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Cigars in the NBA: A Tribute to Red Auerbach

Red Auerbach with Bill Russell.

“…the distinct smell of cigar smoke could be detected from the courtside seats as Lakers Girls embraced one another,” was the word from the LA Times as the Lakers took the NBA Championship in an exciting game last night. For a while it looked like the Celtics were on track to victory, but a powerful defensive press by the Lakers proved insurmountable.

But this ain’t a sports blog, it’s a cigar blog, and cigars were certainly a part of this Championship. Of course, smoking is not permitted in the Staples Center, but that didn’t stop fans from lighting up a victory cigar in the heat of celebration.

Now, Phil Jackson is known to enjoy a celebratory cigar, but his aficionado status is vastly overshadowed by the legend of Red Auerbach, perhaps one of the only coaches more legendary and successful than Jackson himself. Auerbach coached the Celtics during their dynasty period, and later went on to manage and eventually become president of the club. He is widely regarded as one of the most famous and revered personalities in basketball history.

Auerbach’s signature move was to light up a cigar on the court when he was confident the Celtics had a lock on victory. It was an aggressive, taunting maneuver, but then again you’re talking about the coach who set the record for being ejected from games by officials. Both the man and his cigar are immortalized in a bronze statue in Quincy Market in Boston. There’s probably a public maintenance crew is wiping the teardrops off his shoulder this morning.

Sports and smoking share a long history, though smoking of any kind is now banned across all major sports leagues in America. When Auerbach got flak for smoking a cigar on the court, he retaliated: “I told them I’d stop when the other coaches stopped smoking cigarettes… The cigar is a sign of relaxation. The cigarette is a sign of tension.”

Those who think cigar smoking has no part in athletics are simply ignorant. Michael Jordan, arguably the most famous athlete in recent history, loves cigars so much he’s been on the cover of Cigar Aficionado (Auerbach got his own feature, too). There was a friggin’ humidor installed in the dugout during the Yankee’s legendary run in the 20s. At one point, Babe Ruth rolled his own cigars!

Bringing it back to last night’s game, the Celtics gave a great performance up until the fourth quarter, so we can’t exactly say Auerbach is rolling in his grave. But when the cigars came out in the Staples Center, we can’t help but think that despite the loss, Red’s spirit was in the air. When he began coaching in 1946, the league was in financial ruin. Present-day, the NBA is a thriving, multi-million dollar enterprise. Auerbach had a lot to do with that resurgence, thanks to the Celtics dynasty he helped guide to the top of the sport, capturing a whole nation’s attention.

Not to slight Phil Jackson and the Lakers, who are probably still tasting last night’s victory cigars at this very moment, but on the subject of cigars in the NBA, no one can touch good ol’ Red Auerbach. Even though his team lost in the final minutes, basketball is still a hugely popular sport, in no small part thanks to the legendary Celtics coach and his cigar.