No one beat L.A. like Auerbach did
It was bad enough that the Lakers never beat the Boston Celtics, a string of words Jerry Buss once called “the most odious sentence in all of sport.” But did Red Auerbach always have to rub their noses in it?
Auerbach, 89, died Saturday of a heart attack, but he won’t soon be forgotten by Lakers fans. His Bill Russell-led teams built their dynasty by consistently denying the Lakers, crushing the dreams of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain.
Eight times over a 25-year period, from 1959 when the Lakers were still in Minneapolis through the 1983-84 season, the Lakers and Celtics met in the NBA Finals and eight times Auerbach and the Celtics emerged swimming in champagne.
And the Celtics patriarch, so obstinate and self-involved that he celebrated his successes by firing up victory cigars on the bench, never let them forget.
“Please,” Auerbach taunted the media after the Celtics’ Finals-clinching Game 6 victory over the Lakers at the Sports Arena in 1963, “tell me some of these stories about Los Angeles being the basketball capital of the world.”
Twenty-one years later, long since having resigned from coaching and moved into his role as general manager, Auerbach smugly claimed another NBA title, this time with a Game 7 victory in Boston Garden over the Showtime Lakers of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy.
Cigar in hand as he accepted the championship trophy, he couldn’t help asking, “Whatever happened to that Laker dynasty I’ve been hearing so much about?”
Of course, he knew the answer: His Celtics had happened to it.
Starting in 1962, Auerbach, Russell & Co. defeated the Lakers in the NBA Finals six times in eight seasons, three times winning titles with Game 7 victories.
Not once did Auerbach voice any compassion for the losers.
“Why should I feel sorry for them?” he was quoted as saying in the 1986 book, “Winnin’ Times,” co-authored by Scott Ostler and Steve Springer. “They were the enemy. They were continually building a better team.
“We didn’t have any money, any [high] draft choices, and we still beat them. [It] was more satisfying because of the Hollywood syndrome.
“Every year, the writers out there raved how tremendous the Lakers were. We whipped them with Chamberlain, without Chamberlain, with Baylor, with West.”
Even when the Lakers seemed to have gained an edge over the Celtics, Auerbach found a way to outfox or belittle them.
In the 1966 Finals, after the Lakers had stormed back from an 18-point deficit to win Game 1 at Boston, 133-129, in overtime, Auerbach chose the postgame interview to announce that Russell would replace him as coach the next season.
“Instead of the glory and the psychological edge falling to the Lakers, the attention abruptly shifted to Boston,” Roland Lazenby wrote in his 1993 book, “The Lakers: A Basketball Journey.”
“Working as a player-coach, Boston’s center would become the first black head coach in a major American sport. The announcement made the headlines the next morning, while the Lakers’ upset was obscured.”
Years later, Auerbach gloated, “That killed them. They beat the hell out of us and everybody was writing about Russell being the next coach. They hardly even mentioned the game.”
The Celtics won the series in seven games, Massachusetts Gov. John Volpe lighting Auerbach’s victory cigar with 20 seconds to play in Game 7 and the Celtics leading by six points. A late Lakers push made the final score 95-93.
“I would have loved to have stuffed that damn cigar down his throat,” Lakers coach Fred Schaus said. “We came awfully close to putting that damn thing out.”
In 1968, after the Lakers had traded for Chamberlain, Auerbach infuriated Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke by asking reporters, “I wonder if Jerry West and Elgin Baylor are going to be willing to be underlings to Wilt Chamberlain?”
“Preposterous,” Cooke said.
The next season, Russell’s last as a player, the long-in-the-tooth Celtics faded to fourth in the East but again reached the NBA Finals, again defeating the Lakers.
Insufferable in victory, Auerbach could be intolerable in defeat.
In 1985, when the Lakers finally broke through and defeated the Celtics in the Finals, the general manager railed at reporters and stormed out of the arena after the Lakers’ series-clinching, hex-lifting Game 6 victory in Boston Garden.
“No,” he said later, “I don’t think the better team won.”
Two years later, with the Lakers on their way to another six-game Finals victory over the Celtics, Auerbach was so infuriated after Johnson’s “junior, junior” skyhook had given the Lakers a series-turning Game 4 victory that he chased veteran official Earl Strom off the Boston Garden floor. With TV cameras rolling, the then-69-year-old executive disparaged and berated the official.
“We got to the locker room and here came Red, screaming like a madman,” Strom wrote in his autobiography. “He had chased us through the crowd, cussing us all the way. He was saying that if I had any [fortitude], the Lakers would never have gotten back in the game. He was calling me every dirty-rotten-lowlife name he had called me over the previous 30 years, kicking the same old door.”
Strom, after ducking into the officials’ dressing room, stuck his head back out and said, “Arnold, you’re showing all the class I always knew you had.”
If Auerbach loved scoffing at the Lakers, they deplored what they saw as the win-at-any-cost approach employed by the Celtics and their boss.
“The ‘Boston Mystique’ isn’t leprechauns hiding in the floorboards,” former Lakers coach Pat Riley wrote in his 1988 book, “Show Time.” “It isn’t blood and guts. It’s a willingness to use any tactic to upset an opponent. Turn up the heat when it’s already hot. Shut down the visitors’ water heaters. Instigate hard fouls on the court. The general manager chasing officials all the way to the dressing room to intimidate them. To hell with dignity. To hell with fair play....
“The ‘Boston Mystique’ encourages the lowest common denominator of fan behavior. It grows directly out of the low-rent attitudes of Boston management. They’re the Klingons of the NBA.”
Auerbach was unapologetic.
“He was cantankerous, combative, contentious, controversial, even contemptuous,” the late Times columnist Jim Murray wrote in 1991. “He loved a brawl. The eyes were bold, unyielding. He never ducked a fight. He could be as sarcastic as a Marine sergeant.
“He didn’t care if he antagonized you. Popularity bored him. He wanted to beat you, not charm you. He didn’t much care how he did it.”
And didn’t the Lakers know it.