By Dennis D’Agostino
“Boswell? Are you ready to do me a service?”
]That was the greeting. He didn’t even have to mention his name. I knew that the voice on the other end of the phone was coming from the modest house in Cedarhurst, and that it belonged to the man who coached the Knickerbockers to 613 regular season wins, three Eastern Conference titles and a pair of NBA Championships, en route to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
We lost Red Holzman last November 13, to the leukemia that had gripped him for almost a year. On the Knicks’ organizational chart, he was listed as basketball consultant, a role he had actively filled for the seven years prior to his death. But for those of us in the club’s front office, Red was our patriarch, mentor and advisor. He was a living symbol of the greatness that could be achieved on the basketball floor. Most of all, of course, he was our dear friend.
Some of us here weren’t even around when Red led the Knicks to the top. Others, like myself, remember it as a wide-eyed young fan during the long-sideburned, bell-bottomed early ‘70s, hanging on every word coming out of the radio, breathlessly waiting for the newspapers the next day.
In retrospect, it was a marvelous time in New York sports. Broadway Joe and Tom Terrific. The GAG Line. Cable TV, for the 18 or so people who had it. A groundbreaking magazine called “Jock”. Hanging out at 2 a.m. at Mr. Laff’s or Il Vagabondo.
And, of course, the Knicks. The marvelous, stupendous, championship Knicks.
Knowing and working with Red Holzman made that era come alive again, although Red was too busy with the demands of the present to spend much time looking back.
He knew I loved to write, so he dubbed me “Boswell”, a term that writers used to describe themselves back in the old days. We both shared a passion for old movies, especially The Godfather, so his standard greeting was a natural.
“Boswell? Are you ready to do me a service?”
So when Red had business correspondence of some sort, the phone would ring and there he’d be. A project that both of us attacked with relish came whenever Red was called upon to write a letter of recommendation for a hoop contemporary to be nominated for the Hall of Fame. As a Hall of Famer himself, Red’s letters of recommendation carried much weight. We took great pride in the fact that Red’s efforts helped open the doors to several individuals who had waited far too long for enshrinement, especially our own Dick McGuire in 1993, and coaching greats Alex Hannum and John Kundla a few years later.
Of course, there were times when an old friend would ask Red to recommend someone whose playing or coaching credentials were, let’s say, a little short of Hall of Fame caliber. No, make that a lot short of Hall of Fame caliber. But he never refused that request. Never.
That’s when we found ourselves getting very creative in our letter-writing. And during those times, I’d always say to him, very softly, “Coach, don’t you think this guy, you know, falls a little short? I mean, I just don’t see this guy as a Hall of Famer.”
His answer was always the same. “Look,” he’d say. “What right do I have to judge who belongs in the Hall of Fame and who doesn’t? Who am I to say, `This guy is a Hall of Famer and this guy isn’t?’ Hell, I don’t even know if I belong in the Hall of Fame. So we’re gonna write the damn letter.”
He was wrong, of course, about his own place. But that was just another example of the caring humility that was a huge part of Red Holzman’s life.
I’m not sure if Red ever fully realized that he was more than a coach, more than a New York success story, more than a Hall of Famer. He was Red Holzman, legend. The entire city, the entire hoop nation knew it. It made working with him on a personal level all that more glorious. But I don’t know if Red himself ever came to grips with it.
There would be so many times our office would get interview requests for Red, asking him to reminisce about the old days, about Willis walking out of the tunnel in 1970 or the Game Seven win in Boston in ’73 or some other such thing. So I’d make the call to the modest house in Cedarhurst, already knowing the reaction I’d get.
“Ah, why do they wanna ask me about that stuff for?” said the voice on the other end, as if I was making him late for another tennis game. “What am I gonna say that I haven’t already said? I mean, it’s all there in the books. What the hell am I gonna add to it?”
It was all an act, of course. Deep down, the old man liked nothing more than talking about the glory days. So, eventually, he’d do the interview. And, invariably, we’d get a call a few days later from the writer or announcer who’d say, “Gee, Red was great! Absolutely great!”
