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Red, Buff & Blue

Red Auerbach passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Auerbach was a roundball pioneer---a great coach and an equally great executive who, in the words of John Feinstein, "for all intents and purposes, invented professional basketball."

While Auerbach's name is inextricably associated with the Boston Celtics, he was actually a long-time Washingtonian. Born in Brooklyn, Auerbach played basketball for three seasons at George Washington. He coached for a spell at St. Alban's and entered professional coaching with the long-defunct Washington Capitols of the long-defunct Basketball Association of America. In 1947, Auerbach's best season with the Capitols, his team posted an .817 winning percentage and compiled a seventeen-game winning streak---both marks lasting as professional records for another two decades. In 1950, after brief stints at Duke and with fledgling NBA franchises in the Midwest, Auerbach assumed control of the Celtics.

Suffice it to say, Auerbach made history from there.

Through it all, Auerbach continued to make the DC area his permanent home. According to Boston sportswriter Jackie McMullen, interviewed last night on ESPN Radio, Auerbach did so to better care for a daughter who had asthma and to keep his personal and professional lives separate. Auerbach was an inaugural member of GW's sports hall of fame and was the honoree and host of an early season basketball tournament at the Smith Center.

At that, if you'll pardon the indulgence, is where Red and I met up, however indirectly. The following is excerpted from a three-part series I wrote at my old blog, Nationals Inquirer, in March 2005:

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[T]he most remarkable story I can relate from my college years, basketball-wise, comes from [the 1996-97] season---not The UMass Game [in early 1995, when GW beat the No. 1-ranked team, with the President in attendance].

It occurred at the Red Auerbach Classic. You might know that Auerbach went to GW; yeah, that was awhile ago. As the program got better in the early 90s, Auerbach's profile at the Smith Center grew again, and the Colonials established an early season tournament (read: let's beat the heck out of the South Carolina States and Dartmouths of the world) in his name. It was half-time of GW's "semi-final" game against Buttcrack U. Auerbach was sitting directly across the court, just sort of relaxing, talking to someone. Maybe it was CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who also attends the games regularly.

Spontaneously, my buddy Chris Balding turned to another friend, who was a sports editor for the Hatchet, and said, "Give me your press pass." The friend didn't really know what to say; he just sort of limply handed the pass over.

Now, there's something you need to know about Balding: he considers himself a sophisticated guy. (I'll reserve comment as to the objective truth, if you know what I mean.) He likes fine wines and enjoys cooking nice dinners and prefers to sip---not mix---vodka. And he loves quality . . .

. . . CIGARS.

The cigar is Auerbach's trademark, of course.

So, there's Balding sprinting over to Auerbach's side of the court. He stops about twenty feet short of Red, takes a breath, walks over, taps the other guy on the shoulder, asks to speak to Red, sits down, and puts his arm around Auerbach's shoulder. They start chatting.

Balding flashes his usual toothy grin; Auerbach chuckles at something.

And, before you know it, Balding is running right past us, toward the exit of the Smith Center. Upon our request, he stopped briefly to explain what he was doing. Guess. He was running back to his dorm room, because HE WAS GOING TO EXCHANGE CIGARS WITH RED AUERBACH.

In retrospect, I don't know if it seems like that big a deal, but at the time, it really was. Just consider the spontaneous nerve it took to decide, at that instant, that "Hey, I'm going to chat up Red Auerbach. Better yet, I'll give him a cigar." I prefer to remember that Auerbach got a kick out of the whole thing, though it's possible he was just trying to please Balding in order to get the kid out of his way. Although I was across the court and could see the conversation, I'll never really know.

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At any rate, that's my fun little Red Auerbach story. Hundreds of people have better. But then, when a near-eighty year-old coaching legend enjoying a game at a tournament named in his honor is willing to trade cigars with some idiot twenty year-old kid bearing a stolen press pass, that's probably the point: Auerbach was a great, and greats inspire great stories.