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Book Review: Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game

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I started book reviews on my old site with The Last Shot and Sole Influence. I picked things up again last month with Unfinished Business. And I'm giving it another shot here with Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game. Enjoy.

"Okay I'll do it. But just don't do to me what that SOB did to Bobby Knight." - Red Auerbach to Dan Shaughnessy after Shaughnessy proposed writing a book about the Celtics' legend. Needless to say John Feinstein was weary about meeting Red.

By chance John Feinstein once crossed paths with Red Auerbach in a greenroom, prior to a television experience. Their exchange:

"Hi, Coach. I'm John Feinstein." - Feinstein
"Hey, John, how're you doing? You on the show too?" - Red
"So, you talk to your buddy anytime recently?" - Red
"My buddy?" - Feinstein
"Yeah, your buddy, Bobby Knight." - Red
"Coach, we don't exactly speak too often." - Feinstein
"Yeah no kidding.  Don't worry about it.  He hates a lot of people." - Red

In a lot of ways that is the essence of Red, constantly needling others while maintaining contacts with a diverse group of individuals. He was a lot like Dick Schaap with his web of connections. And some of his closest friends shared lunch with him every Tuesday. Over time Feinstein got the idea to write a column on one Red's Tuesday lunches for the Washington Post Magazine.  This eventually led to Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game.  

Therefore the Tuesday lunches are just as important to the writing of this book as they were to the people who attended them. The basics:

  • The participants gathered at the China Doll in Washington D.C. at 11 A.M. on Tuesdays.
  • Red started ordering 5 minutes later.
  • No one but Red could pick up the check.
  • No women allowed.
  • There was a core group that would occasionally sponsor an outsider.  They would of course run this by Red.  After that it was up to Red if an outsider would see a second lunch, which was not a given.
  • Lunch generally ran 90 minutes because Red had card games to play.
  • Feinstein attended for 4 years.

Red: The Early Years

His father was a businessman who owned a delicatessen and later a cleaning business.  During his college breaks Red worked the 10 P.M. to 8 A.M. shift, pressing 100 suits a night. Needless to say he knew the value of hard work.

In addition to the value of hard work Red took a number of other lessons from his childhood.  The following was my favorite: "Another time a guy on the street was selling these Indian head rings. I wanted one. I went to my dad and said, `Look, I never ask you for anything. I always help out at work. How about giving me three dollars so I can get one of these rings?' He looks at me and says, `Are you going to spend your whole life getting taken by people? No. You can't have it.' A week later I'm in Manhattan helping out and there's another guy selling the exact same rings I had wanted - for a quarter. Taught me another lesson - the first thing you're offered is almost never the best deal you can get."

I loved this anecdote for a couple of reasons.  First I've never considered the fact that Red had a childhood. He was one of those guys that always seemed old to me. And secondly, his dad's line was phenomenal, "Are you going to spend your whole life getting taken by people?" Based on Red's time with the Celtics I'd say the answer was no.  

"The way it looked to me, all the action was in the kitchen and you were out in the living room." - Red's dad after watching him play for the first time. His dad was not a big basketball guy and did not understand the importance of a point guard.

Great Auerbach Moves

Traded Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to St. Louis Hawks for the #2 pick in the 1956 draft. To persuade Rochester from using the #1 pick on Bill Russell Red had Celtics owner and President of the Ice-Capades, Walter Brown, lend Rochester the on ice act. Red considered this his greatest move with the Celtics.

Red got the NBA to change its draft rules so that players could be taken 4 years after their high school graduation. He did this because Frank Ramsey and Cliff Hagan were going to attend Kentucky for a fifth year after the Wildcats had been shut down for point-fixing. Months later Red drafted Ramsey (1st round) and Hagan (3rd round).  The other owners were outraged at first and then realized they'd been taken.

There were countless others obviously but those speak to the essence of Red's wheeling and dealing. For years he outmaneuvered everyone in his way and he was always three steps ahead.

Random facts

Red's brother Zang designed the Celtics logo for the Garden's parquet floor that was later moved to the Fleetcenter.

Tommy Heinsohn used to smoke cigarettes in the locker room before games. Red was okay with that but he never wanted his players to eat pancakes on game days. Different times.

Red won his first title in his 7th season with Boston. I, like a lot of people I think, just assume he always won. Not the case.  

Red never had a contract when he worked under owner Walter Brown.  After every season, before heading home to Washington, Red would meet with Brown in a bathroom and agree on the coming year.

