Original Old School: Iron John

by September 04, 2010

SLAM 33 Old School: John Havlicek.

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.

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 Three, 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 Five, 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 Seven, a 94-78 New York win. But that incomprehensible performance in Game Five 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.

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 playres, 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.