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In a town of imported celebs, Red Auerbach is the District’s real deal.
The lobby of the New Mexico Avenue office building in Wesley Heights has an exotic aroma: a mixture of delicacies from the adjoining upscale food emporium and the redolence of a Hoyo de Monterrey. None of the building’s occupants complain about the notorious habit of tenant Red Auerbach, ranked by Cigar Aficionado as the eighth most famous cigar smoker in history. (Winston Churchill was No. 1, Groucho Marx No. 11.) The menu of Legal Sea Foods in Boston says, “No cigar or pipe smoking, except for Red Auerbach”; the 84-year-old legend appears to have been granted a similar de facto exemption from D.C.’s anti-smoking ordinances.
Auerbach’s second-floor office consists of one modest-sized room. His name is on the door. There is no secretary: If you knock on the door and Auerbach is in residence, you are greeted by the man himself.
The walls are crammed with pictures of Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, and other Boston Celtics, the team he coached to eight National Basketball Association championships in a row between 1959 and 1966—a record that will never, ever, be broken. In a corner is a replica of the statue of a seated Auerbach (with cigar) that greets visitors to Faneuil Hall, the Boston market built in 1742.
Auerbach’s memory seemingly is intact. He sees and hears just fine. His handshake is firm. He chooses his words carefully, speaking each slowly with a scratchy Runyonesque voice that retains his native Brooklyn. And he does not suffer fools.
“I hate to upset you, but that’s an awful dumb question,” Auerbach chuckles, not unkindly. He has been asked to name the players of his era who had the skill and athleticism to match up with Allen Iverson and other current NBA stars. “There is no man in his right mind who has seen them play who can say that Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Bob Cousy, Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit, Dolph Schayes, Nate Thurmond—and I could go on and on and on—would not be stars in today’s game.” He pauses. “The only difference between those athletes of then and the ones today is the fact that there are more of them today.”
Auerbach’s opinions still matter, even though he has not coached since 1966, when Michael Jordan was 3 years old. He remains in the Celtics’ front office, and still scouts for them. Current Celtics coach Jim O’Brien calls him frequently. “I don’t volunteer or interfere in his coaching,” says Auerbach. “If he’s got a problem, he’ll come to me, or he’ll ask me.”
Most of the conversations with O’Brien are by long-distance telephone. Although Auerbach has been happy to accept glory and fame in Boston, he likewise has been content to live quietly and without fanfare in Washington. It always has been that way, even when he was winning all those championships for Boston.
Auerbach has not exactly been hiding all these years. He is a charter member of the Washington Hall of Stars, the honor roll of athletes and sportsmen ringing the mezzanine level at RFK Stadium. A banner of a smiling Red Auerbach hangs at George Washington University’s Smith Center. Nevertheless, the thought of Auerbach, a man so closely connected to Boston, living in Washington still seems incongruous.
In fact, Arnold Jacob Auerbach is a New York native, born Sept. 20, 1917. His father was a Russian Jewish immigrant who ran a clothes-cleaning business in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. There were few football and baseball fields nearby, so young Arnold took to basketball and handball.
At Eastern District High School, he got serious about basketball, making second team all-Brooklyn as a senior. From there, he went to Seth Low Junior College, a feeder school for Columbia University. A classmate was Isaac Asimov, who also later found fame, as a science-fiction writer. (“He was a good guy—everybody liked him,” recalls Auerbach. “He was not an athlete, though.”)
Seth Low closed after his freshman year. The basketball coach at George Washington University, Bill Reinhart, had seen Auerbach play and offered him a basketball scholarship. Auerbach arrived in Washington in 1936. He has never left.
In 1936, only 45 years had passed since James Naismith had invented basketball. The game was early in its evolution and in some respects would be unrecognizable to the modern fan. The now-extinct two-handed set shot, in which the player would shoot the ball from his chest without leaving his feet, was the vogue. There was no shot clock, and a team might hold the ball for minutes at a time, waiting for an opening.
Within this framework, Reinhart and the Colonials played a running game that was progressive for its time, which Auerbach took with him and fine-tuned throughout his coaching career. The Colonials played their home games at McKinley Tech High School in Northeast Washington and at Riverside Stadium, which was located on the Potomac River where the Kennedy Center now stands.
At 5-foot-10, Auerbach was of average height. What he lacked in size, he made up for with aggressiveness. And he really did have a full head of red hair. (At George Washington, he was actually known as “Reds.” The “s” was dropped sometime later.)
