This one captures the man about as well as any:
It was June 9, 1985. The Los Angeles Lakers had just defeated the Boston Celtics, 111-100, in Game 6 to capture the NBA championship. But this was no ordinary culmination of a season-long campaign. This was the ending of a hex. Before that point, the Lakers had never beaten the Celtics in a championship series. They had been 0-8 against their hated rivals in such confrontations, including one series while the Lakers were still based in Minneapolis, and another dramatic and gut-ripping seven-game experience just the previous spring.
So when the Lakers finally broke through, the fans in Boston Garden respectfully stood and applauded them. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale braved the raucous celebration inside the cramped and moldy visitors’ locker room to offer congratulations to Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, et al.
Asked for his post-series reaction, Auerbach pulled the cigar out of his mouth for a long moment and replied, “The better team didn’t win.”
Depending on which side of the green fence one is on, that remark is either evidence of Auerbach’s abrasive tendencies and lack of grace — or a summing up of what made him great.
That was Red. He was a sneering leprechaun, always looking for an edge. In his day and during many years after he stopped coaching, Celtics fans generally were the type who would spit in your eye and dare you to beat them. But if you did, they’d be the first ones to shake your hand. Red was the type who would spit in your eye and dare you to beat him, with no handshake.
Auerbach, who passed away Saturday night at the age of 89, not only won 938 games as a head coach but also had a hand as general manager in building those legendary teams of the ’50s and ’60s. He used that dual role as ammunition when Phil Jackson came close in recent years to surpassing his total of nine championships, pooh-poohing the Zen Master’s limited role with a talent-laden team.
In fact, it only takes a perusal of the team’s fortunes in recent years — no rings since 1986, no visit to the Finals since ’87 — to understand Red’s impact. The franchise has basically degenerated into a blob of corporate inertia. Since suffering the devastating setback of the Len Bias death in ’86, the Celtics have suffered from a lack of direction — epitomizing the exact opposite of the drive and focus with which Auerbach imbued them. Although he held the title of vice chairman of the board and president, he was more an advisor in later years than a hands-on executive.
PBT: LeBron James took over the 4th quarter, Ray Allen hit a huge three to force OT and the Heat survived to force a Game 7.
Video: NBA from NBC Sports
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