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Remembering the underappreciated Celtic great John Havlicek

How the most underappreciated superstar in NBA history ran (and willed) his way to the top echelon of the Hall of Fame

Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

Mention the name John Havlicek and the first thing that springs to mind for most fans is "great sixth man." Or maybe "Havlicek steals the ball." Perhaps great swingman, something about running well without the ball, or being an extraordinary defender.

The sometimes-overlooked Celtic was all that and much, more more. The franchise all-time leading scorer who ranked third in NBA annals in career points when he retired in 1978 was one of the handful of best all-around players in hoop history, and played at a high level longer than anyone not named Jabbar, Stockton or Malone.

Along with Scottie Pippen and Michael Cooper, John was the most versatile defender in NBA history. An athletic 6-5 swingman considered by many to be the best all-around athlete in pro sports during the early 1970's, he was a fine shooter and passer, and one of the greatest clutch players ever at both ends of the floor in league annals.

"Hondo" saw the floor extremely well, and was a good enough ballhandler to often swing to the backcourt and run an offense, as he did for much of the 1976 NBA Finals. He was also a good rebounder for his size, averaging as many as nine rebounds a game, and rarely missed a blockout.

John was old school fundamentals and toughness melded with new school athleticism. Almost every sport he tried, he excelled at. But he chose basketball when he could have been a pro in at least four sports. He was a superb finisher in transition at a time when teams ran the fast break constantly, none better than Boston, but he rarely dunked or did anything flashy except when absolutely necessary. He operated extremely well with an economy of motion.

When dribbling he often ran with quick, short choppy strides, which allowed him to change direction in the blink of an eye. Away from the ball, he sprinted with excellent speed, always moving, cutting, looking for an opening. The older he got, the better and more confident he became as a shooter. On defense, he shuffled his feet quickly and superbly, and kept his nose on the ball in textbook fashion, never giving up.

Along with John Stockton, he was the best-conditioned player and most indefatigable runner in NBA history. No player moved as well without the ball or as constantly, as he ran his weary defenders into submission and finished them off with a series of runners, bank shots, pull-up jumpers and drives. In college, he was afraid to even drink one Coca-Cola for fear it would affect his incredible stamina negatively.

Hall of Famer Pete Newell, the man who coached California to the 1959 NCAA title before losing to Ohio State and Hondo in the 1960 finals, went on to be general manager of the Lakers in the 1970's. The noted basketball genius called Havlicek a "road runner taking you through every ditch, every irrigation canal, barbed-wire fence and cattle guard. You've had a trip over the plains when you've played him for a night."

Havlicek's incredible cuts away from the ball were developed in part from running through the thick woods and avoiding trees during his youth in rural eastern Ohio near the West Virginia and Pennsylvania borders. His father was a Czech immigrant butcher who favored soccer over hoops, and his parents spoke Czech at home almost exclusively.

Neighbor friends included knuckleball-pitching Hall of Famer Phil Niekro and his brother Joe, a duo who combined for over 500 major league wins. In fact, John hit .440 in high school and Phil said he would have been a major leaguer for sure had he stayed with baseball.

Hondo even spoke with a slight lisp, which may have made his quiet personality even more reticent and self-effacing. He let his play do the talking more than any superstar ever, even in a more no-nonsense era relatively devoid of self-promotion and huge-money contracts.

His brief stint as a CBS commentator during the 1978 Finals shortly after he retired showed that John was probably too low-key, honest and non-hyperbolic to be what television wanted. Plus, he sounded depressed that for once he was done playing and not in the championship round, as he had been in 11 of the previous 19 seasons as a collegian and professional.

But don't think for a minute he didn't play with fire and intensity behind his poker-faced mask of concentration. He just controlled and harnessed it.

Even at 38 in his final season during the All-Star Game, this fire just below the surface was on display for those watching closely. John stripped the ball cleanly from speedy young guard Lionel Hollins, who thought he could get by the 16th-year veteran. Yet Havlicek had stayed with him, forced Hollins to the baseline and when the southpaw rose up to shoot, snaked his hand in and stole the ball cleanly away.

But the official, probably not believing a 38-year old Havlicek could still do that to a guard as young and quick as Hollins, mistakenly called the Celtic great for a foul. Havlicek reacted with an uncharacteristic, short burst of anger by slamming the ball down two-handed, but caught it on the rebound before it bounced above his waist and re-composed, handed the ball to the offending referee.

