His cigar habit ignited controversy

By Bob Duffy
Globe Staff / October 29, 2006

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In this smoke-free age, the thought of someone igniting a cigar in a crowded building is unthinkable -- get out the fire hoses and the handcuffs.

But in the days before the surgeon general's warning, it would have been more unthinkable if an imminent Celtics victory weren't heralded by plumes of smoke emanating from a cigar that was roughly as large as the team's lead.

The man doing the contented puffing, of course, was Red Auerbach. But he wasn't merely luxuriating in the moment by indulging in his favorite vice. As so often was the case, there was far more to Auerbach's symbolism than the obvious. To Red, a good smoke was as much a matter of tweaking as taste. This was the precursor to trash talking; call it trash toking.

Auerbach, who died last night at age 89 of a heart attack, had offered two explanations of the ritual's origin and purpose.

He once told the Globe, "It's like this: I got sick and tired of coaches playing for the TV. They'd be 20 points ahead with two minutes to go and they'd be calling plays, waving their arms, showing off. My feeling was, when you knew the game was over, then sit down and shut up.

"Back then, a lot of the coaches smoked. Joe Lapchick used to smoke on the bench all the time. I don't like cigarettes -- never touched 'em. But I do like a good cigar."

Especially if it caused his adversaries to choke on the fumes. Such was the situation with the other explanation for the advent of the victory cigar, as Auerbach explained to Sports Illustrated:

"Years ago, when [the NBA hierarchy] were picking on me for a hundred different things, I tried to think of something to aggravate them. They were abusing me.

"I lighted a cigar all of a sudden. I got a note: 'It doesn't look good for you to smoke cigars on the bench.' I told them I'd stop when the other coaches stopped smoking cigarettes. By then, I liked the idea, and the people from Blackstone wanted me to endorse their cigar.

"Some of the coaches got aggravated. They thought I was lording it over them. The cigar is a sign of relaxation. The cigarette is a sign of tension. I explained to them that it was an endorsement, that I get money and all the cigars I can smoke. That calmed them down. Why stop a guy from making a buck? However, the fans think this is a major thing."

For good reason. Whatever its intent, Auerbach's triumphal gesture made an astounding impact.

"The image of this cigar is unbelievable," he told SI. "A guy in Quincy, Mass., won the $1,000 first prize from the Cigar Institute of America for a photograph of me blowing smoke."

It even transcended planetary limitations. As Auerbach reminisced to the Globe, "It became a charismatic thing. Years later, even the astronauts were talking about 'Red's victory cigar.' I got a real kick out of that."

Especially since the establishment didn't.

The cigar was the most noteworthy example of Red the gamesman, but there were others of a more mundane nature. And some, truth be told, were more imagined than real.

Auerbach was a notorious referee baiter and occasionally intentionally would get himself ejected from games to energize his team or the crowd.

Some of his other ploys:

  • Auerbach instructed his players that if they detected indecision on the part of a referee as to who was entitled to possession on an out-of-bounds call, they should run over and pick it up, conveying the impression that there was no doubt possession was theirs.

  • If the other team had a high scorer, Auerbach would tell his players to emphasize to the scorer's teammates that they were superfluous because he was taking all the shots.

  • When an official awarded the ball to the opponents, he'd order his players not to throw it directly to a player on the other team. Rather, they should throw it slowly to the official so the Celtics would have more time to get set on defense.

  • On the road, he would wait until the hosts started warming up and then request their basket, which is the visitor's prerogative.

  • Less delicately, Auerbach noted, grabbing or pulling on an opponent's uniform -- shirt or shorts -- could be a great distraction.

  • There were some things for which Auerbach got credit, or blame, strictly through reputation. Adverse conditions encountered by visitors to dear, decrepit Boston Garden -- locker room and shower temperatures at one extreme or the other, a slippery floor, lack of towels -- were attributed to Auerbach even though he and the Celtics had no control over the building.

    Of course, Auerbach did nothing to dissuade his accusers. He'd merely reflect on the charges. While puffing a Blackstone, of course.

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