Lots of people are writing lots of tributes to Red Auerbach this week. If you care about basketball at all, if you care about sports at all, read each one.
When I heard on Saturday that Red had died, I got thinking about why I loved basketball. I loved to play it and loved to watch it; I loved to listen to it and I loved to talk about it; I loved to learn about it and I loved to write about it. It was a perfect game of teamwork and it was available to anyone who had a ball and a hoop. (For two brothers in a Bronx apartment, a ball of socks and a lampshade worked, too.)
As kids, as much as we thought we hated Red Auerbach, it was Red who made us see what was beautiful and special about the game. As New Yorkers we mostly got to see his Celtics teams clobbering our Knicks teams. (With the significant assistance of his center Bill Russell.) His teams did things like you'd hope to do them on the schoolyard or the gym, just with much, much better players with much, much more consistency. You played defense, you got a rebound, you made your pass, you moved it up-court and you got a shot. They did it; we saw that and tried to do it, too.
You knew by watching the Celtics that skin color doesn't matter, and if we learned nothing else from Red that was plenty. Remember he was working in a city where the Red Sox were the last MLB team to have a black player. Red had two NBA titles before Pumpsie Green played for the Sox. One look at his team playing and you knew that the only colors that mattered were red for his hair (and face when screaming at the refs) and Celtic green.
Not long after Red retired as coach in 1966, our Knicks did a smart thing and named a coach with the same nickname, the same Brooklyn roots, the same background from the first days of pro basketball and the same belief that great basketball comes when the team plays like that--Red Holzman. Quickly we learned that there just might be some magic in that nickname when the Knicks got better and better and won a championship for the first time in 1970 (with the significant assistance of center Willis Reed).
But our Red didn't quite have magic that theirs did. And once our Red left as coach to be GM, things didn't go so well. When their Red left as coach to be GM, the Celtics kept making deals that left your head shaking (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish all arrived within a year of each other) and kept the banners rising in the Gahden.
I got to meet Red Auerbach a few times and spend some private time with him. One afternoon, it was Red, his best friend, the announcer Marty Glickman, and me. Marty and Red shared the Brooklyn roots, too; high school sports stars for different high schools in the 1930's. They went to different colleges (Marty Syracuse, Red GW) and went their separate ways for a while and then reconnected in the 1940s in Washington, when Red was coaching the Washington Capitols and Marty was the Knicks broadcaster. They quickly formed a friendship that lasted until Marty died in 2001.
Red was profane, Marty was genteel. Red was loud and opinionated; Marty was quiet and measured. But both were smart as whips and loved passing on their knowledge. The coaching ranks of the NBA remain a testament to Red (according to a Boston Globe coaching tree, 23 current coaches are degrees of Red Auerbach); the broadcasters' ranks of American media remain a testament to Marty (Marv Albert, Dick Stockton, Kenny Albert and many, many more). Red was once despised in NY (a fact he loved); Marty, who had broadcast the Knicks and the NY Giants and Jets games for so many years, was beloved in the city. They each told stories (and no, I didn't have a tape recorder; damn) but one that Red told sticks out. He talked at length about Bill Walton, then at the end of his NBA career playing for the Celtics as their Sixth Man. Just about everything Walton stood for made Red cringe: His lifestyle, his music, his hair (right color, wrong length), some of his politics, his hygiene (hearing Red talk about the state of cleanliness of Walton's car still makes me smile). But Walton could play the game the way Red believed it had to be played and backing up that frontline of Bird, McHale and Parrish could make the difference for the Celtics.
Walton's beliefs were Walton's beliefs; his game was the Celtics'. And sure enough, they won the final championship of the Auerbach years that season.
When and if the Celtics will win again, no one can know. All we know is that it's too bad Red never got to be part of another one.