The Celtics have banged out Boston Garden their last 52 home dates. Fifteen three twenty. As they would say in Boston, you could charm a dog off a meat wagon with a Celtic ducat. It's ironic, isn't it? Here's Red Auerbach—64 years of age, 30-odd years in the Hub, 13 in the Hall of Fame, 14 world championships as the Celtic coach and/or general manager—thinking about retiring after next season, and only now, right at the end of the line. Boston finally appreciates what it had all along. The Celtics were champions, heroes, legends, and at last, holy of holies, they're even a hot ticket. Red, you can hang it up now.
Of course, he says it didn't bother him all that much. "My players know what I did. I know what I did," he says. Naturally, he is chomping on a cigar. He's sitting in his office, surrounded by all manner of the most incredible bric-a-brac—photos and cartoons, handmade presents, the letter openers he collects, citations, cigars, gadgets and gizmos, all the effluvia of a long life in the public eye. And, in a way, Auerbach looks like a larger prop. After all, he does blend in. Red? What a laugh, red. Har de har har. Red? Always your browns and grays, your tans, your basic blacks. Maroon or forest green are flaming autumn leaves upon Auerbach. If they put out a new paint color named Auerbach Red it would be a dull brown, the shade of a well-used basketball.
He hangs up the phone and says: "Where was I? Oh yeah, Bill Sharman comes up to me in practice, and he says we got to change the numbers of the plays. We only had seven, you know, and even the opponents knew them. So he says, can we change the numbers? I say, no. He says, why? I say. because you're all too dumb." Of course, this may have been the 1960-61 team, all 11 members of which became pro or college coaches and the trainer a major league baseball owner. "You can't have a debating society," Red goes on. "But Sharman keeps after me, so I say, O.K., we'll do it for you dummies the easiest way possible. Number One becomes Number Two, Number Two Three, and on like that, with Number Seven becoming Number One. So the next night, Cousy comes down, calls out Number Three or something, and half of 'em go one way, half the other. This goes on a while, and I call time out and bring 'em into the huddle, and I say, stick your heads in here close, and they do, and I take my hand and slap 'em one after one like this—bap, bap, bap, bap, bap—and say, all right, it's all wiped out of your minds. From now on, Number One is Number One again, and Number Two Number Two and so on. And then they were fine again. You see, you got to have a dictator." Then he pauses. "I got to stop this reminiscing. You got to make them think you're very modern." He draws on his cigar. There is a constant battle of the senses played out in Red's office between the smell of cigar smoke and the noise of vigorous conversation.
Even getting to the office is something of an adventure. Nowhere on the ground floor of North Station-Boston Garden—they're both located in the same scuzzy old building—is there a clue as to where the world champions' office may be. Only insiders know that you go past The Horse, the old "drinking parlor" on the street, turn down the musty corridor where the vagrant adolescents of Boston are ODing on video games and then weave up the steps where the winos are sitting, brown-bagging it. Turn left at the dark at the top of the stairs.
It was always thus. It wasn't only the citizens of Boston who didn't care for the Celtics, even when the Celtics had the greatest player and the greatest coach and the greatest teams of all time. The Celtics' landlords hated the Celtics. For that matter, one couldn't be sure whose side some of the Celtics' owners were on. Auerbach alone was the Celtics—substance and continuity, heart and soul.
The Garden was jealous because the Garden is also the Bruins, but the Bruins were stiffs until Bobby Orr arrived. The Celtics' success made the Bruins look even worse. Still, Boston had a great hockey tradition, and even if the Bruins finished last every year, they could count on big crowds, while the Celtics couldn't draw flies until the playoffs.
After the Celtics' original owner, the sainted Walter Brown, died in 1964, the team switched bosses as regularly as a banana republic. At the height of the glorious Russell run, the Celtics went seven straight seasons, 1963-64 through 1969-70, with different ownership every year. From Brown's death until 1979 when Harry Mangurian—"My best owner since Walter," says Auerbach—assumed full control, there were 11 different ownerships. No wonder Red can play owners every bit as well as he worked the refs. But it wasn't mere personalities he had to juggle. Paychecks sometimes were late. One year, Auerbach had to pledge his personal credit to keep the phones in. Once he had to write a personal check for $9,000 so the fabled Celtics could make a road trip by air. Even when they were in proximate solvency, the Celts had the shorts.
"We did everything right, but without money," Auerbach says. "I'm very proud of that. But it was so frustrating." The famous Celtic black basketball shoes were chosen simply because white shoes got dirtier faster and had to be replaced sooner. During much of the dynasty, the front office consisted of only two full-time employees, RR. man Howie McHugh and a secretary. Then there was a part-time secretary, a gofer and the coach, who moonlighted as the administrative majordomo.
Nobody so successful in sports ever had to learn more angles. Is it possible there are only seven basic plays to life itself? Recently, on a local radio salute to Auerbach, Bill Fitch, the present Celtic coach, told Bruce Cornblatt of WHDH about a State Department tour of the Far East he and Auerbach made a few years ago. In one store, Fitch spotted some beautiful jade at a good price. He pointed it out, but Auerbach just said, "Naw, let's get out of here."
Fitch was unbelieving: "Red, at that price, you've got to look at it."