Honoring the Legacy of Hall of Famer John Havlicek

From SLAM 33, this throwback by Bob Ryan features the NBA’s ultimate ironman, John Havlicek. In the wake of the Hall of Famer’s recent passing, we figured there’s no better time to honor Hondo’s unbelievable persistence.—Ed.

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.

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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.

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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.

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It was Game 7 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.

And that’s not even the half of it.

With Russell and Sam Jones gone, the Celtics were in transition. There were young players coming in, but they didn’t know anything about the NBA; suddenly Havlicek was left with precious few allies from the old days. There were Don Nelson and Satch Sanders, and then there were kids. Havlicek had to do the scoring, the rebounding, the passing and the thinking for just about everybody.

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His ’70-71 season was a reasonable carbon copy of the ’69-70 season, in which he had elevated into the league’s ultra-elite. He gained rebounding help from 6-9 center Dave Cowens, but Havlicek was still responsible for the heavy-duty scoring (a career-high 28.9 ppg), defending and playmaking. He was regularly submitting triple-doubles, except that back then we didn’t know enough to label them as such (that honor goes to Bruce Jolesch, a Laker PR man in the Magic Johnson era). The record keeping was less sophisticated than today, and it’s impossible to reconstruct the box scores, so the actual number of Havlicek triple-doubles is lost. Suffice it to say that, along with Robertson and West, he had plenty.

Havlicek had moved into the category of legend, a man who could play heads-up with the finest forwards and guards in the game. A man who needed no rest. Other coaches had to find places for their stars to take a blow, but not Heinsohn. If Hondo played 48, he played 48. He might not practice that hard the next day, but if there was a game the following night, he could go 48 again. “I’d give my right arm to have his stamina,” says Matt Guokas, then a journeyman forward.

Nothing seemed to deter Havlicek. After suffering a painful injury to his right wrist, he developed his let hand more fully. This adaptability served him very well in the ’73 playoffs, when the Celtics had won 68 games and with the Lakers were co-favorites for the championship. But first they needed to get by ancient rival New York, and the Knicks matched up very well with them, physically and psychologically. The teams were tied at a game apiece, and in Game 3, Havlicek found himself wedged between Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley while fighting through a pick. He wound up injuring his right shoulder.

The Celtics lost that game, and worse yet were informed that Havlicek would not be able to play in Game Four at Madison Square Garden. Boston put up a sensational Havlicek-less effort but lost that game in double overtime. Havlicek made it back onto the floor for Game 5, despite the fact that he had limited use of his right arm and shoulder. He scored 18 points on six baskets—four of which were left-handed—as the Celtics kept the series alive. He was somewhat less effective in the sixth game, another Celtics triumph, and he was not functional at all in Game 7, a 94-78 New York win. But that incomprehensible performance in Game 5 had reinforced his legend.

Havlicek was simply unlike other men. He was inherently disciplined and organized to a frightening degree. He was the only NBA player, before or since, known to hang his knee-length socks on a hanger. He arranged his colognes, talcum powder, etc. by ascending height on the shelf. His locker always looked ready for an inspection.

john havlicek bob ryan celtics

Such a man looks at the world in its simplest, most logical terms, one reason why Havlicek never attempted to coach. He knew himself and that his thought processes were not like everyone else’s. He could never understand the woeful failings of mortal men—men who, unlike himself, could not play a single game against a team and figure out all of its plays. What was obvious to John Havlicek was quantum physics to many of his mates.

No man, not even John Havlicek, could have reasonably continued to carry the physical and mental load of the early 70’s for very long. Fortunately for him, the team did get better, and his overall burden was lessened. By the time the Celtics won their first post-Russell title in ’74, Havlicek was sharing the spotlight with Jo Jo White, Don Chaney, Paul Silas and most of all Dave Cowens, by then a three-time All-Star.

Havlicek was 34 and in his 12th season. Heinsohn was taking him out of ballgames every once in a while, but when he needed his big gun to go the full 48, it was no different from six or seven years earlier. Havlicek was Havlicek, still an elite player. He was upset when the team failed to win the title in ’75, after bouncing back from a 9-8 start to win 60 games. The ’75-76 team sputtered somewhat, but hopes were higher when the playoffs began; it was potentially devastating when Havlicek sustained a foot injury in the very first game.

