LET ME TELL YOU A STORY
A Lifetime in the Game
By Red Auerbach and John Feinstein
Little, Brown. 346 pp. $25.95
Every Tuesday morning at 11, basketball legend Red Auerbach holds court with a dozen or so cronies at the China Doll restaurant on H Street in Washington. For the past four years, bestselling author John Feinstein has joined them.
Auerbach orders chow mein. Feinstein orders schmaltz and spreads it thick in his 16th book, Let Me Tell You A Story -- equal parts anecdote, Auerbach biography and misty memoir of the midday meals. Feinstein is so sodden with sentiment that he awarded Auerbach a co-author credit, which is kind of like Boswell playing share-a-byline with Johnson.
This book will work best for those who think that last reference was to Thomas Boswell and Magic Johnson.
The published record is already larded with testimony to Auerbach's greatness. Two autobiographies, a handful of bios and a business how-to called Management by Auerbach (MBA, get it?) attest to his unsurpassed success -- nine National Basketball Association titles as coach of the Boston Celtics and another seven as the team's front-office brainiac. What Let Me Tell You a Story adds to the pile is Feinstein. A former Washington Post reporter who still contributes to the paper, he could probably turn a grocery list into gripping theater. It doesn't matter how many times these stories have been told (and some are shopworn); Feinstein's version is consistently the one suitable for etching in stone.
In previous books, Feinstein has done groundbreaking journalism. He shone a cold spotlight on Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers in A Season on the Brink, wormed his way into pro golfers' psyches in A Good Walk Spoiled and plumbed the heartbreak reverberating from a 1977 NBA fistfight in The Punch.
But Let Me Tell You a Story isn't journalism so much as hagiography. Any criticism of Auerbach makes Feinstein go nuclear; he's cast himself as Smithers to Auerbach's Mr. Burns.
Among Auerbach's virtues: He's gracious in victory, has an amazing memory, has an equally amazing feel for people, shows a gruff exterior but is really compassionate and loyal, hates to see potential squandered, absolutely adores kids, almost never says no to another coach and eats his Chinese food steamed so it doesn't sit heavily in his stomach.
Feinstein's idol worship certainly has its justifications. Among the book's twice-told tales are Red's bamboozling of the rest of the NBA to draft his biggest star, Bill Russell, in a deal that included, of all things, the promise of an Ice Capades swing through Rochester, N.Y. There's Red outraging New England by declaring the rookie Bob Cousy no better than a "local yokel," then molding him into a Hall of Famer. And there's Red tormenting the perennially second-best Los Angeles Lakers during Boston's remarkable run from 1957 to 1966.
During his coaching career, Auerbach amassed such a vast admiration society that, years later, an invitation to spend Tuesdays with Red made otherwise sophisticated men stammer in grateful incredulity.
Since Feinstein joined the crew, Auerbach lost his wife and brother, and Feinstein touchingly describes the love that friends show for the old coach. There's fresh dish, too -- such as Auerbach's prediction that Michael Jordan would make a lousy executive for the Washington Wizards. ("Red's instincts were proven correct pretty quickly," writes Feinstein.) And there's a discussion of Auerbach's quiet deference in 1997 as newly recruited Celtics coach and general manager Rick Pitino insisted on usurping Auerbach's title as president, then ran Red's beloved franchise into the hardwood. Ever loyal to the team whose reputation he built, Auerbach spoke up only after Pitino left town, and then only blandly: "He just fell into the same trap that so many guys fall into nowadays: he wanted everything." Luckily, the Redhead has Feinstein watching his back. "Not trusting Red Auerbach on the subject of basketball," he writes, "is a little bit like not trusting Mozart or Beethoven on the subject of great music. When a master speaks, the wise listen."
Auerbach cheerfully feeds the myth. He turned 87 in September and still functions as the Celtics' Yoda. He was there at the league's postwar beginnings, and he stomped his competition without the help of assistant coaches or scouts. Last spring, the Lakers' Phil Jackson came within three games of beating Auerbach's record of coaching nine NBA champions. But nobody would dare chisel Jackson's mug next to Auerbach's on a roundball Rushmore. The NBA record book is not the sole source of the Auerbach mystique. There's also the singular symbol of arrogance and domination that he wielded without shame: the cigar.
Auerbach was famous for lighting up on the sideline once a Celtics victory was secure. After Red quit coaching in 1966, Feinstein writes, stogies were banned in Boston. Considered from a Freudian perspective, it's no wonder that today's players are able to run coaches out of town.
Red took his cigar with him to the Tuesday lunches. Raised in Brooklyn, famous as a Bostonian, Auerbach nevertheless has kept a residence in Washington dating from his schooldays at George Washington University in the 1930s. Red's lunch companions include members of Washington's sports intelligentsia, such as retired DeMatha High School coach Morgan Wootten, plus some country-club buddies, a couple of Secret Service agents, an old pal from Brooklyn and Auerbach's sons-in-law. This no-girls-allowed club pays Auerbach every obeisance short of bowing at his feet and wailing, "We're not worthy." All arguments are settled by Red. He's the one who picks up the tab. He's the one with the cigar.
Still, there's one question Feinstein's co-author never answers: Why does he start lunch at 11 a.m.? Maybe a better question would be: If Red is so often right, why don't we? *
Bob Ivry is the co-author of "A Passion for Cigars: Selecting, Preserving, Smoking and Savoring One of Life's Greatest Pleasures."