BOSTON - A bouquet of green roses topped by a single, unlit cigar sat in Red Auerbach’s empty seat at the new Boston Garden on Wednesday night as the Celtics opened the season without their patriarch for the first time in half a century.
A pregame tribute showed video of Auerbach — accompanied by Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” — running his teams through drills, berating officials, barking out plays and settling back in his chair to light up a victory cigar.
There was, of course, ample footage of players carrying him off the court on their shoulders, hugging him in a postgame celebration and holding up one of the NBA-record 16 championship trophies the franchise won under his watch.
Bagpipers skirled “Amazing Grace,” and some of the 56 years worth of team pictures — with Auerbach in the middle, holding the ball — circled the arena on the message board. On the court, two decals portrayed Auerbach in silhouette, smoking a cigar.
But the fans never got a chance to do what Auerbach did so many times — light up a victory cigar. Those in the expensive courtside seats were given them, but the Celtics lost to the New Orleans Hornets 91-87.
“It was a great honor for me to even know Red,” Celtics captain Paul Pierce told the fans from midcourt, surrounded by past greats such as Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Robert Parish. “As we move forward we’ve got to continue to celebrate his legacy.”
Then, Pierce told the sellout crowd of 18,624 there was one thing that Auerbach liked best.
“Winning,” came the shout from the bleachers.
“Even better than winning,” Pierce answered, Auerbach liked the chant of “Let’s go, Celtics!”
And the crowd responded.
The Celtics wore black, shamrock-shaped patches on their uniforms for the game against the New Orleans Hornets and said they will dedicate the season to the former coach, general manager and president who died Saturday at the age of 89. He was buried Tuesday in Falls Church, Va.
“Aside from the talk about — and truth about — his competitiveness and people sharing stories about Red yelling at them,” NBA commissioner David Stern told reporters before the game, “this was a real gentleman and a very good friend.
“I can’t help smiling when I think of Red. Although it may be said, and it is, when you talk about Red to anybody they start smiling. What a legacy, on top of everything else.”
Through deft drafting and cunning trades, Auerbach loaded the Celtics with Hall of Famers and filled the rafters with banners — nine as a coach, seven more from the front office.
“He did whatever it takes to win, without breaking the rules,” former Celtic JoJo White said during a ceremony at halftime of the game. “He bent the hell out of them, but he wouldn’t break them.”
At an afternoon rally on City Hall Plaza, Auerbach’s death was felt, too, by Spider Edwards, who spent 33 years sweeping the team’s famous parquet floor.
“Red was always a person that looked out for the little fellow,” the 76-year-old Edwards said. “He never made the little fellow feel small.”
Fans held “Thanks Red” signs, remembered him in guest books and laughed and cheered during a video tribute, which included interviews in which Auerbach recalled tweaking his opponents with obvious glee. Former players, including Parish and M.L. Carr, sat under a giant banner with the Auerbach silhouette, and the speakers made it clear they revered him for more than just winning.
“He’ll never be forgotten, and there will never be another like him,” U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy said. “The teams he led, with the legendary Bob Cousy and the incomparable Bill Russell, set the gold standard for professionalism and transformed his sport and this city.”
Cousy choked up as he remembered a final conversation with “my old coach and friend.”
“He was indefatigable. He was totally committed. He was relentless in the pursuit of his goals,” Cousy said.
Kennedy hailed Auerbach for breaking racial barriers — drafting the first black player, Chuck Cooper; hiring the first black head coach, Bill Russell; and fielding the first all-black starting five.
Gov. Mitt Romney spoke of the “Celtics spirit” that Auerbach defined, which he said was about qualities that aren’t as easy to measure, such as determination.
“He saw the heart of the Celtics,” he said.
Auerbach’s mystique was evident around the club even in recent years, which haven’t been successful, said fan Joe Pizzano, 40, of East Boston.
“You always had a feeling something good was going to happen,” he said. “With him not around, you just don’t think of it as the Celtics anymore. Now it’s just a basketball team. He was the Celtics.”
LeBron James took over the 4th quarter, Ray Allen hit a huge three to force OT and the Heat forced a Game 7.
From the basketball stars to the championship trophies, see highlights from the life of the legendary Celtics coach.
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