The expectations were high in Boston, and it was Red Auerbach time—the NBA Playoffs. Red lived for this time of year.
When Red Auerbach died on Saturday, October 26, 2006 the world of sports lost a true giant. He left a legacy of NBA success that will never be matched in our lifetime.
Despite relinquishing the division title to Cleveland this year due to injuries, Boston was still the team to beat. They lost the cornerstone of the team, Kevin Garnett, and it proved to be too much.
We all know that Red Auerbach was the greatest coach in the history of team sports. Phil Jackson is a great coach—but he is nobody’s Red Auerbach. There is definitely a great possibility that Phil Jackson will surpass Red in the number of NBA Championships won in 2009, but that is just a number. Red was genius.
Despite his death, Red is still coaching. His coaching spirit lives in Danny Ainge, Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and the entire Celtics’ organization. The Boston Celtics' fantastic 2008 run to last year’s NBA Championship had the touch of an angel—and that angel was Red.
Red was not only a great basketball coach, but his won-lost record in Human and Civil Rights in pro sports is unmatched. Thanks to Red and Celtics owner Walter Brown, the NBA is now the most integrated franchise in professional team sports.
I met Red and Dotie Auerbach on a Chevy Chase playground in a Maryland suburb of DC in the late '60s. They were hanging out watching Summer League Basketball.
I found Dotie sitting alone outside the fence watching the action. We struck up a conversation about one of the players. I thought to myself, “This little white lady sure knows a lot about the game of basketball.”
We talked basketball for the next 30 minutes when suddenly her husband showed up with cold drinks. Her husband was the one and only Red Auerbach.
Dotie introduced us and Red growled something sarcastic and she said, “Arnold, stop acting up.” Red had a demeanor of a tiger when he didn’t want someone getting too close, but in reality he was nothing but a pussycat.
For the next 30 plus years Red and Dotie Auerbach would become a fixture and supporters of Kids In Trouble, Inc and Inside Sports. During that relationship, my wife Hattie and I would visit their home on Mass. Ave. in upper NW DC. We would often have lunch with Dotie and she would show off her antiques and art collection in the added room of a next-door apartment.
The walls of the apartment had been knocked down to accommodate the collection. Red would usually be out playing cards or tennis at Woodmont Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Dotie was a classy down to earth lady and we fell in love with her. We were and still are benefactors of their generosity and kindness. Their spirit lives in us.
I remember the first time Red invited me to have lunch with him. He asked me to meet him on the corner of 9th and F Streets in NW DC. I thought we were going to have lunch at some fancy restaurant downtown. I was in for a surprise. He treated me to a kosher hotdog with sauerkraut and a RC Cola from a vendor’s stand on a downtown street corner.
We would later walk around the corner to Ophenhimer’s jewelry store, where his brother—the late Zang—was the manager. Zang had been a cartoonist for the now defunct Washington Star newspaper before his retirement. He would later draw a cartoon of Hattie playing a guitar for her 40th birthday portraying the legendary and late comedian Jack Benny saying “I am 39 years old and not a day older.” Much like Red, Zang and his son Johnny who also worked in the store were rare jewels themselves. The jewelry store would become my downtown hangout.
I remember one day walking into the store and there was Red, Zang, Sam Jones, and the late Hymie Perlo joking around. Before I could get through the door, Hymie was asking Red, “What does Harold Bell have on you? Every time I turn on the dam radio you are on his show?” Without hesitation Red responded ‘My wife loves him.’
I would later be invited to the VIP luncheons in Chinatown on Tuesdays where Red would play “King for a Day.” He would hold court and listen to friends, media, and sports personalities tell him how great he was. I really enjoyed the outings when his friend—the late Hymie Perlo—was in attendance.
Hymie was the Community Relations and PR man for for his old friend Abe Polin, owner of Washington Wizards. Hymie kept us laughing and he made Red keep it real with his down-to-earth humor. With the exception of a few people, most of the guys in attendance were a bunch of wannabes—and being around Red made them feel like they were important.
The last time I saw Red was four years ago at one of those Tuesday luncheons in China Town. I made a surprise visit and you could hear a pin drop at the table where he was holding court.
Seeing me walking toward the table everyone suddenly stopped laughing and talking. Red had his back to me and could not see me. I stood directly behind him. He had to turn to see who in the hell was interrupting his lunch and when he did he said, "Who in the hell invited you?" My response was, "Now I need an invitation to eat with you?"
He suddenly started to laugh and got up and hugged me. I whispered, "You are out of sight but never out of mind and I love you." He understood exactly what I was trying to say to him. We had talked by telephone, but this was my first time seeing him since his wife Dotie died in 2000 and his brother Zang died in 2003. I hugged him again and I walked away.
Red and Dotie’s friendship reminds me of what Muhammad Ali once told me about his definition of a friend. He said, "A friend is someone who is always doing something for you and never expecting anything in return." Ali, meet Red and Dotie Auerbach.
Red reminded me a lot of Ali. When he made his entrance into a crowded room all activity came to an abrupt end. He would be the center of attention. When I called the house to talk with Dotie and he found out it was me, he would shout “Hey Dotie, it's that nuisance Harold Bell," or "Dotie, it's your boyfriend, Harold Bell.” Red and Dotie treated me and Hattie like we were family.
Red Auerbach was a rare superstar. His telephone number was listed and he answered his own telephone. I don’t ever remember them having an answering service—or maybe I just never left a message.
