Saturday, September 4th, 2010 at 9:30 am  |  25 responses

Original Old School: Iron John

SLAM 33: John Havlicek could play all day and night. Credit that to both stamina and will.

From SLAM 33, this throwback by Bob Ryan features the NBA’s ultimate ironman, John Havlicek. In an era when off-the-court issues and minor injuries throw off entire seasons (and even careers), we figured there’s no better time to honor Hondo’s unbelievable persistence.—Ed.

SLAM 33 Old School: John Havlicek

by Bob Ryan

He could have played with Larry Bird, you know.

John “Hondo” Havlicek would have been 39, but so what? He didn’t quit because he could no longer play. He retired from basketball in ’78 because he didn’t like going to work everyday any longer.

He had been used to teammates like Bill Russell and Dave Cowens, and by the ’77-78 season, he was saddled with the likes of Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe. Part of the deal for him was living the life; when the life became a drag, he thought it was time to say good-bye. But if he had really known what Larry Bird was going to be all about, well, who knows? He could have played until he was 40 or 41 and told the grandchildren that he had played with both Bob Cousy and Larry Bird. He would have been the linkage for 41 years of Boston Celtics, and NBA, history. As it was, he didn’t miss by much. He scored 29 points in his dramatic final game, averaged 16.1 points per game for the season—no surprise, because, as you’ve already heard, the man could still play.

Playing with Bird would have been fun, and to some degree it would have represented a full circle. It would have borne some similarity to playing with Cousy, which Havlicek did in The Cooz’s final season. “All I did offensively in my rookie year,” Hondo once said, “was run around and make lay-ups on passes from Cousy.” He could have gotten passes from Bird in much the same way, and he knew it.

Of course, the truth is that he did play with Bird and against him. It’s just that the public was not privileged to bear witness to the annual April 8th ritual of the late 70’s and early 80’s. April 8th is Havlicek’s birthday, and every year, then-coach Bill Fitch took full advantage of the opportunity to bring Havlicek in for a workout with his team. At ages 39, 40, 41, and beyond, Havlicek demonstrated that he could still play. A terminally-awful left knee ended all that, but not before the point had been made to youngsters who might not have fully appreciated that John Havlicek remains one of the handful of greatest basketball players who ever lived.

It was fashionable in his time to anoint either Oscar Robertson or Jerry West as the game’s best all-around player, and in the early days there was also plenty of sentiment for Elgin Baylor. Havlicek was regarded as the game’s pre-eminent sixth man, no more—until he stopped being a sixth man and became the Bionic Man.

The fact that Havlicek was not a full-time starter during the first seven years he spent with the Celtics was utterly irrelevant. As legendary coach Red Auerbach was forever fond of saying, “It’s not who starts the game, it’s who finishes it.” And Auerbach knew what he had right from the start: as a rookie in ’62-63, Havlicek was third on the champion Celtics in minutes played. The next he advanced to second. And when it got to be what Magic Johnson called “Winnin’ Time,” Havlicek was on the floor, because he was one of the truly rare offensive players of note who is just as good on defense. Or maybe the other way around.

He did not exactly arrive in Boston amid great fanfare. Even though he had been a first-time All-American at Ohio State, Havlicek wasn’t even the most publicized player on his own team. That honor belonged to Jerry Lucas, a megastar in high school who was the acknowledged star of a Buckeye team that won the NCAA title in ’60 and finished second to Cincinnati in each of the next two years. Havlicek was the other guy.

He was the last man taken in the first round of the ’62 draft, and before he presented himself for Auerbach’s summertime inspection, he stopped in Cleveland to try out for the NFL Browns. They had drafted him as a quarterback even though he had not played since high school, but when he reported to their camp he was almost immediately converted into a wide receiver, a position he had never played. He performed in exhibition games and very likely could have made a weaker club. As it was, he was cut in favor of Gary Collins, a name any good football fan must recognize.

At 6-5 and around 210 pounds, John Havlicek had an ideally adaptable athletic body. His hands were large and exceptionally strong. He was amazingly flexible. And then there was that stamina.

That gift.

Other people got tired when they ran. John Havlicek didn’t. He attributed his exceptional stamina to his rural upbringing. He had grown up in the southeastern Ohio town of Lansing, where there wasn’t much to do besides play sports and play in the surrounding hills. Havlicek didn’t ride in a car—he ran from place to place. He didn’t bike. He ran. Everywhere. All the time. Just a way of life.