“I used to shoot with the best of them,” says Auerbach matter-of-factly. “I was a damn good college player.” Good enough to lead George Washington in scoring his senior year (with an 8.5-points-per-game average). Recently, he was voted one of the top 50 players in George Washington history. “That’s a little debatable,” he chuckles. “You get better as you get older.”
When Auerbach graduated, in 1940, there was not much in the way of pro basketball, but the FBI had a team and asked him to join. That would have required him to become a G-man; Auerbach wanted to be a teacher. “In those days, to teach in high school, you had to have a master’s,” he recalls. He said no to the FBI so he could go to graduate school.
Auerbach coached at St. Albans School while earning his master’s degree in education (publishing an article on indoor obstacle courses). He then moved to Theodore Roosevelt High School, where, in addition to coaching basketball, he taught history, hygiene, and physical education. “Two years in a row, I had the best record in the city,” he recalls. “And we go into the tournament, and both years I get beat by a last-second shot at midcourt.”
The Roosevelt player to become the most famous was one whom Auerbach cut: future Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Reached by telephone in Florida, Kuhn laughs at the memory: “He stopped me in the hall. ‘You’re the biggest kid in the school. Why aren’t you out for the team?’” recalls Kuhn, who was 6-foot-5. “I told him, ‘I’m not any good.’ He said, ‘Let me be the judge of that.’ A few weeks later, he said, ‘You’re right,’ and he cut me.”
The young Auerbach was “aggressive, brusque,” remembers Kuhn. “He was a typical sports coach of the time. He was not a godfather.” To make extra money, Auerbach refereed basketball games. He also played for the Christian Heurich industrial-league team, which played its games in a caged gymnasium at the old brewery on the waterfront at Foggy Bottom. Later, Auerbach organized the Washington Redskins of the day, including Steve Bagarus and Al Demaio, into a basketball team that would play occasional exhibitions in the off-season.
During World War II, Auerbach served in the Navy. Among other duties, he was an assistant coach at the Norfolk Navy base. When he was discharged, in 1946, he was 29 years old. He and wife Dorothy Lewis Auerbach (whom he wed in 1941, and who died in 2001) were ready to start a family and get on with their lives. Then, Mike Uline and the Washington Capitols beckoned.
Few today remember that Washington had a major-league basketball team long before the Wizards, or even the Bullets. While Auerbach was in the Navy, an organization called the Basketball Association of America had formed. In a few years, the BAA would change its name to the National Basketball Association. Today, the NBA recognizes the BAA’s records and champions as its own.
Miguel L. “Uncle Mike” Uline was a Dutch immigrant and inventor who had made a fortune in the ice business. Uline took out a $600,000 loan against his ice company to build a rink at 3rd and L Streets NE, near Union Station. The Uline Arena opened in 1941, with its primary tenant the Washington Lions of the Eastern Hockey League. In an effort to boost the arena’s income, Uline purchased a BAA franchise and offered Auerbach the job as coach. Auerbach accepted.
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“We kept the buildings going,” Auerbach says of the BAA. “In other words, if you got a building like Uline, you might have a tennis match, a couple of preachers come in, or stuff like that—a little ice show, minor-league hockey. There were a lot of open dates. [The BAA] was a way to fill the building, and sell hot dogs and peanuts, and all that kind of junk.”
In fact, the Capitols rarely filled Uline, a cold, austere brick-and-mortar facility. (In February 1964, after its name had been changed to the Washington Coliseum, the arena achieved its greatest fame as the site of the Beatles’ first American concert; today, the building is a trash-transfer station.) In ’40s Washington, professional basketball “wasn’t big enough to really make the nut,” said Auerbach. “We did pretty good. Of course, we had great records down here. We’d have 4,000—it only seated about 5,000, see—we’d have 4,400, 4,200, according to who we were playing.”
Auerbach looks at a framed black-and-white photograph on the wall across the room. It is a team picture of pasty men with “Capitols” emblazoned on their white shirts. A young, dapper Auerbach stands in the middle.
“You got Fred Scolari from the West Coast, you got Bones McKinney from the South, No. 17—I can’t see; I just remember the number.” Auerbach takes the cigar out of his mouth and points at the picture. “John Mahnken from Georgetown, Irv Torgoff from [Long Island University] in New York. You see, we were one of the first to have a heterogeneous group. The Knicks, they took all of their players for the first couple of years from the metropolitan New York area. Pittsburgh took all their kids from Pittsburgh. I didn’t believe in that. I took them from all over.”
