He is the only man to drink champagne with Larry Bird, smoke a cigar with Red Auerbach, and photograph Chris Sale, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Kevin Youkilis (with hair) while they were still college kids.
Jan Volk spent 26 years with the Celtics, the last 13 as general manager, succeeding the legendary Red Auerbach.
In 1978, his extensive knowledge of NBA rules contributed to his biggest impact on the franchise. He found a way to exploit a recently modified rule and draft Bird as a junior at Indiana State.
Initially Auerbach didn’t believe the risky move was possible because Bird had declared he was going to play his senior year, and under the old rules, the Celtics would have been unable to sign him.
“Red argued with me and said, ‘We can’t do that,’ ” says Volk. “It was an argument between two very stubborn people.”
The discussion grew heated.
Celtics coach Satch Sanders poked his head in the door.
“You guys are not going to agree,” Sanders said. “Let’s settle this the honorable way; let’s call David Stern.”
Stern, who would later become NBA commissioner, was the league’s general counsel at the time. He ruled that what the Celtics wanted to do was indeed permissible.
So on June 9, 1978, Volk was at a New York City hotel ballroom on the phone with Auerbach, who was at the Blades and Boards Club in Boston Garden.
“Take him, go for it,” said Auerbach, after first lighting up a victory cigar.
Volk selected the junior Bird with the sixth pick of the first round.
“My hand was shaking because I thought I was witnessing a turning point in Celtics history,” says Volk.
Volk has seen the highest of highs with the Celtics — being part of five NBA championships — and the lowest of lows — the tragic deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis. After leaving the Celtics following the Rick Pitino purge of 1997, he formed SportsPix, a sports photography company that has documented every Cape Cod League player since 2000, along with high school and college sports.
Thousands and thousands of sports photos later, his motor-driven Nikon has been temporarily silenced because of the coronavirus shutdown. But the break also has given the energetic, 73-year-old Volk a chance to reflect on a career like no other.
For the last 20 years, the occasional Cape league coach and fan would do a double-take to see Volk, monopod and long telephoto lens on the baseball field instead of the fabled parquet.
Former Celtics team photographer Steve Lipofsky points out that Volk used to shoot Patriots games and Boston College games in the Doug Flutie years, and even the Olympic trials. He loved to chat up sports photographers at Celtics practices.
“He was always passionate about photography,” says Lipofsky. “It really jibes with his personality and his affinity for photography. He is extremely knowledgeable and humble.”
“Humble” was not a word usually associated with his cigar-smoking boss. But they made a great combination.
Volk started work for the Celtics selling season tickets in August 1971, straight out of Columbia School of Law. His big break came during his very first season.
“I got a message that Red wanted to see me in the Celtics locker room ASAP,” Volk says. ”Red said, ‘You’re a lawyer, right?’ ”
Auerbach wanted to make a deal with Jerry Colangelo, owner of the Phoenix Suns, but Red’s lawyers were unreachable.
“They were on the ski slopes, and in 1972 you might as well have been on the moon,” Volk says.
Volk and a lawyer friend quickly cobbled together a contract.
“It was the trade that brought Paul Silas to Boston [for Charlie Scott’s ABA draft rights and cash],” says Volk. “And it was a pretty good deal.”
Volk was on a handshake contract with Auerbach, who eventually expanded Volk’s duties to include traveling secretary, manager of equipment purchases, general counsel, assistant general manager, and finally, in 1984, GM.
Nobody in the NBA knew the complexities of contracts and rules better.
“It was so fortuitous,” Volk says. “I learned the business as the business was evolving.”
Auerbach trusted him.
“Red, for all his success and strong ego, knew the holes in his game and hired people to fill them,” says Volk.
There were no secrets between the two.
“Red was the face of the franchise, and got credit for everything, and that was fine with me,” says Volk.
Volk says there was no one like Bird.
“Larry was as motivated and as competitive a player as anyone has ever seen,” he says.
But Volk, forever in Red’s shadow, sometimes had to absorb the punches. During Bird’s salary renegotiations in 1988, the nine-time All-Star publicly complained that Volk treated him “like a rookie.”
Bird’s relationships with fans reflected his unique personality.
“As a kid, he had thumbed to an ABA game in Louisville and got blown off for an autograph at a Kentucky Colonels game by Artis Gilmore‚” Volk says. ”It was actually an issue for us when we brought Artis here [in 1988] at the end of his career.”
