The Red Auerbach Interview
Michael D. McClellan
Wednesday, August 28th, 2002
Red Auerbach is only weeks away from his 85th birthday, and the cigar-smoking patriarch of the Boston Celtics is as sharp – in mind and tongue – as ever. He answers the telephone, his voice a time machine that warps me back to his native Brooklyn, and the volume on his television descends before disappearing altogether. I imagine him sitting comfortably in his recliner, that trademark cigar jammed between his fingers, thick smoke hanging in the room like a fog bank at sea. I introduce myself as the Editor-in-Chief of Celtic Nation. Auerbach listens politely in a way that reminds me of Marlon Brando in The Godfather, and I suddenly realize that this comparison isn’t far from the truth. Larry Bird said it best: ‘When Red Auerbach walks into the room everyone knows their place. Everyone respects him. And when Red says something you listen to him.”
The purpose of my call is to secure an exclusive with Auerbach for Celtic Nation, my Internet-based Boston Celtics magazine. He absorbs my request without interruption, and I feel that first tinge of unease creep over me. I’m once again drawn to the image of Brando. As crazy as it sounds, I glance out my living room window expecting to see a black limousine in the driveway, its occupants preparing to fit me with my very own pair of cinderblock shoes.
“No,” he says at last, breaking the silence. “I don’t want to sound mean here, but I don’t have time for this crap. Do you know how many people want to interview me? Do you know how many calls I get?”
I tell him that I can only imagine. Red Auerbach was a twenty-nine-year-old head coach when the Basketball Association of America (the precursor to today’s NBA) was formed in 1946. He was the architect of the greatest dynasty in American sports history, his Celtics winning 11 NBA World Championships in a 13 year span. He has built championship teams, rebuilt them, and built them again. Sixteen championship banners hang from the Fleet Center rafters, each and every one of them a tribute to the man growling at me on the other end of the line.
“Three thousand a year,” he says matter-of-factly. I don’t know if he’s making a point or if I should take him at his word, but I do the math; that’s an average of eight per day, including weekends and holidays. “Do you know how many I turn down? I’m eighty-four years old. I’m too damned old to do these anymore, so I don’t do these anymore.”
Defeated, I thank him for his time and prepare to hang up. I have other interviews posted on web site, ready for the official launch, so all is not lost. But to cave so quickly on the most important interview of my life is unacceptable. I close my eyes and rip myself for such a lame pitch, and then snatch the phone back up to my ear.
“Mr. Auerbach,” I say in a loud voice, knowing that he must have already put the phone down and started to work on another cigar. “Are you still there?”
And then, in that gravel-throated Brooklyn accent: “Yeah?”
I anxiously tell him about my just-completed interviews with Frank Ramsey and KC Jones, both of them former Celtics and both of them members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. I mention my upcoming interview with Satch Sanders, another Celtic great whose jersey has been retired to the Fleet Center rafters. These are Red’s boys, part of the family, players that Auerbach himself handpicked to build his dynasty.
"What’s your name? Where are you calling from?”
I explain that I’m from West Virginia, not far from where Jerry West grew up. I’m also from the same state that produced Chris Wallace, the Celtics’ current General Manager. I tell him that Chris provided a quote for one of my books. He greets all of this with unimpressed silence.
“Tell you what,” he says. “Send me something to look at. I’m letting you know right now that I won’t do an interview, but at least I’ll take a look at your work. And don’t send me a lot – at my age I don’t have time to fool with this stuff.”
I hang up and sprint for the computer.
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