Colorful Red Made Lakers Feel Blue
The Lakers open their regular season this evening at Staples Center against the Phoenix Suns, but it won't be the same.
No, not because Kobe Bryant might not be in the starting lineup because of his ailing knee, although the team certainly might look weird without his presence with somebody named Maurice Eva ns scheduled to fill in for him.
What will be different is that for the first time in more than five decades an old tormentor, Arnold (Red) Auerbach, who passed away the other day at age 89, won't be around to taunt the La kers.
Not that the old Boston Celtics coach and general manager had done so in recent years other than to make occasional derisive remarks about the Lakers' coach, Phil Jackson, who's tied with A uerbach for winning NBA titles with nine.
But, oh, did Auerbach and the Celtics cause the Lakers numbing misery across the years, especially during Bill Russell's 13 seasons -- they won 11 championships in that span -- and even durin g the Larry Bird era when they beat the Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar team in seven games in 1984.
It was the eighth time in a row the Celtics had frustrated the Lakers in the NBA finals, and Auerbach, never one to hide his disdain for his Los Angeles rivals, said, ``We always beat the L akers when it counts.''
I'll always remember interviewing Auerbach in his office at Boston Garden during the season after the Russell-coached Celtics had upset the Lakers in Game 7 at the Forum in Russell's final game, and his saying, ``Bill Russell always beats Wilt Chamberlain when it counts.''
Red Auerbach was from another epoch, a politically incorrect one when the mass media that pervade the scene now wasn't around to scrutinize every barbed comment and when smoking a cigar in a sports arena wasn't banned.
Auerbach routinely would make demeaning comments about officials -- his feud with referee Sid Borgia was legendary -- and, in what would be illegal to do today, he even would light up a cigar while seated on the Celtic bench when his team had secured a victory.
In retrospect, such behavior smacked of petty arrogance and cruel mockery, but this is what made Auerbach one of the most colorful figures in athletics when the Celtics were dominating the NBA like no other team has in its history.
And no one suffered more from this than Jerry West, who lost to the Celtics in the finals six times as a player and once as a GM.
West would exact a measure of revenge in 1985 when the Lakers, finally, slayed the Celtics right back on the Boston Garden parquet -- and beat them again two years later.
But those two triumphs didn't erase the dark memories of all those setbacks West endured against the Celtics, especially that one in Russell's farewell match when Laker owner Jack Kent Cook e had stuck balloons in the Forum rafters, to be released upon his team's victory that never came.
``I still have nightmares about that game,'' said West. ``We should have beaten the Celtics. But we didn't. That one hurt the most because it was the final time we had a chance to beat Bill Russell.''
I never will forget a smirking Auerbach, never gracious in victory, in the Celtics dressing room afterward, once again repeating his Russell-always-beats-Wilt mantra.
I also never will forget the first time I saw Auerbach's mighty Celtics perform.
It happened on April 16, 1962 in Game 6 of the finals at the old Sports Arena, with the Lakers holding a 3-2 advantage in the series.
I drove down from Fresno to observe the proceedings with a pal, and we each bought a $2.50 ticket for $20 at Murray's Drugstore on Santa Barbara across from the arena for the privilege to s it in one of the last rows of the colonnade section.
It was a thrilling experience to see the larger-than-life Celtics of Bill Russell and Bob Cousy for the first time. I can remember Auerbach strutting onto the floor before the game with his green-clad team, amid loud boos from the L.A. fans, and how the Lakers dominated the first half, taking a 10-point lead into the dressing room.
It seemed the Lakers, led by West and Elgin Baylor, were on the threshold of dethroning the Celtics, but the final 24 minutes turned out to be a graphic reflection of Boston's greatness.
West and Baylor cooled off, while Russell started grabbing every rebound, Sam Jones began hitting every shot, Bob Cousy led a withering fast break, and the Celtics emerged with a 119-105 tr iumph.
The Celtics would go on to beat the Lakers in Game 7 in Boston in overtime after Frank Selvy missed an open 10-foot jump shot on the final play of regulation, and would go on to beat the La kers five more times in the 1960s.
Red Auerbach had been a respected coach with the Celtics since he joined the team in 1950, but turned into an iconic one the moment he engineered a trade in 1956 with the St. Louis Hawks, s ending Ed McCauley and Cliff Hagan to the Hawks for their first-round draft pick that he used to get Russell.
Auerbach's teams were known for their teamwork, resourcefulness and toughness -- and he had a knack for always having his players emotionally primed to play.
It's ironic the two best basketball coaches I've been around in my lifetime, John Wooden and Red Auerbach, were so different from each other in their public conduct.
Wooden never smoked, and never uttered ridicule about opponents and players.
But they did share similar traits -- both were strong-willed, both were exceptionally bright, both were commanding figures and both didn't tolerate selfishness among their players.
Auerbach's Celtics and Wooden's Bruins staged textbook clinics on the hardwoods.
For sure, Red Auerbach never will be forgotten in L.A., scene of so many of his team's most stirring victories, including that most famous one on May 5, 1969 when Bill Russell wound up spri nting off the Forum floor with one final humiliation of the Lakers and Wilt Chamberlain.
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