Of course, there was also the matter of the lungs. Jumbo-sized lungs so big they could not fit on a single X-ray plate. Havlicek always needed one and a half. True story.

John Havlicek was lucky to join the Boston Celtics, and he would be the first to tell you that. He walked onto a team that was in Year Six of an amazing 11-NBA-Championships-in-13-years run. Bill Russell was the sport’s reigning king. Cousy was still around. The Jones Boys, Sam and K.C., were ready to roar.  Tom Heinsohn had three years left. Frank Ramsey was perfecting the sixth man art, and he would pass on his secrets to The Kid—starting with the practical suggestion that he take off his warm-up pants and drape the jacket around his shoulders, ready to spring into immediate action when his name was called.

Most of all there was Auerbach, who wasn’t just any coach because he didn’t think like other coaches. Looking at a player, he saw what was good and feasible, not the good and inefficient. He could deal with mismatched parts, always envisioning how they could be molded into a team.

When Havlicek entered the NBA, he wasn’t a terribly accomplished shooter. No problem—he was told to run lanes and move without the ball and subsist on leftover garbage points. He was told that if he played aggressive defense, the offense would take care of itself, and it did. The eager, athletic, thoroughly unpolished Havlicek averaged 14 points a game as a rookie.

When the ’62-63 season ended, he went home set on improving. He shot thousands of jump shots that summer, and returned a jump shooter with great range. He averaged 19.9 points a game his second season, and over the next 11 campaigns never averaged fewer than 18.3. It was classic Havlicek to identify a problem and address it so capably.

The defining moment of his career took place on April 15, ’65. He was in his third playoffs and already considered the game’s best sixth man. But by making one play at the end of one ballgame, he became a folk hero, and he would remain one until the end of his career.


It was Game Seven of a grueling Eastern Conference Finals series with Philadelphia. The Celtics led 110-109, with four seconds left, but the 76ers had the ball out of bounds underneath their own basket, following a bizarre Russell turnover in which an inbounds pass hit a guide wire running from the backboard to the first balcony. It was a scary moment. The 76ers had options ranging from jump shots by Hal Greer or Chet Walker to a power move by Wilt Chamberlain to an offensive rebound. But Havlicek prevented all that, deflecting a Greer inbounds pass intended for Walker over to Sam Jones.

What transformed the play from timely feat to historic moment was the late Johnny Most’s broadcast description, the most famous call in Boston sports history—it consisted of more than a minute of frenzied screaming in Most’s unique, raspy voice. Re-played the following morning by radio station WHDH, it enraptured the town. “Havlicek Stole The Ball!” later became the title cut of a best-selling album.

“I was starting to make inroads” Havlicek recalls, “but after that play people realized I was going to be around for a while. And the album definitely influenced the way people thought of me.”

Phase I of his career ended in ’69 with another championship (his sixth) and the retirements of both Russell and Sam Jones. At this point Havlicek was a perennial All-Star and the unquestioned number-one sixth man in the game, but his name was absent from the Oscar-West discussions. That was about to change

Few remember that rookie coach Tom Heinsohn wished to maintain Havlicek’s role as the consummate sixth man when the ’69-70 began. That last about three games—until Heinsohn realized that a) the team was not good enough to enjoy that luxury, and b) Havlicek might as well start since he won’t get tired anyway. There have been other great players, but nearly 30 years later, it’s very easy to contend that no one has ever played basketball the way John Havlicek did for the next five years. He was the ultimate king on the chessboard, giving his coach an All-Star player at two positions for as long as he was needed.

During the ’69-70 season Havlicek led the Boston Celtics in scoring, rebounding and assists while averaging a league-high 45 minutes a night. Understand that 45 Havlicek minutes were unlike any other player’s 45, because in the John Havlicek scheme of things there was no standing around. It was pedal-to-the-metal all the time.

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  • The Philosopher

    His brother is a doctor.

  • hammer

    Top 5 sf ever:1.Dr.J 2.Baylor 3.Bird 4.Havlicek 5.Nique

  • http://sfdjklf.com Jukai

    Fantastic article. Wish I was around to see the dude play. I’ve seen some games of Havlicek’s, but not nearly enough. Dude would straight own in today’s league.

  • http://sfdjklf.com Jukai

    and in my mind, it’s 1. Bird 2. Dr. J 3. Barry 4. Baylor 5. Havlicek. Lebron and Pippen be damned.

  • the Dude

    You can’t teach tough.

