Extended Interview with Red Auerbach
Ralph Cooper, NPR
John Feinstein, left, and Red Auerbach at Washington, D.C.'s China Doll Restaurant.
Ralph Cooper, NPR
Legendary basketball coach Red Auerbach is full of stories. The former schoolteacher often evokes moments that made NBA legends out of Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird — and Auerbach himself.
Now many of those stories are presented in a book written with frequent NPR contributor John Feinstein, Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game. NPR's Steve Inskeep talks with the Celtics icon about life in basketball and the state of today's NBA.
Following is an excerpt from Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game by Red Auerbach and John Feinstein.
"Did I ever tell you about Chamberlain?" The old man leans back in his chair, a smile creasing his face at the memory. Someone sitting at the round table has said something about Wilt Chamberlain and, as always, memories and stories flood back to him.
"Chamberlain," he says, once the table has gone silent, "was the most unbelievable physical specimen ever. There wasn't anything he couldn't do on the basketball court. One year he scored fifty points a game. Another year he led the league in assists. He was so strong it was frightening."
He pauses. "But there was one thing he couldn't do. He couldn't beat us. Just couldn't do it. Russell wore him out, running up and down the court, and you" - he points across the table at one of his listeners - "you drove him crazy. Remember how we ran that pick-and-roll play, where Russell would feed you the ball and Chamberlain had to switch? He'd always get there just as you released the shot, and you, you sonofabitch, you'd say in that high-pitched voice of yours, 'Too late.' And you made the shot every time."
The man he is pointing at is Sam Jones, who, like Bill Russell, is in basketball's Hall of Fame. Jones is cracking up at the story, at the memory, and at the shrill imitation of his taunting of Chamberlain.
"Remember the night he chased me?" he says. "Oh yeah." Now the old man is laughing too. "You ran down the court, grabbed a stool from one of the photographers, and used it for protection."
"Protection?" Jones says. "I told Wilt, 'Now I've got a chance. You come near me, I'll swing the thing at you.'" "He'd a still killed you." "No way. He'd never catch me."
A dozen men are now convulsed with laughter. "I ever tell you about the night Wilt tried to get at me?" the old man says.
For the next twenty minutes he talks about Chamberlain and all the times his Boston Celtics brought him grief, first as a Philadelphia Warrior, later as a San Francisco Warrior, then as a Philadelphia 76er, and finally as a Los Angeles Laker. "I actually liked the guy," he says when he is finished. "He flew all the way across the country to come to my eightieth birthday party. After all those years, that meant a lot to me."
For a split second, he is silent. Then he pushes back from the table. "Gotta go."
A dozen men stand up as if the old man is a judge walking out of a courtroom. Red Auerbach is now eighty-seven years old, but there aren't many down moments in his day. When it is time to leave lunch and get to his afternoon card game, he doesn't linger. For everyone else at the table it is different. Most of them have jobs to get back to.
None of them are in any hurry. They would prefer to linger. But when Red says, "Gotta go," no one argues. Arguing with Red is about as easy as beating his Celtics was for Chamberlain.
Outside, it is a midwinter Tuesday in Washington DC, and a cold rain is spitting down, the midday temperature hovering around freezing. On the sidewalk outside the China Doll, the twelve men who had been sitting at the round table in the back corner of the restaurant are now standing in groups of two and three, engaged in conversation. There is a good deal of contact between them: arms around shoulders; repeated handshakes; the occasional hug.
To those walking by, they must be a strange sight. Some of the passersby pause or even come to a halt when they get a glimpse of Auerbach, who is the only one in the group in any sort of rush to move from the spot anytime before dark.
"Come on, gotta go," he barks again, walking slowly in the direction of the silver Mercedes convertible parked in front of him. A glance at the license plate will quickly dispel any doubt about who the car belongs to. It says simply, CELTIC. Those riding with him know from his tone that this is last call, that it is time for one more handshake, a promise to call later in the week, a reminder to stay safe on the road.
Even so, as Auerbach starts easing himself into the driver's seat, his passengers are still lingering just a tiny bit. There may be one more story to tell, one last laugh to be had before departing. Only when he is seated, engine running, and looks up one last time and says, "Hey, how 'bout it?" do they finally break away and start to get into the car.
No one, except the old man, really wants to go. By now, inevitably, some of those walking by or walking into the restaurant have stopped to stare. "Is that who I think it is?" they ask. Or they may just call out, "Hey, Coach, how's it going?" Auerbach waves in response, accustomed to the notion that there are very few places he can go without someone recognizing him.
One man dressed in a suit, walking rapidly with a cell phone to his ear, stops in his tracks when he sees him. He looks at no one in particular among those still on the sidewalk and says, "It's him, isn't it?"
