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Red Auerbach & Cigars

J. Bennett Alexander Alexander's picture

J. Bennett Alexander

Ah, the day. As in, “back in the day.” As in, back in the day you could go see a professional baseball, hockey, or basketball game and smoke a cigar in the arena. I’m not joking. I used to do that at Madison Square Garden during Rangers’ games and at Wrigley Field watching the Cubs. Of course, the day has changed and smoking in stadiums is no more. The most famous of all those who lit up a cigar, and he was an inspiration in many other ways, was Arnold Jacob “Red” Auerbach.

Who Is Red Auerbach?

Unless you’re quite young or not a big fan of the National Basketball Association (NBA), and more specifically a big fan of the Boston Celtics, you can be forgiven for not knowing the legend of Red Auerbach. Auerbach, who did have red hair, as an early coach of the Celtics, was the reason for the team’s huge success. You might call it a dynasty. In 16 years as the head coach of the Celtics, Auerbach won nine NBA championships. He added seven more as the team’s general manager. Auerbach was the man who got Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, and Larry Bird into Celtic green. So, yeah, those guys helped some. Auerbach’s lifetime coaching record in the NBA was 938 wins, 479 losses, a winning percentage of .662. He did all this while smoking plenty of cigars.

What Cigars Did Red Auerbach Smoke?

Auerbach became famous, and reviled, for his habit of lighting a victory cigar once the Celtics had the game in hand. As in, before the game was over. At the time, several coaches in the NBA smoked cigarettes on the bench. The NBA commissioner wasn’t amused by Auerbach.

"The commissioner said you can't smoke the cigars on the bench,” Auerbach told Cigar Aficionado in 1994. “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.”

Auerbach first smoked a pipe.

"The pipe was less expensive to start with." 

But “victory cigar” had a better ring to it than “victory pipe.” So, Auerbach, who early on smoked a lot of different brands, including King Edward, ultimately favored the quite large Cuban Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona.

The Red Auerbach Victory Cigar

Auerbach also was given a lot of cigars by fans and did some TV ads for King Edward. But the victory cigar grew out of Auerbach’s desire to relax. And maybe to rub it in a bit.

"It all boils down to this,” he explained. “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?”

There Was That One Time….

But once, yes, just once the cigar was ignited a bit prematurely. Sportscaster Bob Costas asked Auerbach in 1991 if he ever lit up and lost the game. Without revealing the team the Celtics were playing, Auerbach told the tale.

“We were three points ahead with 10 seconds to go (no three-point shot then) and they had the ball,” Auerbach recounted. “So, I lit up the cigar and said let ’em score. Don’t touch ’em. Sure enough, [Celtics forward Tom] Heinsohn wants to block a shot. So, he hits the guy, and the ball goes in. They make the free throw. They tie it up. Now I’m dying. The cigar’s in my hand, no victory, but we won in overtime.”

Auerbach was not happy.

“I didn’t blow the game, but they tied it up,” Auerbach recalled. “That’s the only thing I remember about Heinsohn. I could have killed him.”

In 1969, Heinsohn became the Celtics head coach, succeeding Russell, and won two championships.

Not Everyone Was Amused

Of course, if you were a fan of the Celtics, you likely enjoyed the ritual of lighting a victory cigar. The opposition wasn’t as amused.

"In Cincinnati one night (yes, Cincinnati had an NBA team “back in the day”), management gave out 5,000 cigars to the fans,” Auerbach recalled. “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."

Even some of the Celtics players, many of whom would have run through a wall for Auerbach, were unhappy with the cigar smoking. Legendary Boston sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy wrote in his book, Evergreen, of Bob Cousy’s concerns.

“It [the cigar] made us all uncomfortable.” Cousy said. “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. 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, another Celtics great, didn't mind the smoke on the bench. "But the locker room was another story; it was close quarters in there!"

Would Auerbach put out his cigar?

"Are you kidding?" Sanders said.

Breaking Barriers

As much as Auerbach did to elevate the cigar and make it a part of many championship celebrations, he should be remembered for breaking the NBA’s color barrier. Auerbach drafted the league’s first African-American player, Chuck Cooper. Auerbach was the first to put a starting team made up entirely of Black players into a game. When Auerbach retired from coaching, he tapped Bill Russell to take the reins, making Russell the first African-American coach not only in the NBA, but in all of pro sports.

Auerbach passed away in 2006 at the age of 89. Today, the team award for who best embodies what it means to be a Celtic is named after Red Auerbach.

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