  • JTaylor21

    @Jukai you done lost your DAMN mind with that list leaving the GREATEST perimeter defender of all-time of the list and I can even make an argument for Bron over Havlicek right now but I won’t go there, I will on Pip. Pip is better than Rick Barry and Havelick. The list should look something like this 1.Bird 2.Pip 3.Baylor 4.Dr.J 5.D.Wilk 6.Hondo 7.Bron. Also there’s no way in HELL that Hondo dominates today like you claim, I love the old school players but people give them too much props while downgrading today’s players.

  • The Philosopher

    Co-sign JTaylor21′s last sentence @7:43a.m.

  • http://sfdjklf.com Jukai

    Okay, there’s an argument about Pip being better than Havlicek… but not Rick Barry… I mean, not even close.
    You gots to read up on Barry, bro. Barry, pure skillwise, may have been better than Dr. J.
    Take a look:
    -Rick Barry dropped 35.6 points his first year in the league. Pippen didn’t have half the arsenal. Even West said he didn’t have a chance stopping Barry, dude was just that good.
    -Rick Barry, at 6’7, could rebound with the best. When the league was all white and short, he was grabbing ten a game. When the league picked up with athleticism, he was still grabbing 6-7 a game. Easy. Pippen didn’t grab that many more.
    -One of Pippen’s strong points was passing, but Barry may have been one of the best passing forwards of all time next to Bird and Bron. He was tossing six assists regularly before assist stats were inflated for today’s game.
    -Now Pip gets a STRONG boost for his defense. No denying that. Barry wasn’t known as a lockdown defender, in the beginning of his career, he was accused of lagging off his man. But off the man, and I’m not blowing out my own horn, they were about even. Barry was gettin’ two steals a game with blown knees. We have no idea how many steals he was getting in his prime because they didn’t keep track.
    -Finally, Barry took one of the worst teams in the history of the NBA to an NBA championship. The second best player? Jamaal Wilkes. The third? Butch Beard. The fourth? Clifford Ray. That’s awfulness right there. Barry won ‘em a ring. Scottie’s key moments as the leader of a team involve choking.
    -They both demanded more trades than any basketball player of their eras, so, you know….
    I respect people who think Pip is better than Baylor and Havlicek. That’s fine. But Pippen ain’t on Barry’s level (or Dr. J for that matter, but that should be obvious and I shouldn’t have to explain that to you).
    I know you’re still a teenager, so watch some games of Rick Barry. Dude was mint.

  • The Philosopher

    Barry was ahead of his time, somewhat.

  • frank

    Don’t mess with Jukai.

  • hammer

    As much as I luv pip,I just can’t put him n the top 5 especially over barry or dr j. I mean barry led that team as jukai pointed out 2 a sweep of wes unseld and elvin hayes n the finals! Not 2 mention barry was STILL averaging 30 per on bad knees. I wish I was around 2 c him play. Its sad that he doesn’t get enuff props

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    In no way can you leave Elgin Baylor off a top 5 SF list. No. Friggin’. Way.

  • http://sfdjklf.com Jukai

    Hammer: He doesn’t get enough props cause the dude was a giant d-bag. As a ‘best’ player argument he may be top-15. As a ‘greatest’ player argument, he goes way down that list.
    Rumor has it he froze out his team after he felt his team hadn’t properly stood up for him in a fight. This was in a game 7 of the WCF. He cost his team the game cause he was PO’d at them.
    Barry, as The Philosopher pointed out, was ahead of his time (Kobe!)

  • JTaylor21

    @Jukai, you were making a good argument for RBarry until you stopped talking out your mouth and started talking out your A** when you said that Barry was Pip’s equal with regards to help defense and off the man D, WHAT? Like I said before Pip is the best perimeter defender of all-time which includes on and off the ball. The reason why the Bulls were so good defensively without a great shot-blocker was because Pip was there to erase a lot of the bulls defensive mistakes while still being able to lock-down his man at the same time. You also point to Barry avg. 2 steals in your trying to explain how he’s equal to pip in that area but fail to recognize that there’s a big deference between being a GREAT defender and a GAMBLING/Risk Taking defender. It’s like saying that AI is equal to GP as an off the ball defender just because he also avg. 2+ steals, anybody with an kind of b-ball knowledge knows that’s not true. Also I don’t understand what you mean when you talk about Pip choking because it never happened. The bulls took a great knicks team that made it to the finals (without MJ) to a GM7 and were a BAD call away from advancing to the ECF in which I think they would’ve beat the Pacers. So you fail AGAIN when trying to prove your point. As is your trademark move to try to prove that you posses more knowledge than the person you’re replying, you take a CORNY “you’re a kid” shot thinking that it proves you’re older and therefore wiser. You fail to recognize that with a name like Jukai, that you probably still collect and trade dragon ball z cards when you’re not here living your fantasies of being a man, KIDDO

