Tuesday, October 31, 2006


"Dad, your racquetball partner died."

This is how my nine-year old son greeted me when I picked him up from a neighbor's house Saturday night. And it was true. In the 1990s, I was one of many employees of the George Washington University Athletic Department who spent some time on the racquetball court with Red Auerbach, who died at the age of 89 on Saturday.

Red was a GW alumnus and a resident of Washington, D.C., and he would come to campus several times a week to get a workout. He was in his seventies then, but his physical skills were surprising; his mental and emotional competiveness was not. We played a three-man racquetball variation called cutthroat, and he would growl at you if you missed an easy kill to knock off the opponent, an error he almost never committed. Likewise when he was serving for the win, he bore down and the ball came off his racquet with more velocity and spin than you had seen the whole game.

But his most effective tactic by far was to call timeout to slow his opposition's momentum. He would stand, breathing and sweating heavily, his goggles pushed up on his forehead, resting with one hand against the wall. It was at this point that I always recalled the words of a former GW basketball assistant coach.

"You don't want to be the guy on the racquetball court with Red Auerbach when he dies of a heart attack."

And so, when play resumed, the game would inevitably take a turn back in Red's direction. The highlight of the whole experience was hearing the stories after the game was finished. Red would hold court in the locker room, which could take a while because, as he said, "The hardest thing about exercising when you get old is changing your clothes." You'd hear stories about Russell and Havlicek, but you'd also get his opinion on why Jordan won championships and Barkley didn't, or why Dennis Rodman was worth every penny despite his outrageous off-court behavior.

When I graduated from college and put together that first resume, there was a space at the top where I listed my "Career Objective." I could never have dreamed of writing "Hanging out with the greatest basketball coach of all time," but those times were more memorable than any deal I ever made.

Rest in peace, Red.


John said...

Great stuff Bill. When I heard that Red Auerbach died, I immediately thought of you and the GW days. I knew that you7 would have a post that would lend perspective to the "common man". In this case, less is more and you did a marvelous job passing along the fun that you had in being in his presence. Thanks.

slushy said...

great piece...as a once upon a time celtics fan (when i cared more about basketball and lived in boston) i really was sad to hear of his death. and am envious that you got to hang out with him.

Bill Fitzgerald said...

JP and Slushy,

Thanks for stopping by. Red was quite a character and deserves every accolade and fond remembrance being thrown his way. If you haven't read it yet, head over to ESPN.com and check out Bill Simmons' tribute.