead, all of a sudden your whole team gets old together,” Auerbach said. “It happened to me in ’69 when Russell and Sam Jones retired. All of a sudden, you got no draft choices because you finish first all the time. So, you got to avoid that.
“I tried to draft one player a year who could fit in. Heinsohn. Satch Sanders. Sam Jones. . . . Then, you pick up a guy like Nelson off the waiver list. But you keep your core as long as you can.”
If Auerbach’s theories seem simplistic, why haven’t other teams followed?
“Because a lot of people don’t think the game is that simple,” Nelson said. “Red’s old philosophies still hold true today. I try to be as much like Red Auerbach as I can.”
Added Chaney: “As a player, I figured that there was a great deal of luck in all those deals Red made. But since I’ve become a coach, I know it’s all skill. He ahead of everyone. He believes he can swing any deal. He believes he can get whoever he wants, whatever he wants.”
When (if?) Red Auerbach retires, they should rope off his corner office with the unspectacular view of Causeway Street and turn it into a museum for Celtic fans.
Maybe they could attach a tape recording of Red’s musings on the back of that life-size poster. Since it might be decades before the musty odor of cigars fades, it would be like Red never left.
Photographs of Red with the Kennedys, Red with President Reagan, Red with Russell, Cousy and Bird line the walls. There are magazine covers, citations, framed newspaper accounts of past glories and knickknacks from a life full of adventure and travel.
In moments when he looks over these mementos, you can sense Auerbach softening.
“See these letter openers,” Auerbach says gruffly. “Collected those from all over. I used to give clinics all over the world, sponsored by the state department, and I’d get them from China, Egypt, everywhere.
“Here’s my first book I wrote, and I wrote it myself. This is the original. Nineteen fifty-two. Look, it’s 95 cents and a hardback . Here it is in Italian, Polish, Russian, Japanese. Here’s my favorite language, Burmese.
“Somebody sent me a clipping from when I played high school ball. Back in Washington. I scored 13 points in this game. That was a long time ago.”
Auerbach says he doesn’t like to reminisce because it makes it seem as if he’s not up to date.
Although not as involved in the daily decision-making as before, Auerbach still assists Volk in the big decisions.
Volk said: “If Red says do something, I’m more than likely going to do it. Red is president. On the other hand, though, a lot of work is done without Red. I think Red likes spending more time at home (in Washington) with his wife and granddaughter because he spent so much time working before.”
One thing Auerbach worries about is what to do if he ever retires.
“Red won’t tell you this, but I’ve had conversations with him about retirement,” Heinsohn said. “He’s beginning to ease out of the picture, but his whole being, his whole vitality is basketball. This is bothering him. What else would Red do?”
Reverting to his Auerbachian abrasiveness, Red says he’s not thinking about retirement.
“When it comes to the day when you live in the past and not keep up, that’s when you retire,” he says. “If I wanted to retire, I’d do it. But I didn’t. I’m still the president of this team.”
And still going strong, you can be assured. Red Auerbach will be in his usual seat in section one of the Garden, ready to take out that victory cigar if the Celtics win another championship.
Go ahead, Red. Light it up.