Havlicek was such a great athlete that he was all-state in football, basketball and baseball in sports-crazy Ohio. Reportedly he could throw a football 80 yards and also outrun anyone on the field. He was recruited by Woody Hayes to be the quarterback for the powerhouse Buckeyes, but turned him down to play hoops instead (mom preferred basketball).

The irascible Hayes said he would not bother John to play again, but he had his assistants do that for three more years, without success. Hayes would later tell recruits in the early 1960's that the best quarterback in the Big 10 wasn't even playing football, in reference to Havlicek.

Hondo actually was drafted by the Brows and tried out as a receiver with the perennial champions before his rookie season with the Celtics in 1962. At a trim 6-5 and 203 pounds he ran a 4.6 40-yard dash and had excellent hands. To show how good an athlete he was, despite not playing in college John was the last receiver cut from a contender loaded with wideouts, and was invited back for years but never tried out again.

Sixteen years, over 26,000 points, eight rings, a Finals MVP and 13 straight All-Star Games later, it is safe to say he made a good choice.

After winning the 1976 NBA title, the eighth and last of his career, as team captain the humble John was interviewed first in the victorious locker room by long-time NBA referee great turned CBS analyst Mendy Rudolph.

He had averaged 15.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in the Finals, despite being the oldest player on either team at 36 in a fierce series, and suffering from foot and shoulder injuries.

By contrast the Suns starters (ages 21, 23, 25, 27 and 27) averaged under 24.6 years of age.

As usual, John avoided any self-aggrandizing comments. Perhaps attesting to his modesty and discomfort at speaking publicly, he even stumbled nervously at first, calling this last championship "the most toughest" of his eight rings due to the team's age, the spunkiness of Phoenix and his injuries.

The aging Celtics, with the oldest core in the league among their top seven (average age over 31) - and a short bench - had to overcome a triple-overtime game five marathon, fly across country and win a game six title-clincher on the road less than two days later.

Yet behind the veteran know-how, skill and toughness of Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Charlie Scott and JoJo White, they outlasted the younger Suns in a battle between two spent squads to win a defensive struggle in Phoenix, 87-80.

John then recovered to say that Cowens won game six for them - "we were finally able to keep him on the floor", referring to his foul-outs in previous games. Dave's fourth period nine-point spree capped by a superb steal despite five fouls, and ensuing full-court foray three-point play, iced the title. John added that Finals MVP White "played magnificently...why don't you talk to (Paul) Silas now."

It is hard to imagine many recent superstars making that sort of victory speech today after winning a championship. Probably only Tim Duncan. The egotistical Jordan, Bryant, O'Neal, and to a lesser extent James, were rarely if ever calm and self-effacing after winning titles.

"If you score a touchdown, act like you've been in the end zone before," goes the old saying.

Havlicek epitomized that, especially with the nine rings he won. Only Russell, with 13, won more combined pro and college championships. Even after making a game-winning play, he usually would simply jog off the court, rarely changing expression. Old school.

After winning the eighth banner, Hondo was calm and spoke softly. He did no dancing or strutting, made no "I'm the greatest" claims nor thumped his chest. There was no self-promotion, tomfoolery or putting down of the opposition. But that was Havlicek. No nonsense, quiet, deflecting of praise, sportsmanlike, understated. Modest and classy.

Driving Havlicek throughout his long NBA career were several things. Great competitiveness, to be sure. But one motivator was to erase the sixth man stigma that wrongly made some people think he wasn't good enough to start. This was a ridiculous notion, since by his second season John played more minutes (over 32 per game) than anyone except Russell on a Boston title team featuring eight Hall of Famers.

Besides, he was always on the floor at the end of games when it mattered most, usually making big plays that contributed to another win. And he was always running. Away from opponents, his more celebrated teammates, from father time, into the record books.

Even more telling is the fact that in his sophomore pro season, John made second team All-NBA while coming off the bench! No other player in league history can make this incredible claim.

During the ABC telecast of the 1973 All-Star Game, analyst Bill Russell called John "a fantastic guy" to play with and coach. "He ran so hard, sometimes we had to tell him to slow down," Russ noted. Noted Celtic 6-8 enforcer forward Jim "Jungle" Loscutoff, a burly veteran, got worn out chasing the youngster in an early 1962 pre-season practice and told rookie Havlicek to stop running so much. "You're crazy...nobody runs like that," complained Loscutoff. "Slow down."

