1984 NBA Finals a Prelude to Star Wars: The Chessmaster vs. the Commander, aka West vs. Auerbach. The case of the General Managers.
Auerbach vs West!
As we move along through posts dealing with the 1984 series, one rivalry took place that largely has escaped the public’s attention. This was between the Commander, Arnold Jacob “Red” Auerbach, vs. Jerome Allen “Jerry” West of the Lakers. By 1984, these two had been gunning for each other from different vantage points for nearly a quarter-century. Of the 7 times each team met through 84, they had squared off in 6. The success of the Celtics enhanced one and infuriated the other. Although both were loath to admit it, each measured themselves by the other’s success (and failure).
Show me a good loser: The commander
By 1984, in the NBA, Arnold “Red” Auerbach had become synonymous with both the Boston Celtics and winning. Thirty-four years into his reign as commander in chief of the Boston Celtics, Red was the most influential man in NBA history up to that point. It didn’t start that way. Back in 1950, if you can believe it, “Red” measured his success by the Lakers. The Minneapolis Lakers that is. The Lakers in those early days captured the league’s first dynasty, while ironically, the Celtics were the league’s biggest draw. With their magical point guard Bob Cousy, the Celtics were able to boost attendance. But, they had no chance of beating the mighty George Mikan Lakers. Auerbach, try as he might, could not outcoach size. He then acquired the reputation as a “sore” loser. Auerbach, defiant even then, would bellow, “show me a good loser, and I will show you a loser.” Auerbach remained a “bad loser,” even after Mikan left in 1954. That is, until December 22nd, 1956. Turning the tables, Auerbach bought in one William Felton Russell, and together they unleashed the greatest team in the history of the sport. Over the next 13 years, they would advance to the championship round 12 times. They won 11 of them, with more than half 7, coming against the Minneapolis/LA Lakers. The “sore loser” now became the “sore winner,” as Auerbach engaged in fights with rival fans, cursed out owners, and generally intimidated referees who called Celtic games. He then would rub it in by lighting up a cigar whenever his Celtics were near the finish line of victory. He would create an aura of near invincibility, which infuriated his long-time rival, Laker coach Fred Schaus. Schaus, humiliated four times between 1960-1966 by Auerbach and the Celtics, would say, “we came awfully close to putting that damn thing out.” Schaus never did “put that thing out,” but his student Jerry West wanted nothing more than to fulfill that pledge. Let us find out why.
The Chessmaster: West
If Auerbach measures his jackpot at the expense of the Lakers, then West measured his team’s worth by how it faired against Boston. West, the last remaining original Los Angeles Laker, had been a part of the greatest duo in NBA history up to that point. He and running mate Elgin Baylor literally gave it their all against Boston, and the results were the stuff of legend. In 1962, West hit a buzzer-beater in Game 3, and Baylor put up a magnificent performance in game 5. Scoring 61 points, he would establish a playoff mark that still endured in 1984( and still is the Finals standard 60 years later). Despite this, the Celtics still won their 4th straight title. 1963 followed, and now the Lakers were in the position that the pre-Russell Celtics had. They were the league’s most exciting team, but they had almost no chance of beating Auerbach or Russell. The pains of defeat began to set in. This was never more apparent than in 1965. Before the Finals, Baylor would tear his patella tendon, which would alter his career. West, accepting the challenge, would carry the Lakers back to the Final round, averaging 46.3 points a game, a feat which endures today. But when they faced Boston, they endured a 32 point opening game beatdown. West willed his team to one home win, but April 25th, 1965, reinforced the nightmare. Going into the fourth quarter, the Lakers were down 16. But then the Celtics went on a 20-0 run that embarrassed Russell. The great center would later liken the game to a Roman slaughter, and even Schaus was emotionally defeated. He would say,” The Celtics haven’t been beaten, and it’s safe to say that may never be.” It was here that West began to seriously consider retirement, even though he was only 26 years old. By the end of the decade, not even acquiring Russell’s rival Wilt Chamberlain changed the tide, as the Lakers would lose two more times, with Russell leaving the balloons in the air in his final game. But that flop by the Lakers is for another post. Here, let’s return to 1965. For Auerbach, several months after that humiliation, they decided to rub it in the Lakers face. How?
You’ve got one more shot at Auerbach
By 1965, Auerbach was 47 years old. But, when he looked in the mirror, he decided that he was at least 10 to 15 years older. Plus, the naked need to dominate was waning. So, he decided that he should step down from coaching and concentrate on keeping his Celtics on top talent-wise. But, he decided to make his intentions public. Singling out West and the Lakers, Auerbach said, ” You’ve got one more shot at Auerbach.” Inevitably, the Lakers (with an improved Baylor) made it back against Boston in 1966. In-game one ( a foreshadowing of what took place in 1984), the Lakers made a huge comeback from eighteen down to win the game. But, Auerbach stole their thunder. He took this moment to announce that Russell (instead of his former whipping boy Tom Heinsohn, who reappears in 1984 as the main play-by-play announcer for CBS) was his successor at coach. This historic moment naturally overshadowed the Lakers triumph, and the Celtics used the momentum to take a 3-1 series lead. The Lakers, as usual, rallied, and with two minutes to play in game 7, we’re down 10 with two minutes, Baylor and West led one final rally, but the cigar was lit again. Once again, West had come up short, and Auerbach retired. A champion. Against the Lakers.
P.S.– This post looks at how West and Auerbach viewed the opposing franchise
respectively. Most people do not consider them as rivals. However, this poster believes they were two of the four most influential men in NBA history in 1984 (beside Wilt and Russell). They are still around the 7th or 8th most influential men(with West becoming the most influential since 1960). Though West has not been affiliated with the Lakers in 20 years, and Auerbach passed away a decade and a half ago, this poster contends that they remain the essence of both franchises they represented. In addition, as we are almost 40 years from 1984, Auerbach and West remain the standard across the NBA for success as a GM. In part II, we will look at the influence(through 1984) of both men as GMS. This post purposely ended in 1966(instead of 1969) because Auerbach retired from the bench after beating the Lakers that year. Auerbach himself had 14 rings by 1984, but he wore only the 69 ring. But from the vantage point of West and the Lakers, 66 was the albatross of dealing with both Red and the Celtics. He was leaving his manager duties in 1984, with the Lakers on the horizon once again. Meanwhile, West was in his first finals against Boston as GM. He still was searching to fulfill his mentor(Schaus’) desire to “put that damn cigar out.” But first, he had to put together and maintain a team capable of doing that. To be continued.
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