Red Auerbach’s Nefarious Attempts at Gamesmanship Infuriated the Lakers

No rivalry transcended generations like the Boston Celtics versus Los Angeles Lakers. But for each matchup, Red Auerbach was front and center.

Whether it was leading from the bench as the head coach or running the entire team as the president, Auerbach is the greatest Celtic never to wear the uniform itself. Red served the Green for nearly 50 seasons and earned numerous titles, many of which came against the hated Lakers.

While no one denies Auerbach’s abilities as a coach or president, he wasn’t always playing by the rules. Just ask the Showtime Lakers, who revealed the disadvantages they faced from the moment they entered Red’s legendary Boston Garden.

Red Auerbach and the Celtics have a long history of success against the Lakers

The Lakers have 17 championship banners hanging in the rafters of Crypto.com Arena. Just imagine how many more they’d have if it wasn’t for Auerbach’s Celtics.

Boston and then-Minneapolis met for their first Finals matchup in 1959. It became Boston’s second title victory under Red and the first Finals loss for the powerhouse Lakers. It was also the first of eight straight Finals the Celtics were about to win.

Between 1959 and 1966, the C’s captured an astounding eight championships. Five of those were against LA, which moved from Minnesota ahead of the 1960-61 season. All of those victories came with Bill Russell leading the charge on the court and Auerbach running the show from the bench.

Even after Auerbach, the pioneer of modern offense, stepped down as coach after 1966, the team president still oversaw seven more titles between 1968 and ’86. Naturally, three of those came against the Lakers, leaving the Purple and Gold with an 0-8 record against Boston in the Finals.

It wasn’t until 1985 when LA finally captured its elusive Finals victory over Boston. Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers defeated Larry Bird and the Celtics in six games. Two years later, LA won again in what would be Auerbach’s last NBA Finals appearance as team president.

The Lakers took issue with Auerbach’s gamesmanship techniques

From Bill Russell to John Havlicek to Larry Bird to Kevin McHale, Auerbach had no shortage of talent to work with. But just in case the C’s needed a little something extra, the 16-time champion knew exactly how to put their opponents at a disadvantage.

The Celtics called Boston Garden home from 1946 through 1995. The arena, which opened in 1928, was outdated, to say the least. It was already drafty and poorly maintained as it was. But that’s before Auerbach made things even worse for LA ahead of the 1984 NBA Finals, altering locker room temperatures and creating an unsanitary environment.

“All the things you heard about Red Auerbach — most of them were true,” said Lon Rosen, the Lakers’ former director of promotions, in Jeff Pearlman’s Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. “The locker room smelled, it was dirty, disgusting. He’d have people call the players’ hotel rooms in the middle of the night so they didn’t sleep well before games. He was an incredible basketball mind, but very childish.”

Lakers coach Pat Riley was very weary of Auerbach’s attempts to throw the Lakers off.

When the Lakers had traveled to Boston earlier in the season, Riley spotted a container of water on a courtside table during shootaround. “The Celtics left it there for us,” said Dave Wohl, a Lakers assistant. “To drink.” Riley ordered that the container be emptied, scrubbed out, and refilled. “Who knows,” he said, “what the Celtics might have put in there to make us sick.”

Jeff Pearlman

Longtime Celtics guard M.L. Carr was interviewed in Pearlman’s Showtime book. The two-time champ offered some defense of the legendary coach but also acknowledged some of the shady things going on.

“Actually, not everything you heard was right,” Carr said. “I don’t think he turned the heat on when it was really hot out. He just turned the cold water off.”

Red Auerbach admitted to cheating

Boston Celtics President Red Auerbach smiles with a cigar in hand.
Team President and Vice Chairman Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics smokes a cigar. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

According to Sports Illustrated, the Lakers were woken up by fire alarms no fewer than 10 times over the course of their six-night hotel stay in 1984. The Marriott Copley Place said the cause was dust, but one maid told SI, “They could be set off by a man with a cigar.”

Whether the fire alarms were directly caused by the cigar-smoking Auerbach is missing the big picture. It was well-known that the Celtics great would often bend the rules if it meant his team gained a competitive advantage. Don’t believe us? Just ask him.

Matthew O’Brien of The Atlantic shared a story of when an 85-year-old Auerbach spoke to his high school class. From there, the longtime coach offered some curious life lessons.

“Everybody always asks me how to gain a competitive edge,” Auerbach said. “And I’m always surprised because the answer is so obvious … You cheat.”

He then explained to O’Brien and his classmates how if you’re playing a better fast-breaking team, you should “install nets so tight that the ball gets stuck.” Or if you’re playing a faster baseball team, you should “water the basepaths ’till they turn into muddy quagmires that nobody can run on.”

Needless to say, the Lakers were far from being the only victims of Auerbach’s … methods. But you can’t deny that his end results justify the means, so long as you throw away any degree of sportsmanship.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

RELATED: Red Auerbach Knew Beforehand the Celtics Were Beating the Lakers in Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals: ‘What They Did Was Make the Biggest Mistake You Could Make in Sports’