Smokers and Winners – NBA’s Victory Cigar Ritual

Winning the NBA Finals is a big feat, and you are bound to celebrate in style. The players have some grand celebrations, but there are some unusual rituals as well.

After winning this year’s NBA Finals, LeBron James called his mother to celebrate. That video has become iconic in his showreel.

But if you notice closely, he also has a cigar in his hand while celebrating.

Ever wonder why a professional athlete would have a cigar in his hands? What if I told you this was an NBA ritual known as The Victory Cigar?


Victory Cigar
LeBron James calling his mother to celebrate.

From LeBron James to Michael Jordan, you can see everyone light one up after their victory. But who started this? Although it is unclear when the tradition started, many trace it back to Red Auerbach and his dynastic Celtics of the 1960s. Many coaches and teams have joined this smoke-filled ritual over the decades.

Celtic were a dominant team in the 1960s, winning 9 titles from 1957 to 1966. Between this time, Auerbach began the habit of lighting a cigar late in games he knew his team was about to win. However, the Celtic legend insisted that the cigar-lighting ritual did not start as a means of taunting beaten foes.

Victory Cigar
Red Auerbach’s statue with a cigar in his hands.

As he famously describes it, “It all boils down to this. I used to hate these college coaches or any coach that was 25 points ahead with three minutes left to go, and they’re up there yellin’ and coachin’ because they’re on TV, and they want their picture on, and they get recognition. To me, the game was over. The day’s work is done. Worry about the next game. This game is over. So I would light a Victory Cigar and sit on the bench and watch it. The game was over for all intents and purposes. I didn’t want to rub anything in or show anybody what a great coach I was when I was 25 points ahead. Why? I gotta win by 30? What the hell difference does it make?” (Cigar Aficionado, Summer, 1994).

Victory Cigar
Michael Jordan smoking a cigar in celebration of his team’s victory.

If this is where it all started, Michael Jordan was the one to make it even more iconic. Jordan won six titles with the Bulls. That doesn’t mean he only smoked six cigars during his playing career. He is a cigar aficionado and him smoking the cigar was symbolic. People always want to emulate the great, and MJ sitting in his locker room and lighting up a stogie after victory is one of those iconic moments that stuck with many people who saw him growing up.

These cigars had also given us some fascinating stories like when Brock Aller walked into a Bay Area smoke shop and purchased 52 cigars, signifying one each for the number of years Cleveland sports fans had been waiting for a championship. The Cavaliers won 93-89, and the celebration began.

Champagne and tears flowed in the locker room as Aller opened his backpack and started passing out cigars. Aller also lit one and immediately thought of his grandfather. He had passed away due to lung cancer when Aller was a child. He had vowed never to smoke as a kid. As he grew up watching sports and saw teams celebrate in this fashion, he granted himself this one-time exception.

NBA Finals
OAKLAND, CA – JUNE 12: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors smokes a cigar after defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers 129-120 in Game 5 to win the 2017 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 12, 2017, in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Or the time when Brock Aller distributed cigars in the visitor’s locker as well at Oracle Arena in 2016. Stephen Curry quietly made plans to save him for another time. He had a special stick picked out for the occasion, but his plans were put to bed by the Cavaliers, completing a history-making comeback from a 3-1 series deficit. He did not discard the smoke.

Curry said he gave it to a friend and asked him to store it for a year. This became one of the best stories of delayed victory cigar gratification in sports history. Curry regained possession of the stogie and NBA title on June 12, 2017, as the Warriors defeated the Cavaliers in just five games. Curry lit the stick and walked to centre court and appeared on NBA TV smoking it.

Victory cigars have given the NBA a few of its most iconic moments in history, and it continues to be a ritual that is followed by the current greats and for the ones to come in the future. Who would have thought a single stick had such a big impact on the game and its players?

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