EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 30, 2006

Like him or not, Auerbach did things his own way

Alan Siegel

Nobody expected Red Auerbach to speak that night. He was 87, tired, and hungry for the Chinese food buffet set up in his honor.

But hell, he probably thought, it was his book signing. Why not get up to the podium? His speech, which probably lasted about five minutes, will always stick with me.

"Whether you know it or not," he began slowly and clearly, "I'm a grouch and a little bit of an introvert."

That was two Octobers ago. Auerbach and author John Feinstein had just released "Let me Tell you a Story: A lifetime in the game," a collection of the late legend's tales. His alma mater, George Washington University, hosted the event in its gym.

As a senior writing for the college paper at the time, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. This elderly man, who walked with a cane and wore dark glasses, had temporarily transformed into a comedian.

"I don't really like too many people," he continued. "There's too much nonsense with people today."

That's what I learned about Red after meeting him in person just once. He was a master at cutting through the mess. Even in his 80s, the truth rarely eluded him.

Take this book signing, for example.

"What the hell are (people) going to say to me?" he asked, finally cracking a smile. "Hey Red, I hated your book."

I didn't expect to speak to him one-on-one that day. He wasn't exactly known for entertaining platitudes from strangers.

A few years before, my grandmother told me that in the mid 1960s, at the height of his glory, she saw Red at the House of Roy, a Chinese restaurant in downtown Boston. Star-struck, she complimented the Celtics, particularly the excellent job he'd been doing.

Red, most likely hungry for his beloved Chinese food, walked right on by without so much as a nod.

"Maybe he didn't hear me," my grandmother said.

Sure.

Needless to say, I doubted he'd entertain me for a few minutes. But Feinstein, eager to help out, brought me over to Red, who shook my hand.

Our conversation focused mainly on soft topics, ranging from GW basketball - the team he played for in the late 1930s - to the state of the Celtics. Sadly, his assessment of the franchise's rebuilding process still rings true. "It's going to take a while," he said.

I said it then, and I'll say it now - the man scared me.

After all, this was the man who, without hesitation or remorse, walked through GW buildings, smoking his trademark cigar. Who dared stop him? Not the school's athletic director, Jack Kvancz. A longtime friend of Red since his days as a basketball star playing under coach Bob Cousy at Boston College, Kvancz was a regular at the legendary coach's weekly lunches at the China Doll restaurant in Washington, D.C.

A creature of routine, he'd attend several GW basketball games every season at the 5,000-seat Smith Center. Recently, the University painted his seat red. After his passing, it will remain conspicuously empty this winter.

When I thought about Red Auerbach late Saturday night - fittingly over a plate of leftover Chinese food - I went back to that sarcasm-filled book signing.

No wonder some people claimed to hate the guy. He said, did and ate whatever he wanted; even as an old man. How could you not be jealous?