BOSTON (AP) – More than a decade ago, a reporter nervously approached Red Auerbach at a Celtics practice. He just wanted to say that his mother and the sometimes gruff Hall of Famer had been high school classmates.

Auerbach listened with a serious face. Then he smiled and chatted pleasantly about the old days at Eastern District High in Brooklyn, N.Y.

That side of Auerbach conflicted with his public image – a straight-talking, cigar-puffing guy who delighted in tweaking opponents verbally and outsmarting them in trades.

His players, though, loved him as much as he loved the Chinese food that was a staple of his diet.

At a Boston Celtics game on April 8, 1999, Hall of Famer Bill Russell explained why he decided to succeed Auerbach as coach for the 1966-67 season.

“That’s the one time I could make sure that I have a coach I like as much as I like you,” he recalled with his characteristic cackle, “maybe more.”

Auerbach died Saturday at 89 in Washington, D.C., where he lived. The Celtics plan to dedicate the season to him.

Auerbach’s Celtics won nine championships before he became general manager and then president and led them to seven more. But there were sad times.

Len Bias, one of Auerbach’s counselors at a summer basketball camp, died two days after Auerbach drafted him with the second overall pick in 1986. Rick Pitino stripped Auerbach of the president’s title when he became coach in 1997. And Auerbach’s wife, Dorothy, died in 2000.

Still, Auerbach kept advising the team wisely.

But, as age took its toll, he showed up at Celtics games using a cane. Last April, he appeared at one in a wheelchair.

He had planned to attend next Wednesday’s season opener in Boston on the 60th anniversary of his first NBA victory, as coach of the Washington Capitols. It would have been his 57th season with the Celtics.

“To this day,” team owner Wyc Grousbeck said last week, “he’s the sharpest mind I’ve ever met.”

Before last season’s opener, Auerbach traveled to Boston with one of his daughters and two doctors. He had been hospitalized just two months earlier. But it was another opening he didn’t want to miss.

“I’ve been to, oh, about 50 of them,” he said at the time. “It’s always a great thrill, it really is.”

As his role in the organization diminished in the 1990s, Auerbach still would watch from his seat in the loge, sometimes razzing the refs, always rooting for his players – some of them nearly 70 years his junior.

He would comment to reporters on players – Paul Pierce is a future Hall of Famer, he said – and he said that the age of the young Celtics wasn’t a factor in the team’s performance as much as the absence of outstanding veterans was.

Auerbach never was shy with his opinions.

He said Phil Jackson, who matched Auerbach’s record nine NBA titles, was an outstanding coach but “picked his spots” in signing with outstanding teams.

But Auerbach wasn’t afraid to make jokes at his own expense.

When he was honored 3 years ago with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sports Museum of New England, he told the adoring crowd:

“Usually, these kind of affairs bore the hell out of me. I get fidgety.”

Then he reminisced for 20 minutes, entertaining the audience with a comic’s sense of timing.

Steve Grogan, the former New England Patriots quarterback, also was honored at the event. He couldn’t wait to visit his family members the next day so he could deliver this message:

“I was at the same event with Red Auerbach. I’m going to be a hero in town.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.