Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Ball Bounced Because of Red

We may not have been smart enough to understand what - or who - was behind why we did what we did, nor did we have much care for where we did it.

All we cared about was that we did it.......and did it as often as we could, where ever we could and with whomever was interested until we couldn't do it any more.

In the day when there were no color televisions, no FM radio, no handheld games, no indoor courts, and - take a deep breath - no fast food restuarants, we would simply put on our gloves, shovel off the newly fallen snow, find a neighborhood kid with a basketball, and shoot hoops.

By the hours. By the days. By the seasons.

On Blanchard Street at a basket high atop a bay of garages. At the courts at White's Park, or at the cozy cofines at West Street or Fletcher-Murphy.

At the hoop at the end of the driveway at Taylor's house off North State Street, or at the dunk-a-mania at Stooch Gagne's house on South State Street, or at the low (8 foot) hoops at Rumford School where we patented our dunks knowing that genetically we'd likely never have the chance in real time.

We all thought it was because we loved the game, that we all wanted to play for the Crimson Tide of Concord High or the Fightin' Irish of St. John's. Few, if any, of us understood who was responsible for planting the seed of interest in our being.

And realistically it was someone who may never have stepped foot in Our Town.

We may have loved basketball, but the genie behind the scene was Red Auerbach.

Red passed away a few months ago at the age of 89, and to most of us, he's freeze-framed in our mind as the genius behind the greatest TEAM in sports history - the Boston Celtics.

No, OUR Boston Celtics.

You see, we all played basketball because we loved the game, but hidden behind it all was the Celtics. Put together like pieces in a jig saw puzzle, the Celtics - Auerbach's Celtics - were everything that was right in our world.

We didn't understand just how right they really were. It took years and years of maturation, years of watching the slow demise of the NBA and the professionalizing of college basketball for us to realize just how finely tuned, how perfectly meshed, how mangerially perfect our Celtics were from the mid-50s through most of the 60s.

And it was Auerbach's fault.

It was clearly a different sports climate back in that day. My father would wake me, we'd scoop out the snow from the driveway on our side of the duplex, and we'd head off down Washington Street hill towards the Boston and Maine railroad yards to catch the passenger train into Boston's North Station.

North Station. Big, burly and flat out ugly, North Station meant two things to me: the passenger trains stopped there and the Boston Garden was upstairs.

For me, Boston Garden was a palace. Sure the first floor had its panhandlers and bums looking for an extra dime (inflation hadn't settled in just yet). And the walk up the curving ramps into the ticket foyer, well, stunk most of the time.

In fact I swear I had the following question on an SAT exam one year:

The smell of sausage is to Fenway Park as the smell of what is to the old Boston Garden?

Answer: Urine.

In any event, my father would bring me to Celtics games three or four times a year and we'd watch the best team in basketball beat team after team.

Sure there were the usual cast of stars that you read about or sawn on television paying hommage to their leader when he died.

But Red was more than a star-maker. He was into finding and fitting pieces together. Who wanted the geeky, bespectacled, knee-pad wearing kid out of that basketball behemoth NYU? (To be fair, NYU was pretty good back then, and Tom Sanders did have star power.) Or that skinny kid from North Carolina College who insisted on banking in all his shots from the side? (Sam Jones). Or that big brute of a guy who may have looked better providing pass blocking for Babe Parilli for the Pats? (Jim Loscutoff).

If it wasn't for Red we would never have heard of Gene Guarilla or Dickie Hemrick or Andy Phillips. We never would have had the joy of watching Baily Howell, a true star and gentleman, play out his career on the parquet floor.

We might not have fallen in love with basketball.....although I just can't see myself on skates.

Red Auerbach was just starting his climb to glory when we were lacing up our ChuckTaylor hightops. He was laying the foundation for what would become the greatest professional sport dynasty ever.

And all us lillte hooligans were the beneficiaries.

Thanks, Red.