It’s hard to think about celebratory cigars without thinking of Red Auerbach. A man known as much for his cigar smoking as his command of the court, Auerbach went down in history as one of the most colorful basketball coaches of all time. He also knew a thing or two about success: under Auerbach, the Boston Celtics won nine NBA championships and finished with a record of 1037 wins and 548 losses. Still to this day, the 1960’s Celtics team remains one of the most dominant in the history of professional sports.
After coaching high school, joining the navy, and coaching in the Basketball Association of America, Auerbach became the Celtics head coach in 1950. He spent the next several years building his team to greatness and it paid off: between 1959 and 1966 the Boston Celtics were unstoppable, serving as NBA champions for eight years straight. During the 1965 season, Auerbach was named Coach of the Year. The Celtics were a basketball dynasty and Auerbach was their king.
Auerbach was also known as one of the first coaches in the NBA to help break the race barrier. In 1950, he became the first coach to ever draft an African American player. In 1963, he became the first coach to start five African American players. And, upon his retirement in 1966, Auerbach named Bill Russell as his successor, making Russell the first African American head coach of an American professional sports team.
Auerbach was not known for strategy, his playbook did not consist of a series of plays and routes to run. Instead, he had a keen sense of discovering talent: he simply knew who was going to be great. He looked for the in control point guard, and the exceptional rebounder and added in three other talented players, those who could both shoot and play defense. From there, he motivated his team in the manner that only a Red Auerbach could.
When Auerbach hung up the ol’ clipboard in 1966, he went on to serve as the general manager until 1984 and the team’s president until his death (with a few breaks in between). In these roles, it was Auerbach who was responsible for bringing Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale to the Boston Celtics. All three players made their way into the Hall of Fame.
In the end, Red Auerbach is tied with Phil Jackson for the record of most NBA championships. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1969 and won the NBA Executive of the Year Award in 1980. This same year, he was named to the NBA’s 35th Anniversary team as the “Greatest Coach in the History of the NBA” by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America.
As famous as he was as a coach, he was also famous as a cigar smoker: he was known for lighting up a victory cigar before the end of the game when the Celtics looked to win. Fans reveled in this and opponents were infuriated by it, but everyone noticed it. The victory cigar became Auerbach’s mark and something he is most remembered, loved and hated for. When the home arena of the Boston Celtics banned smoking, those in charge decided that, for Auerbach, they could make an exception; he was, after all, exceptional.