  • Ronald

    Is it me or is JTaylor one of the worst persons on Slam online to debate about basketball with? I mean, I don’t expect a socratic debate but if you don’t agree with him it’s either you’re a female, there’s something wrong with your family or you’re talking out of your rear-end. It seems like an opinion is fact just because he said it. I do think however Elgin Baylor should be up there in the top 5.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    JTaylor: Slow your roll on the name h@te… Jukai has nothing to do with Dragonball Z. It has to do with Zen Buddhism and it’s initiation rituals… Likening that to Japanese cartoons and kids’ trading cards is pretty out of line.

  • JTaylor21

    @Teddy and Ronald it’s funny that you guys choose to ignore about 95% percent of my comments but instead choose to focus on the last one. You guys don’t complain when Jukai talks SH*T at the end of his comments but when I do it everybody is up in arms. I already know what his name means, I was just trying to take a shot at him like he always does. Damn, the world have become SO sensitive that you can’t even say what’s on your mind without people complaining.

  • Overtime

    I would have to agree about JTaylor, because it always ends up being a debate about something other than bball. Just debate. Opinion is not fact.
    But anyways, back to bball.
    Offensively, Barry takes Pippen, but Pippen returns the favour on D.
    I do think people dont give Baylor enough credit though, it never gets talked about what else he was dealing with other commitments (armed forces) and stuff like how he’d be travelling for 8 hours, get to the game an hour before tip, score 30 something points, and b travelling again within 2 hours

  • Dark Kai

    Sweet article. Now I have to look up Ric Barry!

  • http://sdjkflf.com Jukai

    Couple of things, dude:
    1- Your basketball knowledge hinges on what level of mancrush you have on a player. You masturbate to pictures of Lebron daily, so Lebron to you can do no wrong. It seems you also have a blowup doll of Scottie Pippen at your house. Okay.
    2- You’re making fun of my name, you’re using what looks like an 11-year-old’s AOL screenname. And you wonder why everyone thinks you’re a preteen.
    3- Rick Barry and Scottie Pippen both averaged 2 steals a game. But Rick Barry gambled and Scottie Pippen locked his defender down? What? You’ve never watched Rick Barry play, kiddo! Why are you telling me this? Truth be told, they only started recording steals when Rick Barry was 28 with bad knees! Rick Barry could have been a better ball thief that Pippen. Does that make Barry a better defender than Pippen? No, not even close. And did Barry gamble to get some steals? Oh yeah.
    But, did Pippen get all his steals without gambling? Think about that one.
    4- Pippen’s choking is pretty well documented. It didn’t just happen on the Bulls. I’m sure you stopped following him when he moved on.
    Here’s the bottom line: Pippen was a do-it-all forward who could have been a point if he could dribble a bit better, but his offense is vastly overrated by brats like you who still jerk off loudly while screaming “JORDAN NEVER DID IT WITHOUT PIPPEN!!!!!”
    Pippen MAY be top five if you think he hedges out Hondo. I can accept that logic. But I think it’s bizarre to see anyone consider Pip better than Bird, Dr. J, Barry, or Baylor. And I think once Lebron’s career ends, the discussion for Pip being in the top five will be dead forver.
    Except from brats like you.

  • http://slamonline.com Dave.

    I once had X-Rays of my lungs taken and they didn’t fit on a single X-Ray plate either. I’ve never worked out why people seem to think that story is worth repeating so much.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    To be fair to JTaylor, Jukai’s comment was pretty damn out of line too…

  • manny loprest jr.

    You guys are comparing pippen to havlicek or barry?Come on, john havlicek would rip pippen apart i watched him play all the time and you can watch him on you tube.

  • manny loprest jr.

    Jukais comments make alot of good sense to me.If you guys want to compare jordan to barry or havlicek thats fine.But dont mention pippen in the same breath with them,its a joke to do so.Lebron is certainly as talented as havlicek was but he has not learned how to play the total game on the same level yet?

  • manny loprest jr.

    Havlicek would destroy pippen.