Legend created a Celtics dynasty

A heart attack claims the life of the Boston icon, who won nine NBA titles as a coach.

Published October 29, 2006

WASHINGTON - His genius was building a basketball dynasty in Boston, his gift was straight talk, his signature was the pungent cigar he lit up and savored after every victory.

Red Auerbach, the Hall of Famer who guided the Celtics to 16 championships, first as a coach and later as general manager, died Saturday. He was 89.

Mr. Auerbach died of a heart attack near his home in Washington, the Associated Press reported. His last public appearance was Wednesday, when he received the U.S. Navy's Lone Sailor Award in front of family and friends at a ceremony in the nation's capital.

The Celtics still employed him as team president. Next season will be dedicated to him.

"Nobody has had as much impact on a sport as Red Auerbach had on the game of basketball. He was a pioneer of the NBA," said Tommy Heinsohn, a Hall of Fame player in Boston before becoming a Celtics coach and broadcaster. "He left his philosophy of winning championships, playing hard and playing as a team with several generations of players. ... The game of basketball will never see anyone else like him."

Mr. Auerbach's 938 victories made him the NBA's coaching leader until Lenny Wilkens overtook him during the 1994-95 season. His nine titles as a coach came in the 1950s and 1960s, including eight straight from 1959-66. Then through shrewd deals and foresight, he became the architect of Celtics teams that won seven more championships in the 1970s and '80s.

Mr. Auerbach was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1969. The jersey No. 2 was retired by the Celtics in his honor during the 1984-85 season.

"He was a unique personality, a combination of toughness and great, great caring about people," said author John Feinstein, who last year collaborated on a book with Mr. Auerbach on the coach's reflections of seven decades in basketball. "He cared about people much more than it showed in his public face, and that's why people cared about him."

With the Celtics, he made deals that brought Bill Russell, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to Boston. He drafted Larry Bird a year early when the Indiana State star was a junior to make sure Bird would come to Boston.

He coached championship teams that featured players such as Russell, Bob Cousy, Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, K.C. Jones and Sam Jones, all inducted into the Hall of Fame.

He was also a social force in the NBA, drafting the league's first African-American player in 1950 in Chuck Cooper, hiring pro sports' first African-American head coach in 1966 in Russell and starting five African-Americans on the Celtics, an NBA first.

"I think Arnold was an absolute giant in the field," said Cousy, who was with him during Wednesday's ceremony. "I have been around a lot of competitive people, but his commitment to winning was absolute; nothing was more important. He was relentless and produced the greatest basketball dynasty so far that this country has ever seen and certainly that the NBA has ever seen."

After stepping down as general manager in 1984, Mr. Auerbach served as Celtics president and occasionally attended practices into the mid 1990s, although his role in the draft and personnel decisions had diminished.

Mr. Auerbach never lost his direct manner, such as when he discussed the parquet floor of the Boston Garden shortly before the Celtics' longtime home closed in September 1995.

"The whole thing was a myth," he said. "People thought not only that there were dead spots, but that we knew where every one was and we could play accordingly.

"Now, did you ever watch a ballplayer go up and down the court at that speed and pick out a dead spot?" he asked. "If our players worried about that, thinking that's going to help them win, they're out of their cotton-picking mind. But if the other team thought that: Hey, good for us."

As Celtics president, Mr. Auerbach shuttled between Boston and his home in the capital, where he led an active lifestyle that included playing racquetball and tennis into his mid 70s.

Mr. Auerbach had two procedures in May 1993 to clear blocked arteries. He had been bothered by chest discomfort at various times beginning in 1986.

He was also hospitalized a year ago but was soon active again and attended the Celtics' home opener. Asked that night what his thoughts were, he replied in his usual blunt manner: "What goes through your mind is, 'When the hell are we going to win another one?' I mean, it's as simple as that."

Mr. Auerbach was a keen judge of talent, seemingly always getting the best of trades with fellow coaches and general managers.

In 1956, he traded Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to St. Louis for the Hawks' first-round pick and ended up with Russell, probably the greatest defensive center of all time and the heart of 11 championship teams.

Before the 1980 draft, the Celtics traded the No. 1 overall selection to Golden State for Parish and the No. 3 pick. The Warriors took Joe Barry Carroll. The Celtics chose McHale.