"Bird or Russell?"
"In their prime?"
"Russell. Bird was great, but Russell changed the way the game was played."
Morgan Wootten, arguably the greatest high school basketball coach in history, has a relieved-student smile on his face. The teacher has thrown him a difficult question, and, with all the other students paying rapt attention, he has come up with the right answer: Bill Russell over Larry Bird.
The 68-year-old Wootten's teacher on this Tuesday is Red Auerbach, arguably the greatest professional basketball coach in history. Satisfied with Wootten's response, the 81-year-old Auerbach leans back in his chair, waves an unlit cigar and says, "Let me tell you a story about Russell . . ."
Auerbach has approximately one million stories in his repertoire and about half of them begin with those eight words. Bill Russell was both the center and the centerpiece of the 11 Boston Celtic teams that won NBA championships in 13 seasons with Auerbach as coach and then general manager.
Auerbach can still command a lot of money as an after-dinner speaker, but since this is Tuesday and it is lunch time, Auerbach is the one paying. He is seated, with a coterie of longtime friends, at a round table tucked in the corner of the China Doll restaurant in Chinatown. Auerbach has a Celtics cap on his head, a cigar in his hand, Chinese food on his plate and friends all around him.
He is completely happy.
The weekly lunches began years ago when Auerbach and his brother Zang, who is three years his junior, decided they should make a point of getting together for lunch at least once a week. Then one day Auerbach invited Wootten. As time went on, the circle widened. Now, as many as a dozen people call Zang every Monday to see if lunch is on for the next day.
There is only one ground rule: Don't try to stop Auerbach from picking up the check. "It's the only thing that might knock you off the list," Wootten says. "Red won't tolerate it."
Two of the regulars at lunch are George Washington University's two basketball coaches: men's coach Tom Penders and women's coach Joe McKeown. Auerbach, a GW graduate, remains close to the school and its coaches. Penders has won 498 games, McKeown 292. Both know that in this fish tank, they are guppies.
"Combined we aren't close to Red or Morgan," McKeown points out.
"Which is why we both tend to open our mouths only to eat," Penders adds, laughing.
Auerbach won 938 regular season games in the NBA and countless playoff games. Wootten has won 1,185 in 43 seasons at DeMatha. Three summers ago he survived liver transplant surgery and kept on coaching. When rumors began circulating this spring that he was thinking of retiring, one of the first calls he got was from Auerbach. "What in the world are you thinking?" Auerbach asked.
"Don't worry, Red, I'm not quitting," Wootten assured him.
"I'll see you Tuesday," Auerbach said.
Wootten and Auerbach first met in the mid-1950s when Wootten was working as an assistant at St. John's High School for Coach Joe Gallagher, who was a friend of Auerbach's. When Wootten became the head coach at DeMatha in 1956, he called Auerbach and asked him if he would be the speaker at his first basketball banquet.
That same year Russell was leading the University of San Francisco to a second straight NCAA basketball title. Auerbach was convinced that Russell was the game's next great player. He traded two future Hall-of-Famers -- Easy Ed Macauley and the rights to Cliff Hagan -- to the St. Louis Hawks to move up to the No. 2 spot in the NBA draft. That left one problem: The Rochester Royals still had the first draft pick.
"So [Celtics owner] Walter Brown called the Rochester people and told them he'd send the Ice Capades to Rochester the next winter if they would take Sihugo Green and leave Russell for us," Auerbach says, as he spins food to the other side of the table on the Lazy Susan. "The rest . . ."
Is basketball history. Most at the table have heard this story if not once, then hundreds of times. But they still shake their heads in wonder. Sihugo Green? The Ice Capades?
"Was Bird your second-best move?" Wootten asks, remembering how Auerbach took Bird with the sixth pick in the 1978 NBA draft even though he had a year of college eligibility left.
"No," Auerbach says. "Second-best was trading for [Kevin] McHale and [Robert] Parish . . . Bird was third."
Like Russell and Bird, McHale and Parish had Hall of Fame careers and had their numbers retired by the Celtics. Of course, Auerbach has a retired number, too: No. 2. "Someone asked me why I wasn't No. 1," Auerbach says. "I told him, in Boston, Cardinal Cushing was always No. 1. I took 2."
Everyone laughs. The check is delivered to Auerbach. He lights his cigar -- once it was to announce a victory, now it is to announce that lunch is over -- waves the cigar and says, "Let me tell you a story about the cardinal . . ."