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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Wisdom was main course

WALTHAM -- He is an 87-year-old man with a cane and a cigar, and the clout of a king.

Red Auerbach is in the house, holding court, and the Celtics' four rookies hang on every word. The combined ages of Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Tony Allen, and Justin Reed do not even add up to 87 years. They are so green that West asked team officials if he still gets paid now that he's on the injured list. These Celtics may be young and hip and rich and spoiled too cool for school, but they know a legend when they see one.

It is Dec. 3, the day of a game against the Toronto Raptors, and they have been invited to lunch by the Celtics patriarch to munch on General Gao's chicken (Chinese -- what a stunner) and to heed the advice of a basketball icon who has seen it all.

Yet Auerbach has no plans to wag his finger and preach to the future of his franchise. He is smarter than that. He is content to swap stories with a bunch of players.

Red wants to know where West played growing up in the Washington, D.C., area.

"Mostly in Prince George's County," West says. "Wherever there was a good game."

"Back when I played," says Auerbach, "we'd go down to Fifth Street. You know, near Connecticut Avenue. We'd show up every Saturday and Sunday, and play all day."

"Outside?" asks West.

"Outside," Red confirms. "Right across the street from the Avalon Theater, right near the circle. And later, when I was coaching, I'd try out all my plays for the Celtics down there.

"I'd show up, give one group the play, put the other on defense, and say, `Try this.' If it worked, I'd go back and use it with Boston. Some of my best stuff was tested on that playground."

The rookies are silent, but you can see their minds churning. Red Auerbach actually played? Did they even have basketball back then? Red is timeless in our minds as the cantankerous coach (and general manager and president) of the Celtics, who defiantly lit up his signature cigar in the waning moments of yet another victory. Yet he, too, was a kid once.

Jefferson cannot take his eyes off Auerbach. He looks pained, as if he's been trying to think of something eloquent to say, but can't quite put together the words. Red, naturally, bails him out.

"I saw you in the McDonald's high school game," he says to Jefferson, the immensely talented big man who has a chance to be something special. "You impressed me. You weren't the best player that day. [No. 1 overall pick] Dwight Howard was. But you didn't back down. You kept coming and coming at him. I liked that."

The owners are sitting in on this luncheon, and Steve Pagliuca reminds the rookies they have already played the equivalent of more than half a college season, and it's only December.

"You guys are playing more than most kids your age," Auerbach tells them. "Wait until next year. You will come back as a new person. You will be 40 percent older just from having that year under you. It just happens that way."

Wyc Grousbeck asks Auerbach to give his players one piece of advice as they embark on their NBA careers.

"Stay in shape," Auerbach says. "When you come back from the offseason, don't plan on playing your way back into shape. Come back ready. No matter what happens, you've got to do that. Ten years from now, you'll all be wealthy guys, and you can eat all the crap you want."

He asks the group if they have ever heard of Adrian Dantley. Jefferson and West look unsure. Allen is shaking his head enthusiastically in the affirmative.

"Adrian Dantley comes to visit me one summer," Red says. "He tells me he wants to bulk up to 240 pounds, so he'll be more durable. I advised him against it. I told him, `Don't do it. You won't be stronger. You'll just be bigger, and you'll lose your quickness. If you stay between 205 and 215 pounds, you'll be perfect.' He listened to me. He played in the league for 15 years at around 210 pounds.

"I'm telling you, it matters. Look at Antoine Walker. I've always said if he took off 15-20 pounds, he would have been a much better player."

Like clockwork, the four youngest members of the Celtics push away their plates. The table is covered with spring rolls and beef with red and green peppers, and spare ribs and crab rangoon, but no more of it will be eaten today.

Allen tells Red that the four rookies all live in the same complex. They are learning on the go, from their veteran teammates, and from each other.

"We've played a couple tricks on each other," Allen tells Grousbeck. "Justin stole Delonte's jacket last week and hid it on him. It was one of those vintage Celtics jackets, but the thing that had Delonte so upset was it had Red's signature on it."

"He was hot when we took that jacket," Reed says.

"Yeah, we got him good," Allen agrees.

"I was mad," West concurs. "I mean, Red signed it for me."

It is time to go, and Red invites West, his new kindred spirit from D.C., to attend one of his Tuesday luncheons in the nation's capital, a weekly gathering that became the subject of a delightful book by John Feinstein.

"You should come," Red says. "Sam Jones is there [blank stare from West]. And Morgan Wootten comes, too. Surely you know Morgan Wootten, the longtime coach at DeMatha . . . "

"I know him," West brightens. "I almost went to play for him, but I changed my mind at the last minute. I decided I didn't want to go to an all-boys school."

The 87-year-old man, once young himself, smiles and taps his cane.

"See that?" Red Auerbach says. "Nothing really changes."

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com. 

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