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The Green loved Red

Former players mourn loss of Celtics' 'godfather'

Posted: Sunday October 29, 2006 1:15AM; Updated: Sunday October 29, 2006 1:20AM
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Senator Edward Kennedy said Red's
Senator Edward Kennedy said Red's "legacy transcends the Celtics and basketball."
Manny Millan/SI
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BOSTON (AP) -- Through 16 NBA titles and more than half a century, no one meant more to the Boston Celtics than Red Auerbach.

The coach who lit up cigars to celebrate an unprecedented nine championships. The general manager who acquired Hall of Famers Bill Russell, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Larry Bird. The team's president when it won its league-record 16th title, in 1986, and when he died of a heart attack Saturday at the age of 89.

"He is the godfather of all the Celtics," former player and coach Chris Ford said.

But he was more than that.

"Nobody has had as much impact on a sport as Red Auerbach had on the game of basketball. He was a pioneer of the NBA," said Tommy Heinsohn, a Hall of Fame player in Boston before becoming a Celtics coach and broadcaster. "He left his philosophy of winning championships, playing hard and playing as a team with several generations of players. ... The game of basketball will never see anyone else like him."

Arnold Auerbach was born in Brooklyn in 1917, and had already coached two professional teams when he took over the Celtics in 1950. He won an unprecedented nine titles -- Phil Jackson has since tied him -- including eight in a row before he stepped down in 1966.

Auerbach pulled the strings that brought seven more championships to Boston, and maintained a presence as the Celtics president and patriarch over the last 20 years. "Our ownership group feels the highlight of becoming owners is clearly the chance to have known and worked with Red," owner Wyc Grousbeck said Saturday.

Auerbach received the U.S. Navy's Lone Sailor Award on Wednesday at a ceremony in Washington, where he lived. Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, who knew Auerbach since 1950, was with him.

"I think Arnold was an absolute giant in the field," the former Celtics point guard said Saturday. "I have been around a lot of competitive people but his commitment to winning was absolute nothing was more important. He was relentless and produced the greatest basketball dynasty so far that this country has ever seen and certainly that the NBA has ever seen."

With Cousy passing the ball around, Auerbach introduced a fast-paced game that made the young league more exciting -- and popular. In racially combustible Boston, he hired the NBA's first black coach and fielded its first all-black starting five.

"He did so many things to help improve the game," said Bill Sharman, who played for Auerbach in Boston and went on to become coach and general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers. "He was a coach who went out of his way to help his players. ... Besides being such a great coach, he was also a great friend and he will be truly missed."

U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy said Auerbach's "legacy transcends the Celtics and basketball," whether it was helping out on a political cause or visiting the senator's son in the hospital.

"He was the gold standard in coaching and in civic leadership, and he set an example that continues today," Kennedy said. "More than being a legendary coach and Boston institution, Red was a person of the highest caliber with a heart and generosity that knew no bounds. ... With every whistle that blows for the Boston Celtics, Red's spirit is celebrated and his memory cherished. He was loved and never will be forgotten."

Auerbach's failing health put a scare into the Celtics and their fans last year, when he spent much of August visiting hospitals for tests and an undisclosed surgical procedure. But he made it to Boston for opening night and held court with the media before the game.

"I'm here. That's what counts," he said at the 2005 opener. "I've been to, oh, about 50 of them. It's always a great thrill, it really is."

Grousbeck said that Auerbach was preparing to attend the team's Nov. 1 opener. Instead, the Celtics will dedicate the season to him.

The city of Boston erected a statue of Auerbach on his 68th birthday in 1985, placing him on a park bench, holding a cigar, near historic Faneuil Hall. Kris Liakos, 24, stopped by to take a picture with the statue after seeing the news of Auerbach's death on television.

"The statue's been here since I was a kid," the 24-year-old Celtics fan said. "That's the kind of thing that happens to somebody when they die, but he's been sitting on this bench for 20 years. That's what he meant to this town."

Down the street at the TD Banknorth Garden, fans watching the Bruins play the Ottawa Senators could spy the 16 NBA banners hanging from the rafters, along with the No. 2 the Celtics retired in Auerbach's honor.

"When you think of the Celtics, you think of Red Auerbach," 46-year-old Dana Letiecq said after the hockey game. "That's the bottom line."

Joe O'Leary brought his 13-year-old son, Mark, to the game and to the Auerbach display at the new Garden's sports museum.

"I don't smoke many cigars, but whenever I do I think of Red," the elder O'Leary said.

"Light one more up for Red," said his brother-in-law, Mike Bohan.

Those titles came in the Boston Garden, a beloved building that was shuttered with much sentimentality in 1995 to make way for what is now called the TD Banknorth Garden. But Auerbach was stung by a different emotion after watching the Celtics' final game in the old building, a playoff loss to the Orlando Magic.

"[Expletive] the building," Auerbach said. "We lost a ballgame."

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