John simply responded by saying, "Quit pushing me around and I will quit running so hard." Yet he kept running past frustrated opponents from the beginning of his NBA career to the end 16 years later.

When ABC play-by-play man Chris Schenkel opined during a Havlicek foul shot in the 1973 ASG at Chicago that 11-year veteran John had gone from supersub to superstar, Russell quickly corrected his partner. "Maybe a supersub at one time, but always a superstar, always a superstar," he pointed out.

As a second driving force, at Ohio State Hondo played in three consecutive NCAA championship games, back when freshmen weren't eligible. OSU won it all when he was a sophomore, then lost two straight times to in-state rival Cincinnati. But the big man on campus for the star-studded Buckeyes was superstar center Jerry Lucas.

The memory expert was Mr. Everything in college, while Hondo was a quiet defensive and rebounding ace who shot and scored at a relatively a modest pace. Lucas shot, passed and rebounded incredibly well, and was Batman to Havlicek's Robin.

With so many stars on the OSU team, including John's best friend and future Celtic teammate Larry Siegfried, Havlicek yearned to play great defense, rebound and run the floor since often there were not enough shots to go around. He felt defense was the area he could make the biggest impact on, and asked to be the stopper, a coach's dream. He wanted to guard the other team's biggest star, and always did, usually well. Thus, John had the total respect of his teammates. They voted him team captain unanimously as a senior - except for one ballot - Havlicek himself voted for Lucas.

Also on those great teams was future Indiana three-time NCAA champion coach Bob Knight, Hondo's backup. A knee injury to Lucas in the 1962 national semifinals probably cost the Buckeyes a second NCAA title. But after being picked seventh overall in the first round, sight unseen by the Celtics, Havlicek was free to blossom in their equal opportunity running game.

In negotiations, OSU coach Fred Taylor forced the Celtics to give John more money because he promised "they had never seen anything like him." He was right, and the extra $5,500 Taylor extracted from patriarch Walter Brown may be the best money the Celtics ever spent.

Bereft of many shooting opportunities in college, he reported to camp a bit reluctant to shoot as a defensive ace rookie breaking in on a five-time NBA champion. But once Red Auerbach encouraged the reticent shooter to fire away, he loosened up and eventually took more career shots than any player in team history.

Lucas was a mainstay on the great 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal team with Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, while Havlicek just missed (somehow) making the club, or it would definitely go down as the greatest amateur U.S. Olympic team ever. But in the NBA, Hondo and Luke's roles were reversed.

Lucas was an All-Star in Cincinnati and Golden State, and enjoyed a career good enough to land him on the league's exclusive 50 Greatest List in 1997. Somehow though, his pro career seemed slightly underwhelming. Maybe the expectations were too high for a 6-8 center in a position dominated by bigger centers. Maybe it was just too hard to get by Boston, Russell and company.

Lucas only won one title, at the end of his career as a platoon pivotman with the 1973 Knicks. And that team only won after beating Boston in the East finals 4-3 because of a severe shoulder injury in game three suffered by Havlicek when he ran blindly into a hard screen by bruising Dave DeBusschere.

On the other hand Havlicek, grossly exceeded his pro expectations and morphed into Batman, if not Superman. Due in part to bad knees, Lucas faded at the end of his career and retired four years earlier than his college mate. John made 11 all-league teams, 13 All-Star Games, captured eight titles and won a Finals MVP award to decisively eclipse Lucas (no slouch himself with seven All-Star Games, four all-league honors and one ring).

As teammate and friend Knight noted in the mid-1970's, the reason John was better than Jerry in the NBA was simply because from their college days, "he wanted to beat (surpass) Lucas." Of course, great athleticism, skill and endurance helped too.

Thirdly, even though he was probably the greatest all-around Celtic before Bird, he never was THE man on a Celtic title team until 1974. The Boston team he joined as a rookie was, according to John, the most talented Celtic team he ever played on.

That 1962-63 club featured nine Hall of Famers - Hondo, Cousy, Ramsey, Russell, Sam and K.C. Jones, Clyde Lovellette, Satch Sanders and Tom Heinsohn. By the late 1960's John was the best player on the Celtics, but it was still seen as Russell's team. Especially since Bill was player-coach on the aging clubs that gutted and guiled their way to win it all in 1968 and 1969, with the help of another transplanted Hall of Famer in hard-nosed forward Bailey Howell, who was similar to DeBusschere.