He was a man of simple tastes. Married to the same woman for 55 years (his beloved Selma, the first lady of the Knicks, who had preceded him in death just months before), living in the same house for over 40 years. A man whose idea of a disaster was “when I come home and find we’ve run out of scotch.” A man whose dining habits were described this way by sportswriter Murray Janoff: “Red Holzman loves garlic dressing on his salad. The steak, please, has got to be medium rare. A green vegetable, too. Nothing wrong with that, is there?”
A man who, it seemed, never panicked in spite of the chaos around him.
A few years back, we were working on the 20th anniversary celebration of the 1973 Champions. Over lunch one afternoon, I asked Red about the November night when the Knicks were getting pummeled on the Garden floor by the Milwaukee Bucks of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, a night so disastrous and horrific that the only thing that could save the Knicks was something ridiculous like, say, scoring 19 straight points in the final five minutes.
“Look,” he said, leaning across the table. “I always felt that you’ve got no place to go anyway. You can’t go to the movies until the game’s over. You can’t go out to dinner until the game’s over. So you might as well give it your best shot ‘til it’s over. Then you go home.”
Naturally. And you can put that quote against all the legendary Holzmanisms, like:
“Never get your hair cut by a bald-headed barber. He has no respect for it.”
“Never take medical advice from a waiter.”
“Never point your finger when the check is coming.”
“Never talk about money with your wife at night.”
And the one that became our front office credo: “My father always used to say that if we live, we’ll do it tomorrow. If not, we’ll do it the next day.”
Red’s legendary status had already been cemented when he rejoined the Knicks in an active role in 1991. But he was right there, front-and-center on the emotional roller coaster the team rode throughout that decade, on the planes, in the hotels, in the draft meetings, at training camp. And after every big game, in the first few seconds after every glorious victory or crushing defeat, the single-file line would go through the head coach’s door. Dave Checketts, Ernie Grunfeld, Ed Tapscott, and finally the little old man. . .the only person who knew, precisely, that feeling of exhilaration or desperation that Pat Riley or Don Nelson or Jeff Van Gundy was experiencing at that very moment.
Even in his later years, Red still didn’t want people to make a fuss over him. Well, up to a point. When Red was first diagnosed with leukemia, Garden senior VP Frank Murphy made it a point to call each and every day, whether the coach was in the hospital or at home. Finally, a seemingly exasperated Holzman said, “Geez, Murphy. Why the hell do you have to call and bother me every damn day?”
Eventually, Murphy missed a day. And, of course, bright and early the next morning came the call from the man in the hospital bed: “What’s the matter, Murphy? You don’t call me anymore?”
There’s no doubt that when Selma passed away, she took a piece of Red with her. They were inseparable, so much that Red would always call her “My coach.” Then the leukemia got worse. But there were still Holzman moments. Like the one at the 1998 Hall of Fame inductions in Springfield.
The organizers had arranged for a fleet of vintage cars to parade the Hall of Famers through the streets of Springfield. Red had gotten into what he believed was his designated car. “And right away,” says his son-in-law Charlie Papelian, “he starts asking the driver how long he’s had the car, how much he paid for it, how many miles it got to the gallon, and all that stuff. It was hilarious.”
A few minutes later, another Red, this one with the last name of Auerbach, approached the car. Suddenly, there was confusion. The organizers argued that the car that Holzman was sitting in was actually the Auerbach car, and now there aren’t any other available cars nearby, and what are we gonna do. . .
“Suddenly,” says Charlie, “Red lowers the window, points at Auerbach, and says, `That’s’ Red Holzman! I’m Red Auerbach! I’m in the right car!’ That ended that!”
All of us who were fortunate enough to call Red Holzman a friend, all of us who were treated to moments like that, can’t begin to describe how lucky we were. A few days after Red died, a few of us went out to dinner on Long Island, and I ordered a typical Holzman meal in his honor. Steak, medium rare. A green vegetable. Green salad, blue cheese dressing.
It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that I had goofed on the salad. Blue cheese dressing instead of garlic.
Damn. Sorry about that, Coach.