Phrases such as “larger than life” and “living legend” get thrown around a lot more than they should when describing people, but there are a select few who fit the description.
Arnold Jacob “Red” Auerbach is one of those select few.
If you don’t agree, just ask his friends, former players, coaching peers, or even those who never had the good fortune to meet the man. Larger than life? Well, it’s a good start.
“I never really expected him to die, to be honest with you,” said NBA and Boston Celtics Hall of Famer K.C. Jones, who was a member of nine Celtics NBA title teams (eight of them consecutive) coached by Auerbach. “I found out last night about 9:30. It was a bad time.”
Hall of Fame coach and basketball genius Auerbach, the man many consider the patriarch of the NBA, not just the Celtics, died Saturday at age 89.
“I just thought that the old era of the Celtics had passed,” said Bangor High School basketball coach Roger Reed, who became a big Celtics fan during the Auerbach eras as coach and general manager. “He was part of that aura of the great Celtics teams. I’ve never thought of him or them in any other way.”
Lawrence of Fairfield High School hoops coach Mike McGee had a similar reaction.
“I was watching the Auerbach reports and retrospectives this morning and I was in tears,” said McGee, who was a coach and a counselor at Auerbach’s basketball camps in Massachusetts. “I think I talked to him for five minutes or so, but he was a master motivator.
“He knew how to move parts and people the way they needed to be moved, and where they needed to be moved.”
Jones, now a radio broadcaster for University of Hartford men’s basketball, also coached the Celtics to two NBA crowns while posting a 373-139 record in five seasons. He says Auerbach’s secret success formula isn’t that secretive.
“He knew talent, and he knew the game. He knew communication and how to relate to players,” Jones explained. “If he said one or two words, you knew where he was coming from… And he takes no crap.”
That’s not to say he didn’t give anyone any, but it was usually for a good reason.
“He went after [Hall of Famers Bob] Cousy and [Bill] Russell during practice to show us that no one was above criticism,” said Jones. “But what we didn’t know at the time was that he told them both before practice what he was going to do and why he was doing it.
“That tells you about him and the genius he had.”
It was that genius that landed Russell in Boston despite the fact he was a first-round draft pick by St. Louis in 1956.
“Red being a genius at this game of basketball, had enough guts to tell Russell to ask for too much money from St. Louis because he wanted him in Boston,” Jones said. “So the St. Louis GM asked what he wanted and Bill said $17,500. The GM said he’d talk to him tomorrow, and the next day he was traded to Boston for [Cliff] Hagan and [Ed] Macauley.”
That was Red at his most relentless: The rule-bending, referee-rankling, cigar-chomping (and lighting) Auerbach who won nine NBA titles in 15 seasons as Boston’s coach and seven in the front office.
Then there was revered Red.
“K.C. was Russell’s best friend and K.C. would always say [Auerbach’s] bark was much fiercer than his bite,” said former University of Maine men’s basketball coach Skip Chappelle, a star at Old Town and Maine who was the final cut of Celtics’ preseason camp in 1962. “He played that tough role of a taskmaster well, but underneath, he wasn’t afraid to tell you how it was.
“He was an ideal coach. He was tough, but he also endeared himself to his players at the same time,” Chappelle added.
When Celtics tickets that were supposed to be left for former Husson College men’s hoops coach Bruce MacGregor and wife Christine were not, they were invited to wait in Auerbach’s office while the problem was being solved.
“I was like a kid in a candy shop looking at all the memorabilia in his office. It was like being in a museum,” said MacGregor, whose awe for the office was surpassed by that of the office’s owner.
“I only met him a couple times, but his presence was unbelievable,” MacGregor recalled. “When he came into a room, everyone stopped what they were doing and the focus was on him.”
It left quite an impression on MacGregor, himself a revered coaching figure.
“Any basketball coach respected the man so much because of what he did, but also because of how he got things out of his players,” MacGregor said. “His players always talk about how he treated them all so well and I think all of us in coaching try to emulate him and get the respect from our teams that he got from his.”
Chappelle, who roomed with NBA Hall of Famer John Havlicek, still remembers how well he was received and treated by Auerbach, with whom he remained in touch all these years.
“One of the highlights for me then was they were going to St. Louis and he cut me in New York, but he told me I could travel with them to the next three exhibitions,” Chappelle recalled. “I decided not to and came back because I’d already signed a contract to teach and coach at Fort Fairfield.”
Then there was the time Chappelle’s UMaine team was leaving Philadelphia on a flight Auerbach was on. Auerbach was in first class, with an empty seat next to him.
“I walked up, said hello and we talked a bit, and then I started back with the team,” Chappelle said. “He told me to sit with him.”
It was then Chappelle learned of Auerbach’s fondness for miniature liquor bottles (nips), which was on a par with handball and Chinese food.
“When the stewardess came around, she asked if we wanted drinks with those little bottles. I refused mine at first, but he elbowed me, said “No, he’ll have one’ and he took mine, too. He collected them.”
It was Chappelle who helped get Auerbach to come to Maine for a public appearance at UMaine’s Memorial Gym in 1986. He made several Maine appearances over the years (including the Bangor Civic Center in 1985) and his Celtics played many exhibition games in Maine in the 1960s and ’70s. The Celtics also trained in Ellsworth in the late 1950s.
UMaine men’s basketball coach Ted Woodward never met Auerbach, but even as a New York native, Knicks fan and longtime Connecticut resident, he admired the man.
“You can’t go anywhere without being aware of the impact he’s had on the game. He’s touched so many people and so much of the history of the game in New England,” Woodward said. “You’re talking about a guy who just won all the time and he had a tremendous amount to do with it. He was the face of Celtics basketball.”
A face that always had a warm smile for his players.
“The hardest thing about Red’s death… is not having him around anymore to call or talk to,” said Jones. “That’s going to take some getting used to.”