Yes, he's told, it's him; it's Red Auerbach, the man who, for all intents and purposes, invented professional basketball. "What the heck is he doing here?" the man asks. The answer to that question is simple: it's Tuesday.
It began with two brothers who looked up one day and noticed that their grandchildren were either grown-up or on the verge of becoming grown-ups. They were, like most men, always busy with something: work, their own families, travel, friends. It wasn't as if they never saw each other; they did, but there was no consistency to it. Neither can remember who broached the subject or exactly why it came up, but they decided it was time to make a conscious effort to spend more time together.
"Let's go to lunch," the older one said. "Chinese, I assume," said the younger. "Of course."
Throughout his nomadic life as a basketball coach, Red Auerbach had always eaten Chinese food after games. His reasoning was simple: in almost any NBA city, there was always a Chinese restaurant that had late-night carryout. He would call ahead, pick the food up on his way back from the arena, and eat it in his room. What's more, because he always asked for the food steamed, it didn't sit heavily in his stomach the way some other food might. He slept easily and woke up feeling fresh and ready to make the trip to the airport and on to the next city. This was back in the NBA's Dark Ages, when teams still flew commercially, waking up at the crack of dawn to catch the first available flight to the next city. No charters; no five-star hotels. Most nights on the road for Auerbach, the most celebrated NBA coach in history, were the same: a game, Chinese food before bed, a predawn wake-up call, and a flight that left for somewhere with the rising sun. Auerbach grew to like Chinese food so much that for several years he was part owner of a Chinese restaurant in Boston.
Some time later, retired from coaching and mostly retired from general managing the greatest dynasty in the history of basketball, Red Auerbach told his brother, Zang, four years his junior, to meet him for lunch the next Tuesday at a restaurant in Washington DC's Chinatown called the China Inn. Most basketball fans don't realize that Auerbach has lived almost exclusively in Washington, except for a stint in the navy, since 1937, when he enrolled at George Washington University. Even when he coached the Celtics, his wife and two daughters lived in Washington. Red had an apartment in Boston during the season but sneaked home whenever the schedule allowed. And he spent the off-seasons - which were much longer back then - in Washington.
"Let's just agree," he told Zang that day, "that we'll meet here every Tuesday for lunch unless one of us has something else to do."
Zang, who had been a cartoonist at the Washington Star and had done magazine portraits of famous people throughout his career, was retired. His most famous piece of work can still be seen whenever the Celtics play a home game - Zang designed the Celtics logo that first appeared on the parquet floor at the Boston Garden and is now on the floor at the Fleet Center. Zang promised his brother, who still traveled to Boston at times for meetings and was often out of town to give a speech or do a clinic, to call him every Monday night. If both were in town and healthy, they would have lunch the next day.
"It became something we both looked forward to," Zang said. "But it occurred to me at one point that we had some close mutual friends whom it would be nice to see too. So I suggested to Red that we invite a couple of them to join us."
By this time, the lunches had moved from the China Inn to the China Doll next door. New management had come to the China Inn, and the restaurant stopped serving chow mein. Red likes chow mein. He had eaten at the China Doll in the past - he has eaten at every restaurant in DC's Chinatown at some point in his life - and enjoyed the food and the chow mein. So, when Hymie Perlo, who had known the Auerbach brothers since he and Zang had been in high school together in 1940, and Morgan Wootten were invited to come to lunch, it was at the China Doll.
Soon after, Red began occasionally inviting a couple of his friends from Woodmont Country Club. Red joined Woodmont, which is in Rockville, Maryland, in 1946 when the initiation fee was $500. These days the initiation fee is a bit higher: $90,000. Red has never played golf but did play tennis there for years. Nowadays, he spends five afternoons a week at Woodmont playing gin with a group of seven or eight men, almost always walking away from the table with a tidy profit for the day. "It's his other pension," jokes Jack Kvancz. "That's why he's the one guy who always has to get going after lunch. The more time he spends at lunch, the less time he spends playing cards at Woodmont."
Kvancz was invited to lunch soon after he became the athletic director at GW in 1994. "Back then, Red came in and played racquetball most days," Kvancz said. "I think he's the only guy in the history of the school to have a parking spot in the lot right outside our door who didn't have to pay for it. He'd come to my office after he played and we'd talk hoops."
Kvancz was a very good player at Boston College in the 1960s, on teams coached by Bob Cousy, another of Auerbach's legendary Celtic players. So the notion that Auerbach was sitting in his office several days a week talking basketball with him was almost overwhelming.
