The Auerbach Challenge, Part I: Before the 1965-66 season even began, Auerbach had decided it would be his last campaign as Celtics coach. But instead of keeping the news under his yarmulke, Red told the press his plans in typical Auerbachian fashion: "I'm announcing it now so no one can ever say I quit while I was ahead. I'm telling everyone right now -- Los Angeles, Philadelphia, everyone -- that this will be my last season. You've got one more shot at Auerbach!"
Red did this, of course, to motivate his troops. After all, seven straight championships could make any team a little complacent (although probably not this particular team, actually). However, Auerbach's challenge also succeeded in lighting a fire under Boston's opponents (read that: everbody outside of New England). As noted in The Saturday Evening Post: "They want [the Celtics] to lose because they detest Auerbach. Auerbach has predicted he would depart a champion and they want him to go out a loser." Truer words were never spoken.
Everywhere the Celtics went, fans took advantage of their "last shot" at Red. During a convincing loss to the Royals in Cincinnati, hundreds of fans lit up victory cigars in order to mock the rascally coach. Then, in the closing seconds of the game, a woman in "maroon stretch pants and a white angora sweater" ran down from the crowd, took a long drag off of her cigar, and blew the smoke in Red's face. Naturally, Auerbach yanked the cigar out of her mouth and flicked ashes all over her. She's probably lucky he didn't stick it in her eye, too.
Things got even worse when Boston played in Philadelphia. Near the end of one blowout loss to the Sixers, fans not only lit up their victory cigars, they also peppered Red with a barrage of peanut bags and beer cans. Then, as the final buzzer sounded, a lone fan approached the Celtics bench and threw a lit cigar in Auerbach's splotchy face. Red responded by calling Philly a "bush town." Not long after, the fan wrote into the Philadelphia Bulletin to admit his guilt, but he couldn't resist taking another potshot at Auerbach. "It did not hit him. That so-called smudge he showed on his fat head was probably from his dirty hands." Oooooooh...what a zinger!
Anyway, the challenge brought the heat down on Red's team all season. And although it wasn't enough to derail Boston's championship choo-choo, it was the kind of declaration that -- had it backfired -- might had tarnished Auerbach's spotless record as a crafty winner.
The aftermath of an injury:As noted, Elgin Baylor obliterated his knee in Game 1 of the 1965 Western Division Finals. And I'm not being melodramatic; the main ligament in the knee had suffered catastrophic damage and the kneecap had split almost in half. Initially, there were serious questions about whether he would even be able to walk again, let alone play basketball. But Baylor worked like a demon to make it back to the NBA, and he did...although he could never make it all the way back. Said Elgin: "I wasn't the same player. I was about 75 percent of the player I had been."
And he wasn't. Baylor played 65 games that season, averaging 16.6 PPG (on 40 percent shooting) and 9.6 rebounds. His presence made the Lakers a better team, to be sure, but not quite the powerhouse they might have been had he been the Elgin of old.
Fun fact: Baylor's middle name is "Gay." Seriously.
The Celtics in Game 1: The Celtics raced out to a 38-20 lead, which should have been a big enough cushion anywhere -- even Pluto! -- but especially Boston Garden. It wasn't. By the final minute, the Lakers had tied the score. They even took a brief lead when Bill Russell goaltended a shot by Elgin Baylor. But Sam Jones hit a shot to force overtime. But Boston couldn't stay in front of Baylor (36 points) or Jerry West (41 points), and L.A. pulled out a 133-129 victory.
The Auerbach Challenge, Part II: Red wasn't going to just sit back and let the Lakers have a psychological edge over his team going into Game 2. So Auerbach made the grandest possible announcement: Bill Russell was going to be the next coach of the Boston Celtics. The news not only turned the basketball world upside down -- after all, Russ was going to be the first black head coach in a major American sport -- it also stole the headlines from the Lakers. And L.A. coach Fred Shaus was pissed. But what could he do? Nothing, except pray that his team would respond with fire.
Boston won game two in a 129-109 blowout, then crushed the Lakers in L.A. by a score of 120-106. They also edged the Lakers in Game 4, 122-117, and it looked like the series was all but over. All the Celtics had to do was win Game 5 at home.
The Celtics in Games 5 and 6: Boston choked at home (121-117) and then again in Los Angeles (123-115) to set up yet another Game 7 showdown with the Lakers. This happened primarily because Fred Shaus switched to a three guard lineup, exiling starting forward Rudy LaRusso to the bench, playing Jerry West in the three spot, and putting Gail Goodrich on John Havlicek. Normally, the Celtics were the ones who used small adjustments to stymie their opponents. This time they were the victims of a minor tweak, and they couldn't respond.
Elgin Baylor and Jerry West: The Lakers' dynamic duo didn't respond well to the pressure of Game 7: They combined to shoot 3-for-18 in the first half -- 2-for-9 for West, 1-for-9 for Baylor -- as the Celtics built a huge lead. And Boston should have cruised from there.
But they didn't.
Red Auerbach (via John Volpe): The Celtics led by as many as 19 points in the third quarter, and they maintained a double-digit bulge throughout the fourth quarter. They were still up by 10 points with a minute left when Volpe, who was at that time the governor of Massachusetts, lit Red's victory cigar. And if you're wondering, the answer is: Yes, the stat curse dates all the way back to the 1960s. The Boston fans went berserk and flooded the court before the game could officially end. It was crazy. Bill Russell -- who was actually playing on a broken foot -- got knocked on his ass. Satch Sanders had his jersey torn off his body. Orange juice containers were spilled all over the floor. In short: Bedlam.
The referees managed to get the fans off the court, for the most part, and restored a semblance of order. But the Celtics were in trouble. One Boston defender slipped on some orange juice and fell over, which allowed Jerry West to score a quick bucket. Mr. Clutch then stole the ball from Russell and scored again. Boston lost the ball on an offensive foul and L.A. scored again. The lead was down to four. Sam Jones, who was pretty clutch himself, got a case of the yips and bobbled a pass out of bounds. The Lakers had the ball back yet again, and their center, Leroy Ellis, hit a jumper to cut the Celtic lead to only two with four seconds left.
Auerbach must have been ready to strange Volpe, governor or no.
But Russell inbounded the ball to K.C. Jones, who quickly dribbled around a cluster of L.A. defenders and flung the ball toward John Havlicek as time ran out. Boston 95, L.A. 93. Make it eight straight titles for the Celtics, and one final championship celebration for Red Auerbach.
The Boston police: When he finally left the Garden after his team's Game 7 victory, Red found a parking ticket under his car's windshield wiper. Auerbach shrugged it off, though, figuring that after all the good luck he'd had over the years, he could deal with a little bad luck. (And I'm guessing he never had to pay that ticket...)
The Auerbach Challenge, Epilogue: After the game, back in the comfort of his hotel room, Red had this to say to journalist Milton Gross: "If they were going to beat me, this was their shot. And they couldn't."