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BOOK REVIEW

Auerbach gets the Red-carpet treatment from Feinstein in 'Let Me Tell You a Story'

Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game, By Red Auerbach and John Feinstein, Little, Brown, 346 pp., illustrated, $25.95

At the beginning of his new book about Arnold "Red" Auerbach, John Feinstein relates a story about the day in the early 1990s when Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy approached the legendary Boston Celtics coach and team president about doing a book about his life.

"Okay, I'll do it," Auerbach told Shaughnessy. "Just don't do to me what that SOB did to Bobby Knight."

Anyone who read Shaughnessy's "Seeing Red" or who is familiar with the prolific Feinstein's work knows that Feinstein is, indeed, "that SOB." His 15 previous books, among which are two of perhaps the best-regarded sports tomes of all time, include the brutally frank 1986 work about the combustible Indiana coach, "A Season on the Brink," which sold more than a million copies. It also sparked a blood feud between the author and the red-faced Knight, who belatedly tried to suggest that the book contained inaccuracies and even outright fabrications.

No worries, Red. Auerbach, who is listed as coauthor of "Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game," could probably tell from the first few galley pages that it would be no "Season on the Brink."

Instead, it is a gentle, meandering journey through Auerbach's 87 years on the planet and seven-plus decades in basketball. It is often funny, a breeze to read, and at times revealingly personal, yet some readers may also find themselves unsatisfied at the end.

The issue here, as with the Knight book, is access. A good biographer must gain as much of it as possible, but an honest one must ultimately bite the hand that feeds him. In "A Season on the Brink," Feinstein chomped down hard, bravely laying Knight bare for better or worse in all his brilliant, crude, manic, bullying glory. Here, Feinstein makes only the barest effort to mute his obvious admiration and affection for the cigar-chomping Celtics legend.

"Let Me Tell You a Story" is structured around Auerbach's Tuesday lunches at the China Doll restaurant in Washington, D.C. (Red has lived most of his adult life in our nation's capital, not in Boston). While Auerbach holds court for a regular group of friends and admirers at the weekly lunches, "Tuesdays With Morrie" they're not, and there are few life lessons here.

Instead there are plenty of good yarns, like the time that Auerbach acquired the draft rights to franchise center Bill Russell by giving up two players and the Ice Capades. Over chow mein and steamed dumplings, Auerbach tells Feinstein how he had identified Russell as the key player to build the team around in the mid-'50s. When it came time for the 1956 draft, however, a trade of two of his best players, Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan, to the St. Louis Hawks produced only the second pick in the draft. With Rochester still holding the first pick, Auerbach had then-Celtics owner Walter Brown -- who was also chairman of the Ice Capades -- promise that he would take the profitable ice spectacular to upstate New York for a one-week run if Rochester owner Les Harrison picked someone else.

The rest is history. Harrison passed on Russell, and the Celtics went on to win 11 NBA championships with him in the lineup.

There are other good tidbits, such as how Auerbach's talented artist brother Zang designed the Celtics logo and how his first professional team, the Washington Capitols of the old Basketball Association of America, scared opposing players with tales of the huge rats inhabiting their arena to create a home-court advantage. Another is the time when, after Auerbach had taken to smoking his victory cigar when home games were well in hand, the Cincinnati Royals handed out 5,000 cigars to their fans, instructing them to light up if the Royals won.

"If you don't win this one, I'll kill you," Auerbach told the team, which did indeed win the game.

Along with the abundance of good stories, the name-dropping quotient of "Let Me Tell You a Story" is fairly high, with appearances by former president Bill Clinton, Adolph Rupp, Bill Gates, David Letterman, Alan King, and, of course, every Celtic star from Bob Cousy to Larry Bird to Paul Pierce. Throughout, Feinstein keeps the tone nonjudgmental, although he does gently present some of Auerbach's warts, such as his penchant for holding grudges or his apparent inability to give other legendary coaches their due. It's too bad there isn't more of this in the book, since Auerbach actually seems more real when we learn of his curious affection for bad boy Knight and his coolness toward another legendary coach, UCLA's sainted John Wooden, even though Wooden and Auerbach share the same rap from critics who say their amazing championship runs came at the expense of weak competition.

Ultimately, anyone hoping for a no-holds-barred, tell-all version of Auerbach's life will likely come away from the book wanting. Feinstein's explanation of why women are not invited to the China Doll lunches is instructive. "Unofficially, this is a men's club," he writes, "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."

While we are invited along to lunch, we see only the version that has been scrubbed free of the profanity and blue stories. While definitely worth diving into, "Let Me Tell You a Story" also leaves readers wondering what it would be like to be a fly on the wall of a Chinese restaurant.

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