December 2008 marked 40 years of Christmas Toy Parties sponsored by Kids In Trouble, Inc. Before Dotie took ill and died in 2000, there was always a check for toys coming from the home of the Auerbachs. They were members of the Board of Directors of Kids In Trouble, Inc.
Red also co-hosted several of my Inside Sports Celebrity Tennis Tournaments, and was a frequent guest speaker for my Kids In Trouble, Inc. forums. He co-hosted “Inside Sports.” In 1990, along with NBA legends Sam Jones, Connie Hawkins and Al Attles as our guest he co-hosted a show with me titled "Celebrity Sports Calls."
Red loved to attend Double Dutch jumprope tournaments in the inner-city. I would call him, and we would go and sit up in a far corner of a gym and enjoy the program. He would swear the kids participating were some of the greatest athletes in the city.
He was definitely the godfather of the NBA. I remember in Houston, Texas somewhere in the 1980s I attend my first NBA All-Star game. I was having a problem acquiring press credentials. When I went to pick up my applied for credentials I was told by NBA Media Director Brian McIntye that my credential request had not been received.
I asked Mr. McIntye, “Why would I fly all the way from DC to Houston without applying for press credentials in advance?” He would not budge. I then remembered talking to Red before I left DC and he said, "Harold, I don’t think I am going to make this one." It was then I realized I had an ace in the hole, Red Auerbach.
I returned to the pressroom and asked Mr. McIntye if he knew Red Auerbach? His response was “Yes—do you?” I then asked him if I could use his telephone and he said, "Sure, go ahead." I dialed Red and Dotie’s number in DC, knowing Red was probably out at the club playing tennis or cards. My only hope was that Dotie would be home.
The telephone rang several times and Dotie answered. I said "Hi Dotie, this is Harold Bell. I am at the NBA All-Star game in Houston. Would you please speak to Mr. McIntye? He needs verification of who I am."
I then gave the phone to Mr. McIntye, and the look on his face said it all. Dotie had told him exactly who I was. I wished I had a camera at the moment—the look on Brian’s face was priceless.
He hung up the telephone and was speechless for about 30 seconds. He finally said, "No problem, Mr. Bell."
In 1950, Chuck Cooper—a second team All-American from Duquesne University—was drafted by Red Auerbach. Cooper was the first black player drafted and signed by an NBA team.
But Earl Lloyd of West Virginia State (CIAA) was the first black player to play in a game, beating Chuck Cooper by one day (Lloyd was discharged from the Army one day before Cooper). For years, basketball historians were under the impression that Cooper was the first to play in a NBA game.
I had Red address the issue in 1974 on my sports talk show “Inside Sports.” Red made it perfectly clear that Lloyd was the first to play in an NBA game. For years, the NBA had forgotten that it was Earl Lloyd who broke its color barrier or ignored the fact. They left him on the outside looking into the Hall of Fame.
While growing up I had watched Earl shoot hoops on the playgrounds of DC. He was born and raised in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. I asked Red went to remind the NBA of Earl’s historical accomplishment.
With Red’s support, I started a media campaign on Inside Sports in the '90s to get Earl inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame. In 2000 Washington, DC hosted the NBA All-Star game. I coordinated a salute and reception for Earl Lloyd in the Nation’s Capitol and his hometown of Alexandria.
During the NBA All-Star weekend, the salute and reception were the only NBA-related events Red Auerbach attended. In 2002, Earl Lloyd was finally inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, joining DC’s Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing as a part of this area’s rich basketball heritage. Adrian Dantley (an Inside Sports benefactor) recently joined the DC of NBA Hall of Famers.
During the Kids In Trouble, Inc. celebration in December 2008 we honored TBS NBA playoff basketball sideline reporter Dave Aldridge (an Inside Sports benefactor) was given the Red Auerbach Kids In Trouble, Inc Lifetime Achievement Award. Beijing Olympic Volleyball paraplegic Silver Medal winner Karri Miller was given the Dotie Auerbach Kids In Trouble, Inc Lifetime Achievement Award.
There were the NBA awards handed out this year—Ray Allen of the Celtics was honored with the Player of the Year, Dwight Howard of Orlando was named the Defensive Player of the Year, and Coach Mike Brown of the Cleveland Cavaliers was named the Coach of the Year. Rookie of the Year was Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose and the Sixth Man of the Year was Dallas Mavericks, Jason Terry.
The NBA’s leading scorer, rebounder, and assist leader were all black. The footprints in the sand left by Red Auerbach and Walter Brown can still be seen all over the league.
2008 found me trying to complete my upcoming book "Politics: Inside and Outside of Sports" and editing a CD and DVD titled "The Greatest," which contained interview gems with Red and Muhammad Ali. I missed the entire NBA regular season.
In March, as the NBA regular season was coming to an end I decided to check out the Washington Wizards. They were having one of their worst seasons in their history.
The Wizards, one of the worst teams in the league was playing the best team in the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Gilbert Arenas the Wizards' best player had missed the entire season as a result of knee surgery. There were rumors he would test his knee against who some consider the best player in the league, LeBron James. I placed a call to the press relations office requesting press credentials.
I left several messages for Matt Williams (Media and PR) without response. I then called Brian McIntye in the NBA office in New York City. He graciously accepted my call and made sure my request was honored. I have Red Auerbach to thank for the kind and professional gesture on the part of Mr. McIntye. Red was still working his magic. The Wizards, led by Arenas, beat James and his Cavaliers.
The Auerbachs’ acts of kindness are not just found in my story. There are probably hundreds more like mine in the inner cities of America.
Red and Dotie Auerbach are gone but never should be forgotten—they cared long before the NBA.
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