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.”

Another Auerbach protege who moved on to an NBA front office, Minnesota Timberwolves boss Kevin McHale feared the Celtics will never be the same.

And neither will the rest of the NBA.

“Red had come to be our basketball soul and our basketball conscience,” commissioner David Stern said. “The void left by his death will never be filled.”

Auerbach leaves a legacy of more than five decades in the NBA, but his influence extends throughout the league still. The Boston Globe counted at least 23 current coaches and five general managers who have a connection to the Celtics patriarch – including Rivers, who played for Pat Riley, who played for Bill Sharman, who played for Auerbach.

“It’s a great honor to be called a coach when you sort of follow and studied men like him,” Riley said.

Danny Ainge has been an Auerbach protege since being lured away from the Toronto Blue Jays to play for the Celtics. Now Boston’s basketball boss, Ainge compared Auerbach to a grandfather who joked with him, nurtured him and challenged him to become a better player.

“Red is part of all of us, and I think that that will live on,” Ainge said. “I think that I will never forget what Red has done for me and the opportunities that opened the doors for me through Red. And I think that Red lives on in each of us that he’s had an influence on.”

Auerbach joined the Celtics in 1950, when the soon-to-be mighty franchise was struggling for fans. He took the team to the outer reaches of the region for exhibitions; previous coaches advised him to make it a close game to keep things exciting.

“Well,” Rivers recalled, “Red said he was having none of that: ‘Were going to demolish them. Were going to beat them by 50 if we can, to show them that this is the Celtics, and that we are different.’ So they did that.

“But then, after the game, they signed autographs for two hours.”

From that, Auerbach built basketball’s most prolific dynasty and one of the most dominant in any sport. But the Celtics haven’t won it all in an unprecedented 20 years now, and when they open the season on Wednesday night, Auerbach will be absent for the first time since 1950.

The team has dedicated the season to his memory; plans for a more immediate tribute are still being formulated, Ainge said.

There’s no doubt what Auerbach would want. He made clear at the last opener when he was asked what he thinks about at the start of a new year.

“What goes through your mind is, ‘When the hell are we going to win another one?”‘ he said. “I mean, it’s as simple as that.”

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