WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers called his players together before practice to talk to them about Red Auerbach. It was too late to get to know him, but important that the players understood what he meant to the team, the city, the game.
Older players had seen Auerbach's fire for themselves -- both the competitive one and the flame at the end of his ever-present cigar -- but didn't know how he defined the game early on, then continued to dominate as his players became coaches and general managers running teams of their own. For the rookies, who never got a chance to meet him, it was a lesson about the franchise icon who traveled across New England to preach about the young NBA and build a mystique that would come to be known as Celtic pride.
"I wanted our young guys to hear those stories," Rivers said following practice Sunday, a day after Auerbach's heart failed him at the age of 89. "I don't think they knew a lot about him."
A young team with an average age under 25, several of the current players were infants when the Celtics won the last of their NBA-record 16 championships in 1986. None of them was born yet in Auerbach's heyday, when as coach and then general manager he led Boston to eight consecutive titles.
But what Rivers wanted to talk about wasn't what the Celtics did but what they looked like doing it; more precisely, it was the fact that Auerbach didn't care what they looked like. He drafted the NBA's first black player, hired its first black coach and fielded its first all-black starting five, and he did it in racially combustible Boston.
"Red did all that, but he wasn't doing that because he was trying to break ground," Rivers said. "His response was always: 'I'm trying to win a game and that's who I think gives us the best chance.' I think his example spread throughout the league."
The message got through, Celtics captain Paul Pierce said.
"I don't think a lot of these guys even knew that before Doc said it today," he said. "I think these guys really have to understand the history of the game. And Red is a big part of the history of the whole NBA -- not just the Celtics, but the whole NBA."
Although he never played for Auerbach, Shaquille O'Neal said Sunday he remembers Bill Russell telling a story about the time the Celtics arrived at a hotel that was for whites only. Auerbach didn't just find Russell another hotel; he loaded the whole team back on the bus and left.
"He was an innovator in almost everything he did," said Jerry West, who played for the rival Los Angeles Lakers and now runs the Memphis Grizzlies. "He not only brought the black athlete to Boston; more importantly, he recognized the greatness of the athletes that he had.
"There were times I hated him and the Celtics. But when all was said and done, he was someone I admired greatly. He had a gruff exterior, but behind that was a very gentle, kind man."
Gary Payton, now with the Miami Heat, saved a cigar Auerbach gave him on his first night with the Celtics. Antoine Walker called it "the opportunity of a lifetime" to get to know Auerbach.
"Any conversation regarding the greatest coaches in NBA history should begin with Red Auerbach," said Golden State coach Don Nelson, who played for Auerbach before following his mentor to an NBA bench. "He was a pioneer, an innovator and, most notably, an incredible winner."
Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird said Auerbach was "one of the most influential people in my life."
"There could only be one Red Auerbach," the former Celtics star said. "And I'll always be grateful for having the opportunity to experience his genius and his dedication to winning through teamwork."
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