Red was ejected in the first quarter of the 1967 all-star game. That's reason 3,489 why Red would hate coaching today. That would be a huge issue and every idiot with a blog (myself included) would sound off on it. Different times.  

Leadership Strategies

"Players are people, not horses. You don't handle them. You work with them, you coach them, you teach them, and, maybe most important, you listen to them." - Red's college coach.

"If you said something was going to happen - good or bad - make sure it happened.  I tried to remember that." - Advice Red got from a coworker while working at a tough reform school. If you are graduating from college and need one piece of advice - this is it.

Those two quotes show Red's willingness to recognize the people who helped shape him. I like that.

Red did not believe in team rules. "If you make rules, set curfews, things like that, then you put yourself in a position where one guy screwing up can hurt the whole team." He preferred flexibility over iron clad rules. Later Bobby Knight would take a similar approach to team rules and only have one, "don't do anything that embarrasses the team." His philosophy is ironic as Red coached in a different era and is by all accounts the definition of old school. But his approach to team rules is light years ahead of where many coaches are today.

Coaching Innovations

Red came up with the concept of the 6th man to provide his team with a burst by holding back one of his top players out of the starting five.  This worked for Red as a coach (Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek) and GM (Paul Silas and Kevin McHale).

Red made his biggest guy sit next to him on the bench. If there looked like there would be a jump ball Red immediately sent his big to the scorer's table. That way he could win the tap. Eventually the NBA made the two players who tied up the ball, jump for it.

Later Red got the NBA to eliminate jump balls each quarter.  He said the refs were bad at throwing the ball.  The real reason was that no one on the Celtics could out jump Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Regardless Red got his way.

He hated to see coaches with the game in the bag falling victim to the "look at me" mentality, jumping and screaming with time ticking out. He believed coaches should "get the subs in, sit down on the bench, and relax." This is so true and it extends way beyond basketball. How many times in life can you point to a person's actions, including one's own, and realize that they say far more about that person's character, insecurities or mindset than they ever intended? Think about it.

Red's wisdom

"What an impressive guy he was. The great ones, you know, the really great ones neve have to tell you how great they are or show off. Russell's always been that way." - Red on Joe DiMaggio. He met Joltin Joe through Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto who he had met while they (minus DiMaggio) were all in the Navy. Reading this quote reminded me of how it always seemed wrong when Auerbach criticized Phil Jackson's accomplishments as a coach. He should have taken his own advice about the great ones. Quite simply no one will ever simultaneously excel as a general manager, coach and head of marketing again.

If you love attention you can't hate the media because you can't have it both ways.  

When Red started in the NBA with the Washington Capitols it was not a safe bet. Many of his friends were appalled that he had turned down the security of teaching and coaching at a high school because they assumed the league would fold in a year or two. Even when he moved to Boston a few years later Red knew he had to sell the league.  He took the C's to play college teams such as Holy Cross, rec teams or anyone else that would play them. Instead of keeping it close so as not to embarrass the locals Red ran up the score to show his players were on a much higher level. It was all part of his quest to sell pro basketball, which was always intertwined with his desire to dominate with the Celtics.

"Anyone who tells you that war is heroic has never been to war. War isn't heroic, it's misery, absolute misery. No one goes to war and comes back the same person, whether they're shot or not shot, whether they get a Silver Star for carrying some idiot out of a lake or not." - Red's friend Hymie who did get a Silver Star.

Good and lucky

Shortly after taking over the Celtics, Red ignored media pressure and drafted Charlie Share over local star Bob Cousy. Chicago drafted the Cooz and then folded. The future Hall of Famer then joined Boston when Red chose his name out of a hat. So Red made a point to the media and ended up getting a player who was much better than he realized.  Interestingly Share was involved in the trade that brought Bill Sharman to Boston.

Red drafted Sam Jones on a tip from friend Bones McKinney. Auerbach had never seen Jones play.

- For some reason this was a hard book to review. That may be in part because I'm not a huge John Feinstein fan. I've always felt that he is the perfect sports author for people who casually follow sports. Although to be fair I still have to read Season on the Brink. And his worst book is better than my best. Granted I have not written any. Alas. But it's worth a read because there is a ton of Red Auerbach information. Ultimately Feinstein had remarkable access, heard a ton of great stories and he ran with it. I learned a lot.

Final Grade: B

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