You knew the basketball game was won when Red Auerbach lit up his favorite cigar. If there's anyone who should be lighting up a victory stogie these days, it's John Feinstein, who was lucky enough to corral the former Boston Celtic Hall of Fame coach into coauthoring Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game, which has been just published by Little, Brown.
The Feinstein-Auerbach relationship actually owes its existence to Bobby Knight, who helped launch Feinstein's career big-time as the subject of the 1986 megaseller, A Season on the Brink—which also earned Feinstein Knight's considerable wrath for many years. Feinstein recalls meeting up with Auerbach in the green room while waiting to go on a local television program. "He looks at me," recalls Feinstein over the phone from his office in Potomac, Md., "and says, 'How's your buddy, Bobby Knight.' I looked at him and said, 'Coach, we're not exactly buddies.' And he goes, 'I know. He hates you.' So I said, 'He doesn't hate you.' And Red looks at me and gives me this look and says, 'Yeah, but that's just because I never wrote a book on him.' "
Soon an invite came through intermediaries for Feinstein to join Auerbach at his favorite Washington, D.C., Chinese restaurant for the regular Tuesday luncheon, where Auerbach and his cronies sit around eating chow mein and telling tall tales to each other. Feinstein was soon captivated. "I started going to the lunches on a regular basis," Feinstein recalls, "and Red would sit there and tell fantastic stories. And the other guys at the lunch would say, "Why aren't you writing them down?' And after a while I realized they were right. So, rather than being obnoxious or bringing a tape recorder or a notebook, when I got home from lunch I would write the stories into my computer, just because I felt they should be kept somewhere, just so they didn't go into the air and never come back. One day at lunch, Red looks at me when the guys were kidding us again. 'So, what's the deal? You want to do a book or not?' This is Red's way. And I said, 'Do you want to do a book?' 'Yeah, why not.' And that's how it came about."
In less than two decades Feinstein has authored 16 books, and an extraordinary number of them have hit bestseller lists, including A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour, which, like the Knight book, went straight to number one on the New York Times bestseller list. But even as he continues to produce other work at a prodigious pace, Feinstein and Knight will be forever associated with each other in most fans' minds. Just how, PW gently inquired, is the Knight-Feinstein relationship today? "Actually," says Feinstein with a good-natured laugh, "it's mellowed quite a bit. In '86, Ahmad Rashad asked me during an interview on NBC how I felt about Knight calling me a 'pimp and a whore.' I said, 'I wish he'd make up his mind so I'd know how to dress in the morning.' As you might have noted, in this book I talked to Knight. He was very gracious and he loves Red. I hate the cliché, 'people have mellowed,' but I think you kind of grow out of your anger. When we see each other, we're perfectly cordial at this point."
Auerbach and Knight are two of the most successful coaches in the history of basketball. They both know how to win, but what makes them different as individuals? "Knight has a very lengthy streak of bully in him," says Feinstein bluntly. "He just bullies people. Red would never bully anybody. It's just not who he is. Red doesn't have Bob's ego. All successful people have egos, but Red doesn't need the spotlight the way Bob needs the spotlight. The similarities are that they are both very smart, they're both very good as motivators and both probably understand the game at a level that very few people ever have."
With Feinstein's track record, he can pretty much pick what he wants to write about. "I just don't sit there and say, I'm going to do a football book or a golf book. It's like an idea hits me and I say, gee, that would be fun. And I'm lucky [that] the Little, Brown people—particularly [publisher] Michael Pietsch—have been so great to me through the years that a couple of times, I've walked in with ideas where Michael has looked at me like I'm out of my mind and said, 'But if you believe in it, let's do it.' Certainly, when I did The Last Amateurs, the Patriot League book, Michael and Esther Newberg, my agent, both ran screaming from the room at the thought of it. But I thought there was a story to be told, and they said, 'If you want to do it, let's go do it.' "
Feinstein, who still writes a basketball column for the Washington Post, will have a YA fiction title, Last Shot, coming out from Knopf in the spring. Right now he is busy at work on a book about the Baltimore Ravens. "It kind of goes back to my old formula, spending a year inside something. In this case it's inside an NFL locker room. I have complete access to the team. I started before the draft, and I'll go through the end of the season and then go off and write the book." Feinstein expects publication to be in the fall of 2005.
Looking back on his career, Feinstein says, "I've been just unbelievably lucky—because of the success of A Season on the Brink, I was able to call my own shots." He remembers once meeting up with Knight and having an amicable conversation with him. His companion couldn't believe it. "After all the names he called you," his friend said, "why would you even speak to him?"
"Because," replied Feinstein with an answer only a working writer would understand, "he built my house."