When the rebuilt Celtics won it all in 1974 and John was named Finals MVP, he finally could say he had won a title without the more-acclaimed Russell or Lucas, even though Cowens was a great player. On the phone a few days after winning the crown with his college coach Fred Taylor, he admitted "it is the only time I ever won anything by myself" (i.e., without Lucas or Russell). To which Taylor replied, "John, you've been winning your whole life."

And always running.

In find it incredible that 15 years into his college/pro career with eight of an eventual nine combined titles under his belt, the modest Havlicek still felt he had to prove himself. His story of gratification is reminiscent of Bird's private celebration in 1984 after conquering the Lakers and his nemesis Earvin Johnson in the Finals. Bird publicly dismissed a cogent observation by CBS announcer Brent Musburger in the victorious locker room celebration after the game seven win, but inside he felt differently.

"Does this win get you even for what happened after all those years ago?" (the Michigan State NCAA finals loss in 1979) Brent asked Larry. "We don't worry about that, we're professionals now," he answered in his southern Indiana drawl, "but I won this one for Terre Haute." Larry's reply belied his own answer, if one reads between the lines.

Even more telling, he avoided Brent's gaze while running his hand through his blonde mane, drenched with sweat and alcohol, as he gave the politically correct response. "You sure did," replied an admiring Musburger.

Yet in the wee hours of that post-game seven night, Bird confided the truth and his real feelings to teammate and friend Quinn Buckner about beating Johnson for the crown: "I finally got him." But Hondo had to patiently wait more than twice as long into his NBA career to expunge his personal demons.

In game 6 of the classic 1974 NBA Finals vs. Milwaukee, Havlicek led Boston with 36 points in an epic 102-101 double overtime loss that evened the series, 3-3. He appeared to have made the title-winning shot just before Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nailed a long running corner hook over backup center Hank Finkel (Cowens had fouled out) before the buzzer to deny Boston a chance to celebrate banner 12 at home.

In that classic topsy-turvy Finals, the home team lost a record five of the seven games. As in 1969, the Celtics had to win on the road in the ultimate no-tomorrow game, or fail in the attempt to win their first banner without Russell.

In that high-pressure road game seven, John came up with 20 points to help Boston to a surprisingly decisive 102-87 victory over the Bucks and a young Jabbar in Oscar Robertson's swansong. Hondo's driving three-point play past Jabbar in the fourth period highlighted a 10-0 run that clinched the crown.

After making the tough drive while being fouled, the ultimate poker-faced Hondo allowed himself a brief moment of celebration. But even it was muted, as he punched two bent arms downward in a very short motion, fists clenched. When second-year teammate Paul Westphal came over to celebrate more, John quickly regained his concentration and ignored him, as if to say "it is not over yet, let's stop celebrating and finish this off." And then he canned the foul shot.

Robertson shot just 2-for-13 from the field in his final game as Hondo and the Celtics sent him to retirement with a devastating defeat, as they had many times before in the 1960's when he starred with Lucas and the Cincinnati Royals.

Havlicek would later say, years later, that Robertson was the "toughest player I ever had to guard. He simply had no weaknesses."

Fourth, the coverage in Hondo's career from 1962-78 was nothing like today's saturated sports TV market. The first third of his career was also played in a black and white TV age, which today must seem like the prehistoric era to younger fans, and thus somehow less valid.

Fifth, the Celtics have had so many great players and won so many titles that sometimes the soft-spoken Hondo - and his 1970's Celtics in particular - get lost in the shuffle. No team has won as much, retired as many uniform numbers or can boast as many Hall of Famers (24) on its all-time roster.

Sixth, his dogged defense, unselfish passing and subtly graceful offensive style of constantly moving without the ball didn't inspire ooh's and aah's in a game now dominated by highlight-style plays. But combined with everything else, his style was lethally effective, like a python slowly squeezing its prey to death once you're in its grasp.

"Superstar is a bad word," said all-time great and long-time Havlicek opponent Jerry West in that 1974 SI article by Underwood called "The Green Running Machine". "In our league people look at players, watch them make spectacular plays and say, 'There's a superstar.' Well, John Havlicek is a superstar, and most of the others are figments of writers' imaginations."

