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This Sporting Life

Red Auerbach: An Autobiography By Red Auerbach and Joe Fitzgerald Putnam's, 321 pp., $9.95

By Mark Chaffie

AMERICA IS DRUNK WITH sports. Every nation has some sort of sporting passion--witness European nations when their national teams play for soccer's World Cup--but the United States leads the pack in per capita time devoted to the observation and discussion of sports, especially activities in the various professional leagues. The excesses are legion. A coach in Florida bites the heads off live frogs to get his high school football team psyched up for games. A survey a few years ago revealed that about half of America's male population turned to the sports page of their newspaper before they even looked at the front page. It is somewhat disconcerting to realize that ostensible democracy is stocked with lots of people who are more familiar with the box score of last night's Padres-Astros game than with issues that affect their lives. There is nothing wrong with the sports themselves, but the degree of devotion given them seems meaningless when compared to the exigencies of more temporal problems. In this land of conspicuous consumption, professional sports are a leading sign of decadence.

An indication of the American obsession with sports is the large number of books published each year about sports figures, teams, or leagues. Most of these books are incredibly silly. At best they inform the reader of some little facts about an athlete previously known--like where he went to high school, what kind of sandwiches he likes, why he is great, and so on. In the history of sports books, only a few stand out, among them Jim Bouton's Ball Four, Roger Kahn's Boys of Summer and anything written by Roger Angell. A new book that decidedly does not fit into ranks of classic sports works is Red Auerbach: An Autobiography.

Any sports fan worth his La-z-boy Barcalounger knows that Arnold "Red" Auerbach is the genius who built and coached the Boston Celtics into the finest aggregation of talent in the history of the National Basketball Association. For years the Celtics were the finest name in the business--between 1956 and 1969 they won 11 world titles, and though Auerbach stopped coaching in 1966 to concentrate on his role as general manager, a position he still maintains, the Celtics organization is markedly Auerbach's baby. It is because of him that the Celts won so many titles, and it is because of him that they continue to win. Simply put, Auerbach is the most successful coach in the history of professional basketball. For that effort, he deserves praise. But we do not deserve his autobiography.

IT TAKES REAL CHUTZPAH to write an autobiography, a trait the Redhead (as Auerbach is affectionately known) obviously does not lack. The book details his entire life, from his youth in Brooklyn to his current duties with the Celtics. Nothin in between is left out. Nothing. Red rises from college hoop star to gym teacher to coach, bouncing from team to team in the early years of the NBA until he lands in Boston. He has had a very nice life, but it is impossible to read this book without thinking how irrelevant a life, too. What has this man done, really? He put together a group of men who could beat others at a game, and he did it better than anyone before or since. A lasting contribution to humanity it isn't.

Nonetheless, if you are interested in basketball (and there is no other way you'd read this book), Red Auerbach: An Autobiography will give you a couple of hours of happy reading. The book is chock full of interesting observations about the game from the man who knows it all and isn't afraid to say so. The best part of the book covers Red's attitudes towards his teams. He claims the secret to his success was, along with his nose for talent, a feeling of respect he engendered on his team. He demanded respect from his players, but he gave it back to them, too. From a sociological standpoint Auerbach coached during the time the NBA shifted from an all-white to a mostly black league, and the Celtics, resplendent with stars like Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, were a model of interracial harmony at a time when there weren't too many such models around. While Auerbach, a somewhat modest guy, doesn't claim responsibility for this important harmony, he is obviously proud of it, more to his credit.

The book is also filled with the kind of trivia for which sports fans go bonkers. Where else can you find out that Auerbach, coaching on the high school level in the early '40s, cut a kid named Bowie Kuhn because he was completely uncoordinated. Did you know that the Basketball Association of America's leading scorer in 1947-48 was none other than Max Zaslofsky of the Chicago Stags? Quick, who did Red coach between the Washington Caps and the Celtics. That's right, the Tri-Cities (as in Davenport, Rock Island, and Moline) Blackhawks.

One unusual touch in Auerbach's rather lengthy autobiography is that it does not seem to be completely ghost-written, as is the manner of most sports books. Instead. each chapter contains an historical text by Joe Fitzgerald, a longtime Boston sport-writer including comments about Red from players, relatives, friends and enemies (including the references he terrorized for years), and a few pages of italicized comments from Red himself, which read like transcribed tapes. The result is, surprisingly enough, a lot more readable and interesting than most sports books, which are generally aimed at an eighth-grade audience.

CELTICS FANS OF ALL AGES will doubtless enjoy this book, for it dwells on the glory days of a franchise that still ranks among the best. Indeed, all basketball fans will probably like Red's story even if he is always right. To a younger generation of fans who know Auerbach as the guy who smokes cigars while showing you how to shoot a lay-up between halves of nationally televised NBA games, a whole new world will be opened. So buy this book for your father or your kid brother for his birthday. Like all sports books, they'll read it once, most likely enjoy it, and then put it on the shelf to gather dust, for it is, after all, just another sports book.

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