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No one beat L.A. like Auerbach did

His Celtics tormented the Lakers in the Finals for more than two decades, and he made no effort to hide his glee.

October 29, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

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.

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