"One morning, it's like ten-thirty, and he says, 'Come on. We're going,' " Kvancz said. "I said, 'Where are we going?' He says, 'China Doll.' I looked at my watch to make sure it wasn't broken or something. But he said we were going, so I went. It's eleven o'clock in the morning when we get there, and I walk in and there's this round table and sitting there are Zang and Hymie and Morgan and Sam Jones and Alvin Miller [a Woodmont friend]. Right behind us, walking in, are Aubre Jones [Sam's son, who is GW's intramural director] and Mike Jarvis [then GW's basketball coach].
"Now, if something comes up on a Tuesday and I can't go to lunch, I'm really upset. I do everything I can to keep my calendar clear on Tuesday mornings, not because Red wants me there, which I know he does or I wouldn't be invited, but because I want to be there."
By 1999 the group also included Pete Dowling and Bob Campbell, Secret Service agents Red had become friends with, and Rob Ades, a local labor lawyer whom Red had met at Woodmont.
"I had been a member at Woodmont since 1980," Ades said. "But I never dared introduce myself to Red. I mean he was, after all, Red Auerbach. I've been a basketball fan all my life. I played, I went to summer camps, I ran summer camps, I thought I might coach someday. I'm also Jewish. Here's the guy who lived my dream and became the greatest coach ever. He's just not the kind of person you wander over to casually and say, 'Hey, Red, I'm Rob Ades. How's it going today?'"
In 1989, though, Ades had a reason to introduce himself. Ades's firm represents unions - not to negotiate contracts but to help union members who need legal services. "In other words, a cop needs a will written, we do it for him," Ades said. "A teacher has a son stopped for DUI, we represent the son. The kind of thing that isn't covered for them the way, say, medical insurance is."
In working with the DC Teachers Union, Ades had become friends with John Wood, who was then the basketball coach at Spingarn High School. Wood had a player in the mid-1980s named Sherman Douglas, a gifted point guard who desperately needed guidance in order to get him out of Northeast DC and into college. "I'll never forget the first time I went to his apartment," Ades said. "There was no door. Someone had stolen the door to his family's apartment."
Ades helped Douglas to eventually land at Syracuse, where he became a star, a surefire first-round draft pick. Douglas wanted Ades to represent him, but Ades had no experience as a sports agent. He agreed to help Douglas pick one. "So we're down to two guys," Ades said. "One is Bob Woolf, the other is Larry Fleischer. I'm at Woodmont and there's Red sitting there playing cards, a guy who knows more about the NBA and about agents than anyone. I owed it to Sherman to at least ask his opinion.
"So I walked over to the table and, kind of gingerly, said, 'Excuse me, Coach, I don't mean to interrupt-'
"'Well, you are interrupting! Can't you see I'm playing cards here?!'
"I ran, I cowered, I hid. A minute later, he comes over to where I'm standing, shaking like a leaf, and says, 'What can I do for you?' Thank God he had won the hand. So I introduced myself, told him I was friends with Sherman Douglas and that we were down to Woolf or Fleischer as an agent. Did he have any advice?
"'Woolf has too much on his plate,' he says. 'Get Fleischer.' He turns around and walks away."
Douglas and Ades did get Fleischer, and Auerbach kept tabs on Douglas's progress. Eventually he landed with the Celtics, and periodically Auerbach would make a point of telling Ades how pleased he was with Douglas. Then one day he took the conversation a step further.
"Next Tuesday," he said. "We're having lunch at the China Doll. Be there at eleven."
Ades was nonplussed. First, he couldn't believe Red Auerbach was asking him to lunch. Second, he couldn't believe that lunch was at eleven o'clock in the morning.
"But it was Red, so I didn't ask questions," he said. "I showed up dressed in my best suit. I told everyone, 'I'm having lunch with Red Auerbach.' I walk in and there are ten other guys there. Okay, so it was still nice to be asked. We're finishing and I figure I'll be a mensch and pick up the check because I'm honored to be invited. I start to say something and Erv Lewis [a Woodmont friend] puts his hand on my arm and says quietly, 'Don't do it.' But I want to do it. 'You'll be insulting him. Don't do it.' I kept my mouth shut."
The following Tuesday evening Ades was getting ready to leave his office when the phone rang. He picked it up and a voice said, "Where the hell were you?!"
Ades's exact response as he remembers it was, "Huma, huma, whaaa?"
"Some lawyer you are," the voice said. "I'd feel great having you defend me."
"But, whaa?" "Next Tuesday. Be there at eleven." SLAM. Ades has been there Tuesday at 11:00 ever since.
The rules of participation are simple. After ten years, word of the lunches has spread among people in Washington and among basketball people. To get invited, one has to have, in effect, a sponsor, someone in the group who asks Red if it is okay to bring a friend.