From 1969-74, Havlicek was probably the best all-around player in the NBA, along with Jerry West and maybe Walt Frazier. He averaged close to a triple-double for two seasons, was the league's best and most versatile defender, could play forward and guard at an all-league level, and was an ironman who rarely missed a game and played a hard 44-45 minutes a night - at an all-out, relentless running pace.

When John retired in 1978 at halftime of his final game during a contest televised by CBS vs. Buffalo, the Celtic fans gave him nearly a 10-minute standing ovation before he spoke. In a tradition-rich city with numerous pro sports heroes from Bob Cousy to Russell, Ted Williams, Yaz and Bobby Orr (probably his closest parallel in terms of two-way offense/defense greatness and self-effacing modesty), Havlicek still ranked at or near the top as one of the Hub's most popular greats.

Knight was just one of many basketball royals on hand to pay respect to a teary Havlicek in his final game. Red Auerbach called Hondo the "All-American boy", irreplaceable, and said that if he had sired a son, he would have wanted him to be just like John.

When he retired, it is safe to say that only Cousy rivaled John in all-time Celtic popularity, and since then probably only Bird has surpassed him, 36 years later. "If I had know this kid (Bird) was coming, I would have stayed around a few more years to play with him," Hondo lamented in the early 1980's.

Indeed, it is enticing to think of Hondo cutting and receiving perfect passes from Larry Legend for easy layups and playing his final seasons as sixth man again with the new Celtic dynasty as the bridge from Russell to Bird. John may have gotten Boston over the top in 1980, Bird's rookie season and the last for Cowens in a Boston uniform. Certainly at his level of athleticism and and conditioning, Havlicek could have been the first NBAer to play regularly at 40. After all, he still averaged 16.1 points per game and played all 82 games in his final season in 1977-78 at age 38.

Hondo was great in the clutch at both ends of the court. The steal at the end of game seven in the 1965 eastern finals, the record nine-point second overtime in the 1974 Finals, the running banker off glass at the end of game six's second OT in the 1976 Finals are just a few of many examples of his greatness in the clutch.

"We always leaned on John to take the big shots and make the big plays," said 1972-76 Celtic teammate Paul Silas. "He will not only take the big shot, he wants it," said Sam Lacey of the Kings.

"Sure I want the ball in tight situations," John said. "I'm not bothered if I miss. As long as it is the best you could have done, you should not second-guess a shot." Typical Havlicek.

While John's intangibles rival his numbers and they can't begin to describe his ability and leadership, intelligence, clutch play, tenacity and toughness, here are his statistical career highlights...

John "Hondo" Havlicek by the numbers:

  • #17, 6-5, 203 pounds, All-American at Ohio State University (#5), Martins Ferry, Ohio, Forward/guard
  • 8 NBA championships in 16 seasons
  • 26,395 points (most in Celtic history and third all-time in NBA when he retired in 1978) - 20.8 points per game average 2nd best in Celtic history to Larry Bird (24.0 ppg)
  • 8,007 rebounds (6.3 per game)
  • 6,114 assists (top 10 all time in NBA at time of retirement, 3rd on Celtics list, 4.8 per game)
  • 1,270 games played (most ever at retirement with one team - since broken by John Stockton - and the durable Hondo only missed 29 games in 16 seasons)
  • 3,776 playoff points (3rd most in NBA history when he retired) in 172 games (22 ppg) over 13 playoff seasons; only missed playoffs in 1970, '71 and '78
  • Both his total playoff points and playoff ppg average are a close 2nd in Celtic history only to Larry Bird
  • 1st team All-NBA 4 times, 2nd team All-NBA 7 times
  • NBA All-Star Game participant 13 times, 1966-78 (one of few players in NBA history to start the All-Star Game at forward and guard)
  • All-defense 1st team 5 times, 2nd team 3 times in first eight years the honor was bestowed from 1969-76
  • In 1970-71 he averaged 28.9 points, 9 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game in a league-best 45.4 minutes per game AND made first team all-defense and All-NBA in 81 games
  • In 1971-72 he averaged 27.5 ppg, 8.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game in league-best 45.1 minutes per game, played all 82 games, made 1st team all-defense and 1st team All-NBA
  • 1974 NBA Finals MVP
  • Played in more winning Celtic games than anyone in club history
  • 8-0 in NBA Championship Series: 5-0 vs. LA, 1-0 vs. San Francisco, 1-0 vs. Milwaukee, 1-0 vs. Phoenix
  • 1960 NCAA champion; 1961 and 1962 NCAA runner-up; All-tournament 3 times
  • Member of NBA 50 Greatest Players List
  • Hall of Fame inductee 1984

It has become common knowledge that Oscar Robertson once averaged a triple-double for an NBA season back in 1961-62 with 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and a league-best 11.4 assists per game. Incredibly awesome numbers, to be sure. This impressive feat has long been trotted out as evidence that the Big O was the greatest all-around player of the pre-1980 era.

