When the Celtics picked Antoine Walker over Kobe Bryant

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SITTING ACROSS FROM a reporter in a Denver hotel ballroom recently, Kobe Bryant listens to a story that is nearly two decades old but is new to his ears. As the story unfolds, Bryant's eyes widen. When it is finished, he calls it "the coolest f---ing story ever -- 'cause I haven't heard that story yet."

He then repeats this message -- sparing vulgarity this time -- to drive home the point.

"That's like the coolest thing I've ever heard, dude, because I grew up watching Red! You know what I'm saying? I read books about Red.

"I've never even known that he knew of my existence!"

BY 1996, M.L. CARR served as both head coach and executive vice president/director of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics. Red Auerbach had ascended to become the team's president and presiding living legend. Not every decision merited a visit to Auerbach's office. But this wasn't just any decision and that wasn't just any office.

No, Carr says, it was more of a "museum."

History covered nearly every inch of real estate along the gray walls of the corner space occupying the fourth floor at 151 Merrimac Street, just a stone's throw from the then-FleetCenter (now-TD Garden). There were framed photos, plaques, paintings, plates, citations, trophies, magazine covers, a collage of newspaper clippings from 16 championships, a renowned collection of letter openers, plus maybe two dozen illustrations of the wide-grinned, cigar-chomping architect behind it all, Auerbach, a bona fide institution, who, on the mid-June day that Carr stopped by, sat behind his large wooden desk, on which a sign read, "Think Big."

Auerbach had a way of thinking big. He fleeced St. Louis in 1956 to obtain the draft rights to Bill Russell, snatched John Havlicek with the last pick in the first round in 1962, drafted Larry Bird as a "junior eligible" in 1978, and orchestrated another lopsided swap that netted the Celtics Robert Parish and Kevin McHale in 1980. Any of these moves would lead a resume; in total, they made Auerbach legendary: 11 titles as a head coach, four as a general manager, and another as team president, his role when Carr asked for his advice about prospects the Celtics were considering with their top-10 pick in '96, including this guard named Kobe Bryant.

The 6-foot-6 Bryant had wowed the Celtics in his predraft workout, awed them in a sit-down interview that Carr said was the best he had ever seen.

Auerbach had seen footage. He saw the glowing report compiled by the team's scouting director, Rick Weitzman, who declared, "There was nothing the kid couldn't do."

But there was risk. Bryant was making the leap straight from Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia. Only a few players had even tried the prep-to-pro jump, namely Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins in the 1970s, but then the trend went on hold, only starting back up again in 1995 with Kevin Garnett. What's risk to Red? He drafted the NBA's first African-American player, was the first coach to start five black players, the first to hire a black coach. He punched an opposing team's owner in the mouth, on the court, in a squabble over a referee's call. Boldness was no concern.

Auerbach and Carr talked about how well Bryant shot the ball. Carr raved about Bryant's institutional knowledge of the game. Auerbach waxed about Bryant's size and athleticism.

"I think this kid is going to be a hell of a player," Auerbach told Carr. "But it can go either way. He seems to be solid, but he's a high school kid. You've got to make a choice based on what you need today. But I think he's a hell of a player."

With that, Auerbach took a long draw on his cigar. It was said he smoked six a day -- he favored Hoyo de Monterrey -- and he especially loved lighting up a ceremonial stogie at the end of a blowout win, a tradition that was as much about celebrating as it was about taunting (and infuriating) opponents.

"OK," Auerbach told Carr, "now it's up to you to make a decision."