The thing about Red Auerbach is that he remained relevant. It's a neat trick to pull off in the sports world where guys who hang around for a long time eventually get treated like the crazy uncle from Ipswich.
Red, who died of a heart attack at 89 on Saturday night, had some of that crazy-uncle in him, to be sure. He growled and grumped his way through life, immune to irony, seeing the world in blacks and whites and no grays. I interviewed him on, oh, 37 different occasions and had to re-introduce myself each time; I'm sure that, had I stopped an interview to use the bathroom, I would've had to re-introduce myself upon re-entry. I was around a lot during the Bird Era, but that wasn't the same as being there in the '50s and '60s, when Red ran the Green and the Green ran the NBA.
It was like that with anyone who wasn't in the inner sanctum to which Red held the key. After he hired Dave Gavitt to run Boston's basketball operations in the summer of 1990, Red did a television interview during which he was asked about the Celtics' still unresolved head coaching situation. "I'll hear from -- What's-his name, Dave -- about it," he told a broadcaster.
Even by 1985, the year I began covering the league (the Celtics' last championship season by the way), Red was spending much of his time in Washington, and by my reckoning was a titular figure only, iconic but ultimately inconsequential. Not the case. I still remember the excitement in Kevin McHale's voice before a preseason practice. "Hey, Red's here today!" You could get McHale to goof on almost anybody at any time, but he had only the most respectful things to say about Red.
It was the same with all the Celtics, Larry Bird included. Bird always had (still has, even though he wears designer suits as the Indiana Pacers' president of basketball operations) a kind of blue-collar resistance to bosses. He didn't snuggle up to owners or team execs. But when Red came around, Bird always treated him with deference. I can still see them huddled together after practice, Bird leaning over and laughing as Red gestured with his cigar, at times, in the later years, unlit.
There was always an attempt around Celtic Land to sell the idea that Red was involved in every decision, even into the 1990s. That wasn't the case. Red was a guy who had bamboozled the rest of the league for years with his knack for recognizing talent and motivating his guys, and he simply didn't have the patience to sit in his office and study, say, the ramifications of the salary cap. But he was consulted on major issues, for, on certain matters, there is nothing that beats seat-of-the-pants instincts; for over three decades, Red's were as good as anyone's.
An outsider can only guess, ultimately, what the latter-day Celtics got from this man who won his first championship when cities like Fort Wayne and Rochester and Syracuse had pro franchises. But I think it was a sense of bravado. Red never lost it. He walked in a building -- any building -- and it was 1957 all over again and he was going to smirk at you, turn his boys loose, kick your ass, then light a victory cigar in your face. His self-confidence was contagious, and if the current Celtics weren't rolling over the opposition like the old Celtics did, well, their feeling was: Red is still here and we just might do it again.
Red is not there anymore and, already, the Celtics -- and the game itself -- feels a little less special.