Celtics `Institution' Acts As Time Line for Pro Ball

SEEING RED: THE RED AUERBACH STORY By Dan Shaughnessy; Crown, 302 pp., $22

RED AUERBACH not only enjoys one of the most enviable winning records in coaching history, he is also a human time line for the entire history of a league, the National Basketball Association, now in its 49th season.

By spanning the NBA's Paleozoic-to-Dream Team eras, Auerbach's professional life, when cross-sectioned, provides a look at the league's evolutionary strata.

This is the added dimension that seeps through the pages of Dan Shaughnessy's biography of Auerbach, who was a 28-year-old coach of the Washington Capitols in the NBA's 1946 inaugural season. Auerbach's greatest fame, of course, came in Boston, where he landed in 1950. He coached the Boston Celtics to nine championships during a 10-year stretch beginning in 1957 and graduated to general manager, president, and now godfather.

The city honored him in 1985 with a statue at the popular Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and he is even more of a fixture at the Boston Garden, where he continues to occupy the same mid-court box seat for about half the home games. His mere presence is as reassuring to fans as the numerous championship banners and retired jersey numbers that hang from the rafters.

In some form, the Auerbach story is familiar to many aficionados of the game. But even to those who know the general outline, ``Seeing Red'' is a very welcome, anecdotally rich work - in fact, it's the first full-blown account of Auerbach's life. The subject matter deserves a practiced, deft hand, and receives it. Shaughnessy is a Boston Globe sports columnist and former Celtics beat writer.

Auerbach's daughter Randy, a film-company executive in Los Angeles, says her father is two people: ``He's a father, family member, a quiet, withdrawn, introspective person ... and then he's Red Auerbach.''

This public Red can be totally uninhibited, especially when his competitive fires are burning white-hot, as they often do. In 1983 he came out of the stands to challenge 6 ft. 11 in. Moses Malone of the Philadelphia 76ers to a fight - and this during a mere exhibition game.

Auerbach's public persona - at times gruff, assertive, and cocky - is the one that fits the image of the Brooklyn-born coach who arrogantly lit up a cigar while still on the bench after victory was assured. Some might call the gesture taunting, others an example of Auerbach's special brand of ``genius,'' a word frequently attached to his basketball instincts.

Auerbach is famous for playing the mental angles (he has a master's degree in education from his alma mater, George Washington University). A noted referee-baiter, he sometimes intentionally went over the edge, getting tossed from games just to rouse his team, a strategy that others have copied.

Waking up Bostonians to pro basketball was a harder task, and one that didn't reach full fruition until Auerbach retired from coaching. Even during his last year on the bench, at the peak of the team's dynastic power, the Celtics drew only 7,941 fans per home game.

Shaughnessy devotes significant attention to the acquisition of Bill Russell and Larry Bird - personnel moves considered hallmarks of Auerbach's team-building savvy. At the time he inked these players, there were reservations about either one becoming ``franchise'' players: Russell because he was not a spectacular scorer and Bird because he seemed too slow and earthbound for the fast-paced, above-the-rim NBA game. Auerbach could see greatness through the potential liabilities, though, sticking his neck out to get both players, even to the point of drafting Bird a year before he left college.

If Auerbach's basketball life is largely an open book, his life away from the court has been mostly closed. ``Seeing Red'' sometimes is most engaging when exploring details of the nonpublic person - the Chinese food buff, the zany driver, and the bric-a-brac hound.

Many readers may be surprised to learn that Auerbach has always made his permanent home in Washington, only renting an apartment in Boston. The arrangement is an accommodation made years ago with his wife, Dorothy, who doesn't like flying and wanted to raise the couple's two daughters in Washington.

Another oddity: Though Auerbach has met every president since Harry Truman, he's never voted. ``I never got around to it,'' he explains.

If Auerbach fails his country in the voting booth, he's made amends as a worldwide ambassador for basketball, an American invention. For 20 years he led US teams on overseas tours, from Morocco to Burma. After the Harlem Globetrotters, he might be the sport's next-best Johnny Appleseed.

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