Original Old School: Iron John

by September 04, 2010

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.