Red almost always says yes to any group member who asks if he can bring someone, in part because there is a general understanding that these lunches are not for everyone. Unofficially, this is a men's club, if only because the language and the stories are frequently bawdy and because Red is old-fashioned enough to feel uncomfortable speaking that way or having stories like that told in front of women.
Being invited once does not mean you get to come back. There have been numerous onetime guests, some because they only wanted to come once, others because they weren't asked to return.
Among those who have come once or come only on occasion are Marvin Kalb, the longtime NBC correspondent who came mostly to talk to Red about the old days of basketball as part of the research for his autobiography; Eugene Istomin, the late classical pianist, a huge sports fan who asked a mutual friend from Woodmont if he could come just once to meet Red; Mike Brey, the Notre Dame basketball coach who played and coached under Wootten at DeMatha; Joe Wootten, Morgan's son, now a successful high school coach himself; Jimmy Patsos, then Gary Williams's top assistant at the University of Maryland and now head coach at Loyola College in Maryland; Lefty Driesell, the great college coach who has been a friend of Red's for years; and Peter Vecsey, the longtime basketball columnist and TV commentator.
Vecsey and Red had had more than their share of battles through the years. It was Ades who asked if it would be okay for Vecsey, who is a client of his, to come to lunch.
"He's a friend of yours, right?" Red said. "Yes," Ades said. "Then it's okay."
The day Vecsey came was a miserable rainy day in Washington. Ades, soaked to the bone, walked in a few minutes after eleven.
"Where's Vecsey?" Red asked.
"He's outside," Ades said. "He wanted to be absolutely sure it was okay with you that he be here." "He got an umbrella?" "No."
Red leaned back in his chair and smiled. "Tell him to wait a few more minutes while I decide."
Vecsey was eventually rescued, and he and Red sat and exchanged war stories for the next ninety minutes. Clearly, Vecsey thought it was well worth the wait.
Until the fall of 2003 when retired Washington Post sports editor George Solomon and ex-Bullets general manager Bob Ferry joined the group, the only newcomer in the last four years had been Chris Wallace, the former ABC News correspondent and newly minted Fox anchor, who, even though he has carved out an extremely successful career in his own right, will always be looked upon by Red and the other octogenarians as "Mike Wallace's kid."
Wallace's sponsor for initial entry into the group was me - then the newest member of the club. When I asked Red if it would be okay for Wallace to come, he asked if he was related to Mike Wallace.
"His son," I said.
"Mike's a good guy," Red said. "He can come. Tell him he can bring his father too if he wants to."
Chris didn't bring his father but showed up the next week, nervous as a cat. "It was funny," he said later. "I've covered summits, I've interviewed presidents and heads of state, I've been on live national television more times than I can count, and I can't remember ever being quite as nervous as walking into the China Doll that day.
"Part of it was Red, knowing who he was and what he meant to sports, but the other part of it was feeling a little bit like I was being invited up to the tree house for the first time by the other kids. I didn't want to mess up."
Like all first timers, Chris spent most of the lunch listening. Red is often at his best when there is a newcomer in the group. It is as if he wants to be sure they enjoy themselves as much as they had expected to when they got themselves invited. "I ever tell you about Letterman?" he said, perhaps thinking of Chris as a CBS person because of his father.
"One day they call me and want me to come up and do the show. I tell 'em okay and we set a date. The day I'm supposed to go up they call and say, 'Oh, we're sorry, something's come up. We need to reschedule.' I tell them that's fine, I know these things happen. They give me another date, we agree. Next date comes, they call again. Something else has come up. They want to reschedule again. I say, 'Absolutely not.' The woman says, 'But, Coach, last time you said you understand that these things happen.'
"I said, 'Right. These things happen. Once.'" "She says [he is imitating a high-pitched female voice], 'Oh, but Coach, David will be so upset. He's such a big basketball fan.'
"I say, 'Apparently he's not that big a basketball fan.'"
Wallace laughed as Red finished and said, "Well, I'll be certain never to cancel an interview with you."
"Don't be so sure I'd schedule one with you," Red answered. Wallace didn't know it, but he had just been given his initiation. When it was time to leave, he thanked Red for lunch. Then, timidly, he looked at him and said, "Can I come back?" Red glanced at Zang as if pondering his answer.
"What do you think, Zang?" he asked. "He seems okay," Zang said, "for a kid." Wallace is fifty-six.
"Okay then," Red said in his best trying-to-sound-gruff manner. "You can come back."
Since that day only Saddam Hussein has kept Wallace away. "Which is reason enough," he pointed out once, "to hate the man."
Copyright © 2004 by Red Auerbach and John Feinstein