Boston Garden opened for basketball in 1946 and with it came Red Auerbach future coach and general manager of the Boston Celtics. He is both the beginning and the end of the famed parquet floor and the embodiment of the NBA. When Red first began coaching in the NBA the league was on the brink of falling apart financially.
Before the 16 world championships and victory cigars in Boston there was Brooklyn, New York. Born September 20th 1917 Arnold Jacob Auerbach son of Russian immigrants was introduced to hard work by his father Hyman Auerbach. “I appreciated the fact that my father was a hard-working man,” Red says, explaining his father’s influence. “Also that he was well liked and in my area of Brooklyn there was no football, no baseball,” he recalls. “They were too expensive. They didn’t have the practice fields. We played basketball and handball and some softball in the street.”
Red got married in 1941 and soon after joined the Navy in 1943 getting discharged in 1946 finishing his military career being stationed in Norfolk, VA. Just before being discharged from the Navy Walter Brown owner of the Celtics started the Basketball Association of America. Red was offered the coaching job for the Washington Capitals and led his team with 49 wins and 11 losses in the 1946-47 season. After 3 years Red moved on to the Tri-Cities (Moline, IL, Rock Island, IL and Davenport, IA), but left after a questionable trade led to a dispute between Red and teams owner. During this time Walter Brown was looking for a new coach, he selected Red and the leprechauns moved in.
From that point on Red put together some of the greatest teams the NBA has ever witnessed. Cousy, Russel, Havlicek, Jones, Sanders, Bird, McHale, Parish and the list is as long as your arm. With each team Red had one constant and it signified winning. It was the lighting of the cigar, or Red’s way of telling the fans and the other team they were finished. “I smoked all different cigars at that time,” he says. “Sometimes fans would give me some. I did TV promotions for King Edwards.” Hence, the “victory cigar.” “It all boils down to this. I used to hate these college coaches or any coach that was 25 points ahead with three minutes left to go, and they’re up there yellin’ and coachin’ because they’re on TV, and they want their picture on, and they get recognition. To me the game was over. The day’s work is done. Worry about the next game. This game is over. So I would light a cigar and sit on the bench and just watch it. The game was over, for all intents and purposes. I didn’t want to rub anything in or show anybody what a great coach I was when I was 25 points ahead. Why? I gotta win by 30? What the hell difference does it make?
“The commissioner [Maurice Podoloff] once said you can’t smoke cigars on the bench. But there were guys smoking cigarettes on the bench. I said, ‘What is this, an airplane–you can smoke cigarettes but not cigars?’ No way. I wouldn’t do it.
“I started with a pipe,” he explains. “The pipe was less expensive to start with.” The change to a cigar was fortuitous; a “victory pipe” might not have worked.
“In Cincinnati one night, management gave out 5,000 cigars to the fans. They were going to light up when the Royals won the game. You talk about motivation. I had the team so sky-high we never let them get in front. We beat the hell out of them.”
How the players’ felt was a little different then how Red felt. As Cousy once stated, “It made us feel uncomfortable. It was more offensive to us and everyone else on the road. When he did this, it got everyone’s attention. And hell, we had enough hostility focused on us as it was. This was another trigger point, as the fans were already pissed off because then it looked like they’d lose the game. And they did. This was an irritant. He sat benignly and comfortably on the bench, smoking away, with a guard behind him. Meanwhile, we were out on the floor taking all this abuse. The feeling among the players was: ‘Why get their attention anymore? Why piss ’em off?’ The fans would get more belligerent and hostile toward us, and we had to bust our tails to keep the lead because once he went for the cigar, the other team’s intensity went up 100 percent. I hated that thing. Paul Seymour [a Syracuse Nationals player from 1949 through 1960] told me that his ambition in life was not to win an NBA championship as much as it was to have Auerbach light up prematurely and lose, so that he could go down and stuff that cigar in his face. That’s all Seymour wanted to do in sports. It created this kind of reaction from opponents. As players, who needs it?” Tom “Satch” Sanders didn’t mind the smoke on the bench. “But the locker room was another story; it was close quarters in there!” Would Red put out his cigar? “Are you kidding?” Sanders snaps.
When the cigar smoke cleared the Celtics had 11 championships in 13 years with 8 in a row. Eventually capping at 16 championships under Red’s leadership (17 total) and aside from winning the word most used to describe Red Auerbach is cigar. Now current team President and former player Danny Ainge once said, “I think of a penguin with a cigar,” who often kidded Red on his style of walking.
What was Red’s favorite cigar? It was his Hoyo de Monterrey cigars? “I like them because they’re big and mild,” he says. How many a day? Two? “Yeah, put down two.” At Legal Seafood in Boston, an item on the menu reads: No cigar or pipe smoking, except for Red Auerbach.”
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