The New York Knickerbockers and Boston Celtics played to a standoff in the NBA's Atlantic Division last week, the Knicks winning at home despite a furious comeback by the Celts and Boston dissipating a big lead on its parquet floor before defeating New York in overtime. At week's end the Celtics were atop their division—just as they usually were until two seasons ago when the Knicks came on—with a 4�-game lead, and New York was finding, as so many teams had in the past, that when the season heads into its final two months playing even up with the Celtics is no way to catch them.
Today's Celts are a blend of smart, former champions—John Havlicek, Satch Sanders and Don Nelson—and good, fast youngsters, most notably Jo Jo White, Don Chaney and Dave Cowens (on cover with Walt Frazier
). Their coach is Tommy Heinsohn, the old Boston bomber who once wore one of the league's bristliest brush cuts. Now he has his hair styled by a woman named Margo, he has become a painter of note and he is writing a novel. As he stomps around the bench, which is his wont, his girth, his sneer and his vocabulary give him the air of a Scollay Square bouncer. But Heinie's bluster is betrayed by his eyes, which at times seem glazed by doubts or revelatory of the artistic soul warring within.
Although it is unclear how much of the Celtics' eminence is due to their own prowess and how much to the incapacitation of Knick Center Willis Reed, the team certainly has regrouped faster than was expected when Bill Russell retired three years ago. But even if Boston continues to improve, the most Heinsohn can hope for is the award for best supporting actor; his old coach, Red Auerbach, is still the big wheel in the Hub. Throughout all the recent changes of ownership—there have been five since the revered Walter Brown died in 1964—and playing personnel, Auerbach has remained the franchise's most valuable asset. During the Celtics' championship years there was a perverse compulsion to downgrade Red's contributions. But there is no question, now that Auerbach is president and general manager and Russell is cackling and mumbling words of wisdom on national TV, that Red more than Vince Lombardi was the coaching genius of the age.
" Lombardi became a cult figure, Red never did," explains Boston's bright young assistant general manager, Jeff Cohen. "Red was obviously competitive, yelling at refs and things like that. Lombardi appeared to yell only at his own players, beating them to a frenzy. One is almost hallowed—he was doing what people imagine Rockne must have done in the locker room at halftime—but the other smacked a little too much of Brooklyn, of the gutter. I remember when I was about 10, Red came over to our house and I went outside to play ball against him. He held me by the pants, he pushed me, he knocked me down. And I remember my mother said to him after we had finished, 'You were just fooling with the boy?' 'No,' Red told her. 'I wanted to beat him.' "
Unsparing competitiveness remains Auerbach's outer shell. Peel it a little and underneath is a thick layer of self-esteem, an almost unimpeachable vanity about his extraordinary and unacknowledged triumphs. Of course, it is a convention that if one peels farther one encounters a liquid center. If so, Red keeps his sweet juices sealed behind tight gaskets. He has not mellowed as he has grown older.
Yet, unlike other reigning sports patriarchs, e.g. George Halas, Auerbach has not dominated his coaching successors, although in Heinsohn's case he wisely let out the leash an inch at a time. Throughout the years Heinsohn had been considered one of the least likely Celtics ever to come back and guide the team. But when Russell retired Heinsohn was there, and the most frequently mentioned candidates—Frank Ramsey, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman—were not. Says one observer: "I think Red hired Heinsohn because he respected his leadership abilities and because he thought he could mold him. He felt, I'd guess, that Heinsohn didn't know much about basketball."
In 1969, Heinsohn's first season, Auerbach stayed with the Celtics constantly, traveling to road games in the guise of a TV color man and showing up at practices. Heinsohn was getting a quick, tough course in basketball, and only a fool, which Heinie—a dean's list student at Holy Cross and one of the best insurance salesmen to ever whip out a ballpoint—isn't, would not have listened. That year was the team's worst since 1950, but last season, as Boston showed considerable improvement, Auerbach began to back off. Now he rarely travels and almost never attends practice.
One of the few workouts Auerbach watched this year occurred on Thanksgiving Day when he sought out companionship because he was unable to make it home to his family in Washington, D.C. Heinsohn greeted him with the threat of a $50 fine for bouncing a ball while the coach spoke, and from then on Red sat quietly to one side, occasionally exchanging racial repartee with Jo Jo White. At the conclusion of the session Auerbach made an off-color remark about Heinie's rumpled velour shirt, and Tom grabbed him with a bear hug from behind and growled, "Give up? Give up?" Red, his cheeks puffed full of air and his cigar sticking straight out, remained silent until he wiggled free of Heinsohn's hold without even dislodging his ash. "I'm not afraid of a man who can't do a lousy push-up," he said of Heinie, who cannot and never could do a lousy push-up.
Auerbach-Heinsohn confrontations are not always that amiable. Following home losses there are long, one-on-one talks in the training room, and the surmise is that Auerbach does most of the talking. Even after wins Red wanders into the dressing room and reminds Heinie of coaching touches, the absence of which Red had detected from his vantage point two rows up in Section 1. Says one local reporter: "I don't think anyone in Heinie's position could be totally his own man, not with Red always looking over his shoulder."
"I'm the coach," retorts Heinsohn. "I listen to Red if he's right, but I don't if he's not. For example, we've got a whole new offense that I thought up and put in myself. It's my offense even though we still run a few of his old plays in it."