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Sitting in an empty dressing stall in Houston's Summit, Red Auerbach looked very Buddha-like—serene mien, round belly, little smile—except for the fat cigar sticking out of his mush. The Boston Celtics had just beaten the Houston Rockets 102-91 to win the NBA title, four games to two, and Red always lights up when the Celts win, be it an exhibition game or a world championship.
All around him was the stifling, soaking, sweaty chaos of a champion's dressing room. Yet Red was unruffled, puffing clouds of smoke while droplets of champagne ran down strands of his sparse, now-white hair. Had he been worried when the Celtics had nearly blown a 17-point fourth-period lead in Game 6 to a desperate and ferocious Rocket team that nearly forced a seventh game? "Nah," said Red. "I've always said, 'I don't get ulcers, I give 'em.' "
With a shrug Auerbach ran through each of the 14 championship teams the Celtics have produced under his direction, nine as general manager-coach, five as general manager only. "They were all great," he said. "But, you know, of the ones I didn't coach, this one might be the best because we did it with these kids." He waved his cigar in a semicircle before him, as though it were a magic wand. Maybe it was.
In a corner Larry Bird, the 24-year-old second-year forward, sat alone, quietly contemplating it all. His energy and emotions for the most part had already been spent. After almost matching Houston's awesome Moses Malone rebound for rebound—both had nearly 16 per game—and leading both teams in assists and steals, Bird had shaken a series-long shooting slump in the finale and scored 27 points, seven in the final four minutes when the Celtics needed them most. The shot that broke the Rockets' backs was an icy-cool three-pointer from the left corner, 24 feet out. Swish. The game was over, and Bird ran off in a flurry of high 10s—that's two palms slapping two palms—with his teammates. At the trophy presentation by Commissioner Larry O'Brien, Bird had playfully grabbed the cigar out of Auerbach's mouth and taken a wide-grinned puff himself.
In the middle of the room, 25-year-old Forward Cedric Maxwell, a quiet man who has labored in Bird's shadow the last two years and is the sole link to the old John Havlicek-Dave Cowens-JoJo White Celtics, planted a kiss on the championship trophy and proclaimed the moment "the greatest of my life." On the strength of his performance in the series—leading the Celtics in scoring in Games 3, 4 and 5 and averaging 17.6 points and 9.5 rebounds, 5.6 off the offensive boards—Maxwell was voted the Most Valuable Player.
Elsewhere, Robert Parish, the big center the other Celtics call Chief because he smiles about as often as a cigar store Indian, was smiling, chiefly because he had come back from the missing-in-action list to score 18 points in each of the last two games and put the heavy muscle to Malone, whose 20 and 23 were nowhere near enough for the guard-starved Rockets. Outside the locker room, Parish's mother, in from Shreveport, La., dashed around collecting autographs from everybody—and anybody. Kevin McHale, the bon vivant rookie, stood on a table and in reference to a preseason contract hassle screamed, "Thanks, Red, for not letting me play in Italy!" while chugging his first bottle of champagne and smoking his first filched-from-Auerbach cigar of the night on his way to half a dozen of each. "I never knew winning could be so tough on a man," he would say the morning after.
Then there were the two old men of the team, Tiny Archibald and Chris Ford, 11- and nine-year veterans, respectively, who had labored on bad teams for most of their careers. "This was my ultimate goal," said Archibald. Said Ford, "People have knocked me ever since I came into the league. White, slow, now I'm too old. I always knew that basketball was a team game. Now I'm part of a championship team and I'm a Celtic. That's being part of history."
Coach Bill Fitch felt the same way. He'd been the ogre who worked these players almost to exhaustion during the 99-game season. He'd sacrificed sleep to watch miles of videotape, he'd aged at least five years in one, and by the end of the series he couldn't sit in a chair comfortably because of a sore back. He'd broken a blackboard in anger, chewed out his players and pointed out their lapses in public. Many of them dislike his tactics, some dislike him personally. But they all came to respect him for bringing them through to the championship in his 11th year of coaching in the pros, his second in Boston.
"For two years we've been looking at those 13 banners hanging from the ceiling," said Fitch, who had never won an NBA title before. "Now we know what each team had to go through to get its banner. Hard work, and nothing but."
It's true, of course. There's no championship in sport that's more punishing in the winning than the NBA's. The Celtics had theirs wrapped up, or so they had through, after miraculously coming back from 1-3 to beat Philadelphia in a classic seven-game Eastern Conference final. But they underestimated Houston, and after four games the teams were tied at 2-2 and heading back to Boston for Game 5.