Cigar store ritual ends with Red's passing

JR Cigar will still open Saturday morning, but it won't be the same. The usual crowd of Washington, D.C., smokers will stop by the L Street store. Only, one regular won't be coming back.

Red Auerbach died a week ago, and he left behind countless people whose lives now have a hole in them, from Celtics fans to the manager of the shop where he always bought his trademark cigars.

"Coach would come in like every 10 days, two weeks to get his two boxes," says John Sullivan, who's been running the place for about six years now. "He was a regular customer. He'd show up on Saturday morning right before we'd open. And he'd want in. He'd park his Mercedes with his Celtics license plate. He'd jump out in his green Celtics baseball jacket."

For 22 years, the same thing. Red barreled through the door and asked, "Where's my cigars?"

They'd have them ready by the register. Hoyo de Monterrey Governors in the green wrapper, $67 a box -- the cigar as much a throwback as the man. Sullivan knows the code by heart: hmg1. When he took over, that was part of his informal briefing: Have these cigars ready on Saturday morning.

"We tried talking to him every now and then," Sullivan says, laughing, "but he was in and out. That wasn't in his plan in the morning to sit and talk to us."

You can tell a lot about a man by the cigar he smokes. Back in the '60s, the green wrapper was by far the most popular. That has changed. The whole world has changed, but Auerbach didn't. He never came around to the notion of cheerleaders at a basketball game. He never could stop himself from griping at officials. He never quit buying the Governors with the Celtic green wrapping.

"It's a very authentic Honduran cigar," explains Victoria McKee, spokeswoman for General Cigar, makers of the Hoyo de Monterrey. "It's not in flashy packaging, like so many other cigars."

Authentic. Not flashy. Sounds like Auerbach smoked the right thing, and, on the first Saturday since he died, the world is a different place without him in it. A little piece of the past has vanished. That's how it is these days. We're growing bigger, faster, stronger, losing touch with our roots a little more every day. They tore down his beloved Boston Garden. The Celtics added cheerleaders and lost their mystique. Even his cigar might soon disappear ... a relic from a different time.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they discontinued making that particular cigar in that particular color," says Lew Rothman, president and CEO of JR Cigar. "I don't think anybody else in the United States actually inventories that cigar expect for our stores because of his purchases and people buying him boxes."

Rothman's voice sounds like a black-and-white movie, smoky and textured. He has known all the famous smokers. He used to send a ziplock bag to Kennedy Airport, bound for a cross-country flight to Doc Severinsen. He made sure his stores had the Hoyos for Red.

"We're losing a lot of the characters," he says. "We had a lot of famous people. George Burns. Milton Berle. But they are all disappearing."

It was pretty clear Auerbach was next to go. He had been sick for a while. He stopped coming to JR Cigar in the spring. The doctors tried to get him to lay off the stogies. Once, his son-in-law ordered a box.

"We had them delivered," Sullivan says. "He said, 'Don't let my wife know. She'll kill me.'"

Until the end, Auerbach loved those cigars. Now he's gone. His brand might follow him. The only things left are the people who knew him and the stories they can tell. He's never going to sit courtside again, never going to eat at Legal Seafood -- where the menu read: No cigar smoking ... except for Red Auerbach.

He's never going to be waiting outside the L Street store, impatient for Sullivan to let him in. That doesn't mean they don't catch themselves peeking for that double-parked Benz. Right now on the counter, they have an autographed box of Hoyo de Monterrey Governors. The ones with the green wrapper. Only, Red's not coming in this morning to buy them.

"On Saturday, we still look," Sullivan says. "We miss him."

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.