It was during his reign as Capitols coach that Auerbach initiated his habit of lighting up a cigar near the end of a game when victory was at hand, a practice that later became his trademark as coach of the Celtics. This ritual, which was viewed as showing up the opposition, “aggravated us as much as the opponents,” says Scolari, now 80, reached at his home in Danville, Calif. “Red was well-respected, but not overly well-liked. You liked him better if he was your coach than when he was an opponent.”
Even if the Capitols existed only as a pretext for selling refreshments, they nevertheless played some good basketball, making the playoffs every year of Auerbach’s tenure. In the 1948-1949 season, the Capitols won the Eastern Division title and advanced to the finals against the Minneapolis Lakers, who were led by the bespectacled George Mikan, the NBA’s first superstar.
In a memorable encounter during that series at Uline, as Mikan was on a fast break, Capitols center Kleggy Hermsen hit the big man from behind and knocked him into the first row of seats. Mikan sustained a broken wrist, and he later claimed that, as he lay writhing in pain on the floor, Auerbach yelled to those attending to him to drag him off the court so the game could continue.
“Probably true,” says Auerbach, when asked about Mikan’s story. “Probably. Because I felt no pity or remorse for George Mikan, because he was a giant among those guys and he belted guys all day long, with his elbows. He was hitting guys all over the place, so when he finally got one, I was pretty happy about it.” Auerbach pauses. “Of course, he and I are good friends today, but that was then.”
Auerbach quit after that series (won by the Lakers). Without Auerbach at the helm, the Capitols’ fortunes quickly declined. In 1949-1950, the team was 32-36 and missed the playoffs. The next year, the Capitols disbanded midseason after going 10-25. Except for an unsuccessful fling with an ABA team, the Rick Barry-led Washington Caps that played in 1968-1969, pro basketball would not return to the city of Washington until the MCI Center opened, in 1997.
After leaving the Capitols, Auerbach accepted an assistant coach job at Duke University. Duke’s coach, Gerry Gerard, was terminally ill, and Auerbach expected to soon take the head position. “Well, he lasted a while, but meanwhile I felt pretty bad waiting for him to die,” recalls Auerbach. “No way to get a job.” He left and took a job for the remainder of the 1949-1950 season with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, a BAA franchise based in the Midwest. That job didn’t work out either, and Auerbach left at the end of the season.
Walter Brown was a BAA founder and owner of the Boston Celtics. By 1950, the Celtics were a moribund franchise. Brown hired Auerbach for the 1950-1951 season at a price of $10,000 for the year. Auerbach’s wife and two young daughters remained in Washington. After all, the Celtics were coming off a 22-46 season, and Brown was in debt. There was little reason for them to think that Auerbach’s tenure in Boston would be any longer than his stays at Duke or Tri-Cities.
With the help of Cousy, a rookie from Holy Cross (whom Auerbach initially called a “local yokel” and was opposed to drafting), the Celtics rebounded to 39-30 in 1950-1951. Cousy made the Celtics competitive over the next several years—they were in the playoffs every year—but they could not get over the hump. Then, Auerbach maneuvered to get center Russell, who had won an NCAA championship with the University of San Francisco as well as an Olympic gold medal for the United States in 1956.
The intense Russell made the Celtics champions and Auerbach famous. But even with this job security, Auerbach, while keeping an apartment in Boston, continued to maintain his domicile in Washington. He says the key reason was that his oldest daughter, Nancy (who was 4 when her father took the Celtics job), suffered from asthma. “Whenever we moved, she could not acclimate,” he recalls. Dorothy Auerbach came from a family of doctors, and the fact that Nancy’s pediatrician was her grandfather made the decision to stay in Washington easier.
The Auerbachs lived on Legation Street in the Chevy Chase neighborhood. Nancy and his other daughter, Randy, attended D.C. public schools (Murch Elementary and Wilson High). When Red was working, Dorothy and the girls listened to Johnny Most’s radio broadcasts of Celtics’ games, sometimes riding around in a car in an effort to pick up a faint signal from Boston.
Auerbach frequently would sneak home to Washington during the season after road trips out west. “Thirty-five or 40 years ago, there was less air traffic, and you could get to Boston quicker than now.” Also, because the NBA finals ended in early April instead of late June, he had a much longer off-season to enjoy Washington.
