This Just In...Let Me Tell You A Story Is Just Out!
"You know where it is, don't you? You know how to get there, right? 11:00 o'clock sharp!" barks the Coach into the telephone, between puffs on one of his famous cigars.
I feel like I am Bob Cousy or K.C. Jones being instructed on how to run the old play #1 play with the option going to either Tommy Heinsohn or Sam Jones. But this is for lunch, and the Coach is the Coach – Red Auerbach.
That's right, lunch. And if it's Tuesday, it's a very special lunch.
Sure as it is daylight outside, they are like bees coming back to the hive. They arrive by car from points all over our nation's capital or from the Washington, DC suburbs. Many must have been sharp athletes as several arrive as early as 10:45 AM (remember when your coach said to be at the bus by 11:00 – it usually meant 10:45 because by 11:00 the bus would be long gone).
Now where is this famous rendezvous, you ask? Near the Jefferson Memorial, no. Must be near the Capitol building near powerful politicians, wrong again. Chinatown, where else... no better place to get Chinese food – right?
To be very precise, the hot lunch spot is the China Doll, located at 627 H. Street, near 7th Street and just a very long three-point shot away from the MCI Center in downtown Washington, DC. Oh, and I am sure this wasn't a prerequisite; the awning over the entrance to the restaurant is green with the words China Doll in white script (Celtics mystique, again?).
The China Doll is a very simple restaurant. If it seats 100 people, it could be bulging at the seams. But what is most interesting is the fact that it could pass (almost) for an extra-wide bowling alley (with lots of glass mirrors on all the walls). The place is dimly lit, which isn't to be confused with the dim sum. There is just one big round table (the kind that sits eight comfortably) only the table gets overdosed by three or four additional bodies on most late Tuesday mornings. Throw a couple square 4-by-4 tables together and there you have it – the Tuesday lunch set-up for 16, 18, 20? And, if someone is late? The orders are to sit him down at the end, sort of like a middle reliever waiting his turn coming out of the bullpen rotation. But the bottom line is, a seat will be made available for that person at this table – somehow and someway.
Why the China Doll, you ask? Good question.
This lunch (and eventually the new publication, Let Me Tell You A Story with Red Auerbach and written by the legendary sports writer John Feinstein) originated out of a conversation between Coach Auerbach and his brother, Zang. The two brothers lived approximately 30 minutes away from each other and they were both getting older and they thought that making a point to see each other, at least, once a week seemed like the next best thing to winning another world championship. Hey, how about 11:00 AM every Tuesday... at the China Doll.
At first, it was just the two them. Winter set in, driving was touch-and-go and a friend or buddy from their club would join them. And, over a short amount of time, the lunch grew and grew some more into what it is today –a collection and a mixture of wonderful, successful and very recognizable gentlemen who enjoy life for all it's worth for 60-75 minutes.
What's amazing about all of this is, that this isn't a big deal... but it is a big deal.
As George Solomon, the former Executive Sports Editor for the Washington Post for 28 years explained to me on the sidewalk before entering, "The conversation is very stimulating. The banter is very good. And, you never walk away from here feeling you haven't learned something."
I did mention this lunch was Chinese food at 11:00 in the morning, didn't I? Well, wait a minute, ok, so I lied a little, the food really doesn't make a grand entrance until approximately 11:20-11:30.
At 11:00AM and after introductions, greetings, cordial salutations, and well wishes – it feels like the pre-game warm-up period and the lay-up line is over – it's now game time! (As far as I can conclude, the only gentlemen with 'assigned' seats at this table are: Coach Auerbach, former DeMatha High School mentor Coach Morgan Wootten, Feinstein, Solomon, and former NBA star and Washington Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry).
The clock ticks to approximately 11:02 – and they're off.... and the many topics fly around the table as if torpedoed out of the starting gates at Churchill Downs. Topics? From politics, sports, home design, home repair, automobiles, colleges, college education, the history of the NBA, horse racing, salaries, the airline business, petroleum prices, The Big Dig... you name it and it's fair game. And, soup. The conversations only settle to a dull roar when the words 'does anyone want soup?' comes up. But these four words draw the same comparison to 'gentlemen start your engines' as the next wave of topics are racing around the table faster than time trials at the Indy 500, until the piping-hot soup arrives.
11:10AM and it's Emma and the waiters. No, this isn't a modern-day version of Danny and the Juniors. Emma is the boss-lady of the restaurant and along three other young men they make sure the soup makes it safely (along with plenty of duck sauce and hot mustard). With pen in hand, Emma tackles each main dish order like a Baltimore Ravens lineman. No need to see the menu with this crowd either. If you've been to any Chinese food restaurant and you have a favorite dish... just order it.
What you have to understand is that this is friendship at its very best. Everyone gets needled and everyone needles right back. There are better serves and volleys than a match at center court at Wimbledon.
The dialog begins in full force during soup and continues even when the main course is served. 'Remember that guy who played for...' or 'how come he didn't make the Hall of Fame?' or 'that player could have been a hell-of-a-player,' And it keeps flowing, 'this or that US President was good for the country' or 'what about this team, how good will they be this year?' 'Who is better (Tiger) Woods or (Vijay) Singh?' Four, six, eight conversations happening at once. It is wise to be on your toes. It only gets derailed when an all-important question like, 'who ordered the shrimp chow mien?' gets asked by Emma, pulling off her best Judge Judy line of direct questioning.
For the final half-hour or so, the dialog never stops. Never.
For a break in the action, I could not help but look at the customers at some of the other tables. I can't help thinking that their first reaction is, 'where is the hidden camera for all this?' This must be being filmed for some show. In between bites of their egg roll, I swear these people are saying, 'isn't that?' or 'that sure looks like...'
But, as quickly as they assemble, it is with the same swiftness that they depart. When Coach Auerbach pays the bill (he always pays the bill and don't even try to pay it), that's it! Done! Exit stage left (or right?) to H Street. Goodbyes are exchanged, slaps on the backs are handed out generously (no high-fives with this lunch crowd) and sincere wishes for continued good health and the chance to do it all over again in 168 hours (or one week for those keeping score at home).
Why is this so special? Let's hear it from a few of the "veterans":
"Oh my gosh," beams Fox News Correspondent Chris Wallace. "First of all, you are having lunch with Red Auerbach... you are having lunch with one of the legends. In a world where you got so many errands to do and so many obligations... to have one day a week, starting at 11 in the morning, where all you are doing is having lunch with a bunch of guys talking sports, telling jokes, needling each other – what could be better than that?"
Coach Wootten adds, "Well, Red makes them special. He gets things going talking about basketball, talking about life, talking about the old days – great stories. It's just a pleasure to sit around a legend, like him, and hear everything. There is no question that you got to be alert (at these luncheons), and if you are lucky you'll pick up about 80% of what goes on."
And, some final reflections from the author, John Feinstein. "First of all, it's Red. His ability to tell stories, knowing who he is and what he has meant to the NBA and to basketball. But, I also think it's the camaraderie. It's almost like an extended family. For everybody who is involved, everybody looks forward to Tuesday at 11:00, and you know you are going to see people that you like. I think Morgan Wooten said it very well, he said, 'there are very few things in life that live up to their hype and the lunches every Tuesday live up to everybody's expectations and more so, so that's why we all look forward to this so much."
In closing, I learned a great deal in a short amount of time. It was a very memorable and truly special hour in my life. I have been asked before, 'what is important in life – fame and fortune or family and friends?' I think it is safe to assume that the gentlemen at this lunch have been blessed with all four.