Monday, October 30, 2006

Farewell, Red

I grew up in Boston. As a kid, I watched my father glued to his black and white set, screaming at Havlicek and Bob McAdoo. I never liked the Red Sox (or baseball, for that matter); thought the Bruins were fine until Booby Orr and Brad Park retired, and, like most New Englanders, only cared about the Patriots when they were winning. But the Celtics? Man, my dad had me hooked.

As a younger man, I was lucky enough to see a lot of Celtics games with my dad, and, later on, I took him to a few, too. In my 20's, I got real lucky: Jan Volk, the GM of the Celtics, became one of my clients, and steered a few other Celtics folks my way. I met Parish, McHale, Ainge (no, not Bird). I was there the night the Celtics were down in a playoff game and suddenly, for no reason, a pigeon flew down from the Garden's rafters and settled at midcourt...and the other Bird came out and rallied the team back. I saw Dr. J. and Moses play Bird and McHale. I saw DJ's smile, Walton's creaky knees, and M.L. Carr's towel waving. I watched Laimbeer turn in astonishment at the ferocity of Amy's hatred of him. I sat courtside and high above the banners, and even enjoyed the rare pleasure on many a night of seeing the Celtics win, then walking through the North End home.

You know why I was able to love the Celtics so much?

Red Auerbach.

If you did not know, Red passed away this week, and there are lots of retrospectives. Mine is more personal. No, I did not know Red; I only met the man once, and he seemed to have the game passed him by, then. Of course, I was wrong, but underestimating Red is what people did. Yes, he brought racial issues to the forefront by insisting on equal treatment for black players...in Boston, of all places! He was also the primary killer of the ABA, a league I loved; today's NBA would not exist if not for the innovations of the ABA, and Red singlehandly choked it out of existence.

What Red remains is a symbol of growing up in Boston in the 1970's and 1980's. He was not the coach then, but he WAS the Celtics. He was always there, with the cigar, and he was always looking to make one more deal. He was a complete contradiction: a guy who loved the Celtics, and didn't seem to care much for Boston (he preferred Washington DC). And we all revered and loved him. When Len Bias was drafted, everyone was sure this was Red's great last deal he pulled off. When Len Bias died, there was as much concern if Red would recover as for Len's tragic death.

Point is, Red represented everything that made the Celtics beyond a team, beyond race, beyond sport, and so much more. It was Red's creation, and we were all lucky enough to see the show.

I don't watch basketball much these days; they simply don't play a team game like they did with the Celtics, Lakers, and Pistons of the 1980's. Michael Jordan changed it for everyone, and the world moved on. My Dad never stopped watching the Celtics, though: he still thinks "these kids have a hell of a lot of potential." And yes, he still sits, watching the TV, screaming at them for their latest foible.

Me, I think I'll leave the NBA with Red's memory. Thanks, Red, for making so many for me. From my father, to my wife, to my friends, to The Sports Guy, none of it was possible without Red.

I'll smoke one for you.

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