FALLS CHURCH, Va. - The rabbi said the family had directed that the ceremony be “brief” and “punctual.”
He read the 23d Psalm.
He read the Kaddish, or prayer of mourning.
The casket was lowered.
An American flag was placed inside.
The ceremonial dirt was thrown on the coffin by either a trowel or shovel.
And that was it.
No muss, no fuss, no frills.
How positively Auerbachian.
This was, after all, a man who arrived in Boston with seven basic offensive plays, plus options, and who quit coaching 16 years later still using those basic seven plays, plus options. It wasn’t, he figured, nuclear physics. It was basketball, and no one ever has known it better.
They came old and they came young. Some wore yarmulkes and some didn’t. Men and women. Caucasians and people of color. But they were all united in love and admiration for a man who had affected them in ways that will last for the rest of their lives.
“He did so much for so many people,” said Brookline and Northeastern’s own Rick Weitzman, whom Red picked in the 10th round of the 1967 draft, and who impressed Red’s immediate successor Bill Russell enough to earn a spot on the team, which led to a championship ring. “He gave me an opportunity when nobody else would have. And he was responsible for everything that has happened to me since.”
It was time to say goodbye to a truly great American icon, a man who, had he not channeled his talents into basketball, could have been a Speaker of the House or corporate CEO. If ever a man was born to lead people, it was Arnold J. Auerbach.
Many had come to pay their respects the night before to the Joseph Gawler Funeral Home on Wisconsin Avenue. And now there were additional mourners, such as NBA commissioner David Stern, former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik, Kevin McHale (who needs no introduction), New Jersey Nets general manager Rod Thorn, and Washington Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who was so much the object of Red’s affection at the 1977 draft that Red pounded his fist on the table in anger when the Bucks scooped up Grunfeld a pick before Boston’s (hello, Cedric Maxwell).
But the gathering included more than just the NBA’s high and mighty. There were plenty of just plain folk, too, including a man and his 12-year old son, dressed in a green Celtics sweatshirt.
Towering above the crowd were two large black men, one quite simply the greatest player Red, or anyone else, ever had, the other a fabulously successful college coach. Bill Russell and John Thompson were teammates for two seasons in the mid ‘60s, when, as the great Frank Deford once wrote, “There are two great spring rituals in Boston: Lent, and the Celtics in the playoffs.”
The large black man from Oakland and the large black man from Washington each had fallen under the spell of the little Jewish man from Brooklyn, quoting him and re-quoting him, the former to enraptured audiences and the latter to the kind of young men his own son and successor as Georgetown coach, John Thompson III, had brought en masse to the funeral parlor the night before.
Red Auerbach is gone in body, but his feisty spirit lives on in the countless people who either played for him, worked for him, or studied him. The Auerbach basketball stories and the Auerbach bad driver stories and all the rest always will be told and retold, because they are either instructive or flat-out funny. But it turns out there were far more people who had good reason to mourn Red beyond those who made their lives from professional basketball. Now I’m hearing from people whose personal encounters with Red Auerbach resulted in everything from a pair of free tickets or a Celtics trinket to help in paying their medical bills. Red’s Midas touch in finding employment for Celtic alumni was legendary, but that was hardly the end of his personal largesse. In fact, it was only the beginning.
I learned Monday night from Red’s nephew Stuart Grossman that in his later years Red had become enamored of the jump-roping activity known as “Double Dutch,” funding programs throughout New England. Who knew?
Red liked helping people, and he wasn’t shy in dispensing advice. Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News remembers telling Red that his own dad, having reached 80, was reluctant to use a cane, which he obviously needed. Red, who had used one for years, demanded Ben Lupica’s phone number. Red called him up, told him to stop being so foolish, and Ben Lupica now uses a cane.
He was a natural-born host. His office in the Old Garden was like a social club, but he really turned it up a notch if you went to his home. He was one of those people who kept offering you candy or another drink every five minutes. And he absolutely always inquired about your kids. I mean, always.
Did you want to get on his bad side? No, you didn’t. Ask Maxwell, who Red thought was not diligent enough in rehabbing his knee during the ‘84-85 season, and who was then dispatched when the season was over to NBA Siberia (i.e. the Los Angeles Clippers). Max was on the outs for 20 years before Red relented and agreed to have Maxwell’s No. 31 go up in the rafters. “I go see him,” Max recalls, “and he taps me on the knee and says, `All is forgiven.’ I’m thinking, `Forgiven? Wait a minute; he traded me!”’
OK, so he had a long memory.
But it’s his generous nature that will be remembered. Weitzman is hardly the only Celtic alum who feels a debt of gratitude to the old coach. Red was helping out people 55 years ago. He put in a good word for Bones McKinney to get the Wake Forest job, for example, and a few years later Bones repaid him by tipping him off to a player at a little-known college he thought Red should consider drafting. The player was Sam Jones, and he was the first No. 1 pick in either football or basketball to come from a historically black college. Yup, another Red Auerbach first. Red and race and being ahead of the curve; there’s a book in that one.
It’s all past tense now, and his countless disciples are left to carry on. “The rabbis always say the best part of these graveside services is the throwing of the dirt,” mused David Stern, “because that’s one favor you can’t return.”