Yet Havlicek put together consecutive seasons in the early 1970's that were better than Oscar's vaunted triple-double season, and arguably as good or better than any in NBA history.

In 1970-71, the 6-5 Havlicek averaged a career-best 28.9 points per game while also yanking down nine rebounds a contest and dishing out 7.5 assists per game while playing forward and guard well. He shot 45 percent from the floor and 81.8 percent at the foul line and missed only one game as Boston finished 44-38.

Those prodigious stats might fall just short of Oscar's, even though Robertson played in an era with more rebounds to a faster pace and lower shooting percentages, and as a point guard he had the ball almost all of the time. But when one factors in Hondo's huge defensive edge over Robertson, Havlicek's best seasons rank as better.

John was a perennial all-defense selection and played forwards and guards exceptionally well, making him even more valuable. In more modern terms, he was sort of like Scottie Pippen on defense with Chris Mullin-type skills on offense, although Mullin (who wore number 17 in the pros because of Hondo) was a better shooter and John was a better ballhandler and driver, and faster.

Only Pippen and Cooper, two lesser offensive players (particularly Cooper), can rival Hondo in terms of defensive excellence and versatility.

He was voted second team all-defense that 1971 season, and was capable of guarding anyone from small guards to big forwards with his quickness, tenacity, intelligence and most of all, incredible endurance.

Havlicek made the all-defense team eight straight years (five times first team, three times second team) from the award's inception from 1969 through 1976, when he was age 29 to 36. No doubt in his six seasons before the all-defense team was born, Hondo would have made it at least five times, with only his rookie season in question.

On the other hand, Oscar never made an all-defense team. The Big O could play solid defense when he wanted to, but with so many duties on offense and rebounding, he saved his energy largely for offense.

As Bill Russell himself said on air during the ABC NBA telecast in 1972 of the Lakers at Milwaukee game where the Bucks ended LA's record 33-game win streak, "Oscar doesn't play much defense."

Now the Oscar supporters might argue that he had to do so much on offense that it was unfair to expect him to be a standout defender. Perhaps there is some merit to that, but Robertson also monopolized the ball on offense and got more assists because he almost always had the ball and was an excellent passer.

In fact the biggest criticism of Oscar is that he dribbled too much. On the other side, Hondo excelled with and without the ball as the game's best runner and cutter away from the ball. Havlicek also didn't have the ball in his hands nearly as much. His 7.5 assists a game as a forward are almost as impressive as ball-monopolizing Oscar's 11.4 assists in his triple-double season.

As mentioned before about 1961-62, teams took more shots and missed more per game than a decade later, allowing for more rebounds. Thus John's nine rebounds per game were only a slight gap behind Oscar's 12.4.

Although Oscar was a guard, at 6-5 and 225 or more, he was bigger than the lithe, incredibly-toned Havlicek, as well as almost every other guard in the league by a large margin. Thus he scored a lot of easy baskets by simply overpowering small guards and shooting short jumpers over them. He was Earvin Johnson with a much better jump shot 20 years earlier in terms of size compared to his peers.

Havlicek did not get such easy baskets in the halfcourt. His scoring game was moving without the ball tirelessly, driving, hitting 12-to 20-foot jumpers, running the court with greater speed and endurance than Robertson. All while playing up to 45 minutes per game at breakneck pace. Plus Hondo was considered, along with Jerry West, the best clutch player of that time, at both ends of the floor.

The next season in 1971-72, Hondo almost duplicated his landmark previous campaign. He averaged 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.5 rebounds a game while playing in all 82 contests for 45.1 minutes a night. He shot 45.8 percent from the field and 83.4 percent from the line.

He led Boston to a 56-26 record and the Eastern Finals, where they lost to New York. In Oscar's triple-double campaign, Cincinnati was 43-37. Hondo had stars in young teammates Dave Cowens and JoJo White in his greatest seasons from 1970-72, but Robertson also played with All-Stars like Jack Twyman, Adrian Smith and Wayne Embry in his triple-double year.

