By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
A cloud of cigar smoke blew out of the driver's side window of Reid Collins's navy blue Saab yesterday morning in Bethesda. Collins took a few more puffs before he hurried to grab a seat at Shanghai Village Chinese restaurant. It was getting close to 11 a.m. and he didn't want to be late. You never want to be late for lunch with Red Auerbach.
Arnold "Red" Auerbach, the patriarch of the Boston Celtics and the architect of one of sports' great dynasties, may have passed away at age 89 in October 2006, but that hasn't kept about 15 of his close friends from maintaining the tradition of meeting each Tuesday for Chinese food and conversation. As they gathered at a table in the back near the kitchen, a waiter placed a framed photograph of Auerbach and cold bottle of Tsingtao beer in front of a chair left empty in his honor.
"Everybody comes here, respects Papa," restaurant owner and chef Kwok Cheung said, pointing at Auerbach's photograph. "We all miss him."
The lunches -- held for years at the defunct China Doll restaurant near Verizon Center before Auerbach's health pushed the meeting place closer to his doctor appointments in Bethesda -- were the setting for John Feinstein's best-selling book with Auerbach, "Let Me Tell You a Story."
Collins, Auerbach's son-in-law, and Feinstein sat to the right and left, respectively, of Auerbach's seat. Former Washington Post sports editor George Solomon, ex-Celtics legend Sam Jones's son, Aubre, doctors Harry Huang, Geoff Kaplan and Murray Lieberman, Washington Nationals director of security Bob Campbell and businessman Stanley Copeland joined them. Four other regulars were absent, including "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace, who was forced to skip the lunch to cover the Democratic primaries.
Auerbach was responsible for all 16 championship banners hanging in the rafters at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, winning an NBA-best nine as head coach. But beginning tomorrow, the Celtics are back in the NBA Finals for the first time in 21 years against their hated rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers.
On top of that, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who also has won nine championships, has an opportunity to win his 10th against Auerbach's franchise. "This should be motivation enough for the team -- to keep Phil from going for 10," Lieberman said.
Auerbach respected his fellow Hall of Famer but he didn't want to see a former member of the New York Knicks match him with coaching championships and never had a problem diminishing Jackson's accomplishments. He once claimed that Jackson "picks his spots" in coaching Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Jackson never really fought back, making subtle jabs at the cigar-smoking legend. When the Knicks finally beat the Celtics in 1973, Jackson said former Knicks coach Red Holzman told him, "This is one of those times when good overcomes evil."
"He probably would put that aside," Lieberman said, imagining how Auerbach might feel this week. "He would probably try to get the focus [away] from him. He would've been happy, because he'd feel like [Boston] had the horses to win it. I think he'd come in with a certain amount of confidence."
The rest of the table wasn't so sure that Auerbach would be calm this week.
"Nervous as hell," Feinstein said. "He'd be scared to death."
"Really?" Lieberman asked.
"Yeah, if the Celtics had a lead and it got down to eight, he'd have to turn [the television] off," Feinstein said.
Jones, director of recreational sports at George Washington, agreed. "The Celtics are my life -- and I can't watch them," he said. "I know he wouldn't like the 9 o'clock at night games. He would've gone nuts."
"He'd just wake up for the fourth quarter," Feinstein said with a laugh.
Lieberman was actively trying to get tickets to a game in Boston, and someone joked that Lieberman should perform a séance to bring back Auerbach to get him tickets.
Collins, a retired veteran of CBS News and CNN, has been married to Auerbach's daughter, Nancy, for 16 years. He said Nancy Auerbach was excited about the Celtics being back in the Finals, "but she worries about it, for her father's sake. She doesn't want the Celtics to lose because of how he'd feel, wherever he is."
Collins quit smoking in 1981 but started again after Auerbach's wife of 59 years, Dorothy, died in 2000. Shortly after her death, Auerbach and Collins shared a cigar in Auerbach's den -- partly to honor Dorothy, but mostly, Collins said, because Auerbach knew that she wouldn't be able to complain about it anymore. Collins said he hasn't stopped smoking them since.
"I enjoy a good cigar," Collins said, smiling. "Mine are not as expensive as the ones Red liked."
When the discussion turned to what the Celtics needed to do to win the series, Feinstein interrupted.
"Too much NBA talk for my liking," said Feinstein, who prefers the college game. "Let's talk about something else."
Basketball is only one of many topics discussed at the lunches. Golf, at Auerbach's request, is one of the few off-limit topics.
As the lunch wrapped up, Feinstein picked up the fortune cookie placed in front of Auerbach's picture and read it for everyone, "Your many hidden talents will become obvious to those around you."