Sunday, October 10, 2004

So you’re a hopeless hoops fan, and you’d love to have lunch with legendary coach Red Auerbach every week at a Chinese restaurant and listen to him grumble wonderful yarns about people, places and things.

Dream on, sneaker breath. Auerbach’s midday tutorials are attended only by a small group of friends who share one common belief: Nearly every word that makes its way out of the mouth of the 87-year-old former Boston Celtics boss is worth listening to, even if you disagree.

Fortunately, local sports columnist and author John Feinstein is a regular guest — Red wouldn’t dream of letting his friends pay for their chow mein and egg rolls — and now he has written about these sessions and the participants. Feinstein has done 17 books now, all of them eminently entertaining, and “Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game” ($25.95, Little Brown, 346 pages, illus.) ranks with his best.

How important is Red Auerbach to basketball, above and beyond his record 10 NBA championships?

This important: He even got Bobby Knight to conduct a civil conversation with Feinstein, who dropped off the General’s Christmas card list in 1987 when his first book, “A Season on the Brink,” portrayed Knight’s basketball fiefdom at Indiana with often brutal candor.

No matter how familiar you might think you are with Auerbach’s life and times, there are surprises. How many remember that he coached an NBA team called the Tri-Cities (Davenport, Iowa; Moline and Rock Island, Ill.) for one season between directing the old Washington Capitols and the Celtics?

Or that he was an assistant coach at Duke, of all places, for three months in late 1949?

Or that his first job with professional athletes was coaching a basketball team made up of Redskins players — yes, those Redskins — during the winter of 1945?

Or that he made $5,000 as coach of the divisional champion Caps during the first season of what is now the NBA in 1946-47?

Most of his local admirers are aware that Auerbach played basketball at Theodore Roosevelt High School and George Washington University in the District and kept his permanent home here during all the years he coached and ran the Celtics. Most agonizing for longtime area fans is that Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin might have landed Red to run his team — if he had only asked.

“I’d a probably turned him down, but you never know,” Feinstein quotes Auerbach as saying. “It would have depended on the timing and the deal.”

In these pages we learn what Auerbach thought of Michael Jordan — unsurpassed as a player, indifferent as an executive. We learn that President Bill Clinton once kept Bill Gates waiting outside the Oval Office for 30 minutes while he talked basketball with Red. We learn that his primary motivation in naming the great center Bill Russell as his coaching successor in 1967 was his concern that Russell might not want to play as hard for another coach but would if he himself were in charge.

There is much, much more, and all of it is marked by Auerbach’s concern for others and lack of pretension considering his towering reputation. Even after losing his wife, Dorothy, and his brother, Zang, in recent years, Red continues to meet, laugh with and playfully insult his friends from various professions during the weekly lunches. Feinstein doesn’t quite put you at the table — but almost.

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Veteran Baltimore sportscaster and historian Ted Patterson checked in two years ago with a highly readable coffee table entry on baseball’s outstanding play-by-play men. Now he does the same for another sport with “The Golden Voices of Football” ($29.95, Sports Publishing L.L.C., 190 pages, illus.) The book is a delight, particularly with a CD included that features 35 broadcast tracks.

The Washington-Baltimore area is well represented by such mikemen as Harry Wismer, Russ Hodges, Bob Wolff, Ernie Harwell and Chuck Thompson. With the exception of Wismer, all of them did baseball, too, so Patterson gets to pay them a second tribute.

I particularly liked the section devoted to Wismer, who was the Redskins for many local fans in the 1940s before television overtook radio as the pre-eminent sports medium.

Harry, a garrulous sort who seemed to forever be mentioning his “good friends” in the stands, owned 25 percent of the team’s stock for a while and feuded with principal owner George Preston Marshall over the latter’s refusal to sign black players. Ironically, Marshall did so because he feared an integrated team would offend listeners to Wismer’s Redskins broadcasts that were carried throughout the South.

Wismer, who also handled Notre Dame football for many years, finally split with Marshall and became owner of the AFL’s New York Titans, who went broke playing at the ancient Polo Grounds in the early ‘60s.

Patterson offers a valuable retrospective on the infant days of radio, when staff announcers might serve as tuxedoed emcees for dance bands one day and work a sports event the next — the latter often under extremely difficult technical conditions. Such legendary pioneers as Graham McNamee, Ted Husing and Bill Stern get the attention their contributions deserve.

In short, the book is a must for historically minded fans who want to know what football broadcasting was like in the days before Howard Cosell, Al Michaels and John Madden.

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