Sunday, May 4, 2014

From Abacus' Bookshelf: John Feinstein and Red Auerbach's "Let Me Tell You a Story"

Author and multi-media mainstay Mitch Albom enjoys telling the story of his initial meeting with comic entertainer Billy Crystal:

“I sat down to do a radio interview with a very busy Billy Crystal. He was harried. His people were rushing him. I did not know the man. But I opened this way: ‘We’re joined now by Billy Cyrstal, who has something in common with me. We’re both members of the Dick Schaap Fan Club…’
Crystal smiled broadly.
And I had him.”

That particular rendition comes from the Introduction to Schaap’s 2001 memoir, Flashing Before My Eyes.
As we are so often reminded in both triumph and tragedy, the power of our games lies in their ability to provide us a kind of connectivity—an extended community, if you will, centered on teams, players and magic moments.

The broad and colorful tapestry of our wide world of sports generates words galore—from talk radio to internet chat, from barroom vitriol to scholarly eloquence, like that of Schaap or Albom.

One of the most colorful, controversial and successful figures in sports legend is the late Red Auerbach. For over half a century, through thick and thin, wins and losses, good owners and bad, even through and beyond the Rick Pitino fiasco, Arnold “Red” Auerbach WAS the Boston Celtics.

In the spring of 1999, noted and prolific sports author John Feinstein experienced his first encounter with the old coach. Feinstein’s sportswriter buddy Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe had received permission for and cooperation in writing his Auerbach biography Seeing Red, but only on the condition that Shaughnessy not “do to me what that SOB did to Bobby Knight.”

Imagine Feinstein’s discomfort when discovering, upon arrival for an appearance at a local D.C. television studio, that Auerbach was another guest. Without even the vicarious involvement of Mr. Schaap, and despite some gentle teasing from Red (“Heard from your buddy lately?”), the seeds of both a friendship and a working relationship were sown that day in the “greenroom.”

A long stint at the Washington Post for native New Yorker Feinstein created more than a few “mutual acquaintances” in the adopted hometown of Auerbach, himself born and bred in the Big Apple.

Hoping to obtain both a newspaper column and maybe a free meal, Feinstein worked his connections. Soon after this chance encounter, he was the recipient of an invitation to the weekly luncheon Red hosted for a group of friends. In no time—Red apparently had no qualms with the subsequent column—Feinstein was a full-fledged member of the China Doll gang, whose members ranged from local and national hoops figures, to the Secret Service (no kidding!) to Red’s lovably wacky brother Zang.

About five years later, the two of them—Red in his mid-80’s, mind you—were undertaking a promotional tour In support of Let Me Tell You a Story.

A “gangster” by the name of Jack Kvance was the Athletic Director at George Washington University. It was he who had clued in Feinstein about the China Doll luncheons.

Kvance: [Red] sits there and tells stories the whole time. It’s unbelievable.
Feinstein: He still remembers stuff?
Kvance: Remembers stuff? Are you kidding? He remembers everything.

Does he ever!

Even a casual basketball historian knows that Auerbach drafted a “junior-eligible” Larry Bird in 1978 even though the young Birdman had announced his intention to return to Indiana State. It wasn’t long before the NBA closed this loophole, requiring a player to renounce any remaining college eligibility upon entering the draft pool.

But did you ever wonder how the loophole got there at all?

The rule—that a player became eligible for the draft four years after high school graduation—dates to 1953 and had been proposed by (who else?) Red Auerbach.

In the draft later that year, the Celtics selected the University of Kentucky duo of Frank Ramsey and Cliff Hagan. Like Bird 25 years later, both would return to school for a fifth year, but be well worth the wait.
Ramsey became the C’s original sixth man, and his jersey No. 23 hangs from the Garden rafters.

After fulfilling an additional two-year military commitment, Hagan’s considerable skill set helped Red obtain the second selection in the 1956 NBA draft—turned out to be a useful acquisition, you might recall.

This ironic anecdote, including the juicy little tidbit that Red waited until it was almost time to adjourn the owners’ meeting before suggesting the adjustment to the 1953 draft rules, is but one of the countless tales that Feinstein is able to blend with the eclectic cast that is the China Doll gang.

They include high-school coaching legend Morgan Wooten, D.C. sports publicity guru Hymie Perlo, TV news correspondents Mike and Chris Wallace, the extended athletic family of George Washington, to which Red remained actively loyal, and some plain old buddies, card-playing and otherwise.

For example, Red’s frequent (and much younger) racquetball opponent Aubre Jones—a GW athletic administrator and son of Celts’ legend Sam—claims Tiger Woods stole this patented fist pump from Red.

Arnold “Red” Auerbach, and only Cousy ever got away with calling him Arnold, is this book’s top banana, and he can indeed weave a tale with the best of them.

Let Me Tell You a Story rates right up there with Feinstein’s better efforts, just like the one about his “buddy.” 

Here's one for the road, from a Feinstein interview following Red's 2006 passing.