Bird apparently never forgot.
“Oh, Larry was incredibly strong-minded,” says Volk. ”He got a hold of something, he went with it.”
Celtics coach K.C. Jones addressed the Gilmore issue with Bird.
“The end result was that Larry got it," says Volk. ”He understood it helps us, and they became fast friends.”
According to Volk, Bird would patiently sign autographs for kids.
“What he was not as cool with were adult autographs,” Volk says. ”I remember a man came up to him all excited and said, ‘I’ve got to get your autograph. My wife will kill me if I don’t get this autograph.’ And he looked at him and said, ‘Sir, you’re a dead man.’ ”
Volk’s attention to legalese helped Auerbach pull off a steal when he landed both Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, two of the Big Three, in 1980. He also fought the Toronto Blue Jays in a New York federal court for the services of Danny Ainge.
The 1985-86 Celtics were Volk’s favorite team. In September 1985, the Celtics traded Cedric Maxwell, MVP of the 1981 Finals, and a first-round draft pick for future Hall of Famer Bill Walton.
Auerbach was infuriated by what he perceived as Maxwell’s sluggish rehabilitation from knee surgery that February and then his refusal to attend rookie camp to test the knee that summer.
“Red really did feel that Max let him down, and the players felt it [too],” Volk says. “[Teammates] expressed it to management and they were disappointed.”
The gamble on the oft-injured Walton paid off, as he played in a career-high 80 games and helped the Celtics win their 16th championship.
There’s still sadness that seeps into Volk’s voice when he talks about the tragic deaths of Bias and Lewis. He had watched them play at the Celtics’ Marshfield camp and thought how bright the future would be.
According to Volk, the day before the 1986 draft, as Bias was getting ready to go to the airport, he looked Volk in the eye and said, “Please draft me, please. I want to be here.”
Two days after the Celtics made him the second pick in the draft, Bias died from a cocaine overdose. Volk got the call at 6 a.m., and he says his reaction was total disbelief.
The Celtics felt the death of Bias and then the 1993 death of captain Lewis of cardiac arrest for years to come.
When Pitino arrived in 1997, Volk was told the new coach wanted his own people.
“I left the office that day, I was about 3 inches taller,” he says. "There was a weight lifted off my shoulders.”
Pitino also stripped Auerbach of the president’s title.
“It appeared to be totally disrespectful of what Red had done,” says Volk.
Hobby becomes a vocation
Volk later served as a consultant for the Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets, and he teaches a course called “Business of Sports: A Study of the NBA” at Tufts. But the young kid who shot photos from the balcony of the Garden decided to pursue his lifelong passion: sports photography.
The turning point was when he realized there were no photos from his soccer-playing days at Colby College. His photos of his son Matt playing college football also were lacking because he was distracted and just wanted to watch him play. But the other parents loved the photos he took of their kids, and that encouraged him to start SportsPix.
Volk never shot a Celtics game while he worked for the team; he didn’t think it was appropriate. Plus, he always had to deal with Auerbach, who could be a handful. Volk remembers when the Sixers’ Marc Iavaroni got into a fight with Bird in 1983 and both were ejected. Auerbach charged out of his loge seats onto the court.
“He was coming hard, and I tried to calm him down,“ Volk says. “He knocked me out of the way like I was a rag doll. He was really strong.”
Auerbach went after the referees and then 76ers coach Billy Cunningham, who wound up with a ripped sports jacket.
“[Cunningham] said, ‘Wow, can you believe this guy? He’s 66 years old and this is only an exhibition game. What passion.’ ”
Volk’s passion now is the Cape Cod League, where they use wooden bats and have a motto that says, “Where the Stars of Tomorrow Shine Tonight.”
“It’s like Norman Rockwell Americana,” says Volk, who has a house in Centerville.
He feels bad for all the players who won’t have a chance to showcase themselves because of the pandemic.
“I think it’s horrible,” he says.
Volk, a grandfather of three, has made one concession to age: He no longer shoots on the field. He’s been tattooed twice with foul balls.
“One hit me below the belt buckle,” he laughs. “It broke the monopod and knocked me on my butt.''
But he promises to be back next season and shows no sign of quitting despite two back surgeries.
“I used to be the kid," he says, "and there was a point in time where other teams were so happy to be able to talk to me instead of Red. But that changed. I’m 73 years old — when did that happen?”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.