Havlicek's best seasons were a bit better because he was a far greater and more versatile defender than Oscar. His offensive and rebounding stats were basically equal when one adjusts for the era and his position. A group of five Hondo clones would beat five Oscar clones in a full-court game by out-running, out-shooting and out-defending his opponent, in my opinion. Hondo was the best-conditioned player in the game, while Oscar was not nearly in his class in that category. In the last third of his career, the Big O was overweight.

Interestingly, the University of Cincinnati did not win its two NCAA titles until right after Oscar graduated, in 1961 and 1962, over Hondo's Ohio State teams. And Robertson never won an NBA championship until his 11th season when he was traded to Milwaukee and teamed with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to get his lone ring.

So why have Hondo's great near triple-double seasons remained unheralded and all but forgotten, while Oscar's TD is commonly known? Well other than the obvious reason that they just missed the double digit cutoff in rebounds and assists, one main reason is the over-reliance on statistics and love of numbers in our stat-minded analytics-driven era.

Often by those who don't watch or understand the game but love to crunch numbers, there is a tendency to put "triple-doubles" up on a pedestal as THE standard for all-around excellence, even though it doesn't take defense into account much if at all, and also is vulnerable to the low-number stat line (12-11-10 is a TD while 30-15-9 isn't, for example).

Even though he may have been one of the earliest point forwards (long-time teammate Don Nelson resuscitated the term with Marques Johnson and Paul Pressey on the fine 1980's Bucks teams), the early '70's Celtics shared the ballhandling duties and there were no such clearly delineated positions then such as point guards and off guards.

And Hondo was an excellent, clever passer (6,939 career season and playoff assists attest to that) who could thread the needle as well as almost any forward in NBA history, except for behind Larry Bird, LeBron James and Rick Barry.

Also, Havlicek was the consummate pro who didn't seek the limelight or play in an era where the NBA was marketed that well. Basketball isn't a sport that is as easily captured in stats like baseball is since so much happens all the time and away from the ball. A player's defensive value is rarely well-captured by stats. In fact, blocks and steals are often compiled by guys who gamble a lot and don't play particularly good defense.

So much happens beyond the box score in hoops, much more than baseball. There has not been an adequate stat officially kept to quantify good screens set, or box outs missed, or hockey assists, or stimulation of ball and player movement yet. Nor switches well hedged or un-hedged on picks, or screens called or uncalled.

In fact, in every season of the 1960s but one, Hondo's college and pro teams made it to the championship round every year, winning six NBA titles and one NCAA crown. That is a pretty telling statistic. He was a consummate winner, a uniquely valuable and versatile player who contributed to wins in more ways than almost anyone.

No less an expert than his old college teammate and friend Knight himself has called Hondo the second or third most valuable player in basketball history, along with Russell and Jordan. Pretty good hoops company.

In a 1974 SI piece on Hondo by John Underwood, Knight said, "for my money, John is the greatest basketball player who ever lived, bar none. I'm not saying he has more ability, I'm saying he's the greatest player because he can beat you so many ways, and nobody, nobody goes as hard for as long as he does.

But early on he was overlooked because Boston had Cousy, Russell, Sam and K.C. Jones, etc. By 1969 he had become the star who led Boston to the last title of the Russell era. Yet West, who was stupendous in a 42-13-12 triple double losing cause for LA, was named playoff MVP over Hondo.

Sometime in the early 1970's announcers quit calling him "Johnny Havlicek" in favor of John, as if to mark his passing from crew-cut young sixth man to established, adult superstar with sideburns.

Not until 1974, when Havlicek led Boston to the first post-Russell NBA title in franchise history at age 34 and was named Finals MVP, did he finally begin to receive his just due. He averaged 26.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.9 steals per game in the series, while shooting 43 percent from the floor and 87 percent at the foul line. West, Robertson, Lucas, DeBusschere and Willis Reed all retired that year, Wilt had left the game in 1973 and Russell five years before.

Yet by the end of 1974 Hondo's prime was just about at its end. Yet he remained stoic and self-effacing, and didn't do many national ads - except for a comical "Lectric Shave commercial with backup teammate Steve Kuberski. Still running.