Even after the children had grown, Auerbach still never considered uprooting the family. According to Nancy Auerbach Collins (who still lives in the Washington area), her mother loved Washington, “didn’t like the spotlight, and didn’t feel a need to be visible.”
By 1966, years had passed since Auerbach had had anything to prove as a coach. After leading the Celtics to their eighth consecutive NBA title, he stepped down—a move that allowed him to spend even more time in Washington. He remained as the Celtics’ general manager into the ’80s, winning the NBA Executive of the Year award in 1980.
The trips to Boston are less frequent today. “After all, I’m 84,” says Auerbach, who now lives in a high-rise apartment near Ward Circle, a short drive from his office. Nevertheless, he played a hard game of racquetball and handball at the Jewish Community Center and George Washington until recently. He had bypass surgery about eight years ago, but continued playing until he broke three ribs playing racquetball, and then another three ribs playing tennis.
Nowadays, sidelined by vertigo, Auerbach is just a spectator. He carries a cane, just in case. He regularly attends Maryland, George Washington, and Georgetown games, and, less frequently, Wizards games. “A lot of times, I go to scout certain players,” he says. “Most of the times, I go for enjoyment, where you don’t concentrate on one or two players, you just sit there and watch the game and enjoy it.”
On the differences between Washington and Boston, Auerbach says, “I have more privacy here. In Boston, it’s more of a celebrity-conscious area.” In Washington, “the people that are most familiar with me are older people,” Auerbach continues. “Like, people will come over to me: ‘Oh, my father talks about you all the time,’ or ‘My mother remembers you.’ At my age, that’s what happens.”
On a Saturday afternoon at the Smith Center, Auerbach is watching a basketball game for enjoyment, with Nancy Collins, son-in-law (and former CNN anchor) Reid Collins, and some friends. He is wearing a Celtics baseball cap, resting his hands on a green cane. At halftime, a few fans drop by. Auerbach greets them politely. Otherwise, he is left in peace. The Colonials lose badly, 80-58, to Temple.
Still, Auerbach must be enjoying the game. He stays until the final horn.
For the past several years, Auerbach has held court every Tuesday at lunch, at the China Doll restaurant near the MCI Center. “I wanted to make sure I saw my brother every week,” Auerbach explains as the reason he started the tradition. His brother is former political cartoonist and artist Zang Auerbach, who designed the Celtics’ signature leprechaun logo, as well as the old Washington Senators logo, circa 1960, just before they moved to Minnesota.
In addition to the Auerbach brothers, diners might include former Celtic great Sam Jones, legendary DeMatha High School coach Morgan Wooten, sportswriter John Feinstein, George Washington University athletic director Jack Kvancz, and whoever else of Auerbach’s friends might be in town. “We usually get about 10 to 12 guys,” says Auerbach. The topic is sports, sometimes.
Auerbach says he follows politics, and he counts among his friends Sen. Ted Kennedy, former Maine senator and Ambassador 0 Mitchell (with whom he used to play tennis), and Rep. Ed Markey from Massachusetts (“a real basketball nut”). Notwithstanding that all of the politicians he names are Democrats, he professes to be nonpartisan.
“I’ll show you something funny. That picture on the wall on the bottom. See who you recognize in that cartoon.” He gets out of his chair and walks over to a framed caricature on the wall. It has Auerbach, Doug Flutie, Robert Frost, Julia Child, Lizzie Borden, Babe Ruth, Whistler’s mother, and others sitting around a dinner table. “It’s the craziest fucking picture I ever had,” says Auerbach. “And there’s no reason to put all of us together.”
It does not seem possible that it is lost on the great coach that all of the subjects in the cartoon are persons who became famous or infamous in New England. But perhaps, despite all the NBA titles and the statue at Faneuil Hall, Red Auerbach really is, first and foremost, not a Bostonian but a Washingtonian. After all, D.C. is where he has lived for the last 66 years.
He says he has to run some errands. In Boston, he has a driver and an aide to take care of such matters. In Washington, Auerbach attends to such matters by himself.
As he gets into the driver’s seat of his Mercedes convertible, with D.C. “CELTICS” tags, Auerbach is asked whether there are similar Massachusetts tags on his car in Boston.
“No,” he replies. “They would be stolen.” CP