Thanks to some Cowens fourth-quarter heroics, the team pulled out a dramatic Game One comeback win, but as the team assembled for practice at the Boston Garden the following day, it was greeted by the sight of John Havlicek being wheeled down the corridor on a dolly. He had a torn plantar fascia (the connective tissue in the arch) in his left foot, a very painful injury. The prescription was to soak the foot for three hours a day in ice. Havlicek being Havlicek, he reasoned that if three hours a day was good, six or seven hours a day would be twice as good. He was ready to do whatever it took to get himself back in the lineup. And so, for the rest of the playoffs, from Boston to Cleveland and finally to Phoenix, Havlicek carried around a turquoise dime store dishpan. Day and night he would shuffle to the ice machine and load the dishpan with what he laughingly referred to as “two Hondo handfuls” of ice, then soak his foot as he watched TV.

At no point in those playoffs was he ever really himself physically, but he played. He played his two-position game as hard as he could through the six-game conquest of the Buffalo Braves and the six-game conquest of Cleveland and into the Finals. He never practiced, just suited up for the games. Bad foot and all, he played 58 out of 63 minutes in the Celtics’ stirring, triple-overtime victory in Game Five. He hit what seemed to be the winning basket, a difficult bank shot with one second left in the second OT, only to see it trumped by Gar Heard’s buzzer-beater. Two nights later in Game Six, Boston locked up the championship.

Havlicek had always been a major playoff performer, whether he was stepping into the starting lineup in a pinch back in the Russell-Auerbach days, scoring a team playoff record 54 points in the first Atlanta game in ’73 or executing the back-breaking three-point play to put away Game Seven against Milwaukee. That would continue to be the case the following year, when he submitted what may be his most noble showing of all. The opponents were the rollicking, frolicking Philadelphia 76ers, and Havlicek’s task at age 37 was to do something about Dr. J—Julius Erving, then 27 and very much at the all-around peak of his game. For seven games, Havlicek devoted himself to defense, and the good Doctor never went off. He never even got so much as a step on Havlicek, and the underdog Celtics took the Sixers to a seventh game before the overall Philly superiority came to the fore.

Havlicek would play one more year, not a particularly happy one. The team won 32 games. The atmosphere was bad. The only real interest was his Farewell Tour, and the only game that got anyone aroused was his last. He always had a good sense of propriety, and so he arrived at the Boston Garden for his 1,270th and final NBA game in a tuxedo. In the game, he went out and had a little fun. Never afraid to put up shots (he once went 15-40), Havlicek fired away 33 times. The Celtics were in control throughout, and as the clock wound down the crowd really got into it. Ernie DeGregorio was in the game for Boston, and the only man on his radar screen was Havlicek. Hondo had begun his career catching passes from Bob Cousy, and now he was ending it by catching passes from the only player alive who saw the game the way The Cooz did. In one 11-second span, Ernie D twice found Havlicek on sneakaways. He scored nine lightning points to an amazing roar, finishing with 29—a phenomenal farewell.

Havlicek was a man of his own time and place, and he retired with no major regrets. “If I hadn’t hurt my shoulder in ’73, we definitely would have won that year,” he says. “And if we had held onto [Paul] Silas and [Paul] Westphal, we might have squeezed out one more at the end. Other than that, no regrets.”

He’s been gone for 20 years, and we have not seen his like since. The only multi-positional players anywhere near his level have been Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and Jordan never really played much forward. Pippen, meanwhile, can only dream of possessing the legendary Havlicek stamina. As is the case with all special players, people try much too hard to find equivalents. For a year or so, Dan Majerle was supposed to be the new Havlicek. He’s a nice player, but please.

If anything, Hondo would be even more effective in today’s game, if only because he had three-point range. He was every bit a “modern” ballplayer, and if you combine the sophistication and brainpower he brought to the game, it would really be something. On defense he’d be sinful—his lateral quickness and anticipation would fit perfectly into a modern scheme. But perhaps he’s better off not being around today. The NBA externals, the arena noise and the emphasis on irrelevant folderol would have irritated him.

No, John Havlicek played at the right time and was revered by his rivals, who knew him as both a great player and a great person. Playing against John Havlicek was a challenge and an honor, and Bill Bradley sums it up best in his wonderful book, Values of the Game.

“John Havlicek,” writes Bradley. “The guy drove my crazy. He drove everybody crazy. Covering John Havlicek was like trying to hold mercury in your hand. He worked harder than any player out there, constantly running, using screens, getting the ball at the right time, taking only the good shots. The ultimate competitor.”

True then, true now.

Bob Ryan is a sports columnist emeritus for the Boston Globe. Follow him on twitter @GlobeBobRyan.

Photos via Getty Images