And don't underestimate how great a competitor he was. Most fans know about his famous steal in final seconds of the 1965 seventh game against Philadelphia. Not many recall his nine-point overtime in game six of the 1974 Finals (including three huge baskets over the 7-2 Jabbar), or his apparent running game-winner off glass in the second of three OTs in the classic fifth game of the 1976 Finals - despite playing on an injured foot with a bad shoulder at age 36.

When one thinks of the other greatest all-around players in NBA history, these names come to mind: Jerry West, Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Havlicek, Walt Frazier, Rick Barry, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James.

Hondo, along with West, was the most self-effacing of this group and probably the least flashy. However, the depth and breadth of his skills, versatility and athleticism is probably rivaled only by West and Jordan. Yet John was overshadowed by other big names on his championship teams - first in college by Jerry Lucas, and in the NBA by Russell, Cousy, Jones and company.

In 1972-73, after helping Boston to the best record in club history at 68-14 with great defense, a team-high 23.8 points and 6.6 assists a game, center teammate Dave Cowens was league MVP, not John. But when Hondo was injured in the 1973 Eastern Finals, the Celtics lost to the Knicks, 4-3.

Hondo, along with Kevin McHale and Billy Cunningham, is one of three superstars to have started out as a sixth man on title-caliber teams yet make the 50 Greatest List. He didn't draw attention to himself, and did not make first team All-NBA until after his ninth season at age 31 - following five second team all-league selections.

He probably is the oldest man to make his initial first team all-league at 31, and is seen as a bit of a late bloomer even though he probably deserved the honor earlier. He kept improving as a shooter thoroughout his long career until he became a very accurate marksman, and a deadly one at that in the clutch.

As evidence of his continued improvement, John shot a career-best 87 percent from the foul line in 1974-75, his 13th season. In his last season three years later, he shot 85.5 percent at the charity stripe, the third-highest such mark of his 16 seasons. Hondo never shot below 45 percent from the field in any of his last nine seasons after never surpassing 44 percent in his first seven years.

Like waiting to break into the starting lineup on the loaded Celtics of the 1960's in the midst of their eight straight NBA title run, he had to slowly break into the public consciousness as a truly great superstar, as evidenced in part by his five second team All-NBA selections.

This waiting always kept Havlicek hungry, pushing and trying harder than almost any star well into his 30's. Like the greatest of the great players, he was almost never satisfied and kept improving. Among the greats only Hakeem Olajuwon, a late-comer to the game, continued to improve so late in his career.

John also never won a regular season MVP, mostly because he played in an era with so many superstars and was overlooked because he was extremely consistent, non-flashy and quiet. He could easily have won it any year from 1970-73, but never finished higher than fourth in the MVP voting, curiously. When the Celtics posted a franchise-best 68-14 mark in 1972-73, teammate Cowens was voted league MVP, but ironically made second team all-league behind Jabbar at center while John was a first team all-league pick.

John may not have won the MVP in any season, but it is safe to say he was one of the best-liked top players of his time, and was probably the most respected player in pro basketball over his last five seasons. When he passed the 20,000-point mark against the rival Lakers at Boston in the early 1970's, almost every player on both teams took time out to shake his hand when the game was stopped briefly to mark his accomplishment.

I was struck by something when watching on tape recently the end of game six in the 1976 Finals vs. the Cinderella Phoenix Suns. As time ran out in the close Celtic banner-clinching victory, Phoenix rookie Ricky Sobers threw a 75-foot shot toward the basket in final desperation.

The launch fell short at the buzzer and came down under the basket in the hands of Havlicek, who made like the NFL wide receiver he almost was to snare the sphere. He then cradled the ball in both hands like a running back and started sprintng up the court to the Celtic locker room through a crowd of players, coaches and fans.

When he reached the other end of the court, he saw Phoenix 6-5 veteran Dick Van Arsdale. In the penultimate season of a fine 13-year career, Dick had valiantly played with a broken wrist in the Finals, only to come up short in the quest for his first ring.

Like Hondo he was a 6-5 swingman, a tenacious competitor and athlete who made three All-Star teams, made all-defense and was a fine shooter/driver. In fact, he was probably the best (and most similar to John) out of the group of many 6-5 forward-guards that proliferated in the NBA during the late 1960's and '70s as teams searched in vain for "the next John Havlicek."

Other very fine contemporaries of John who came up short in this impossible Grail-like quest were Jerry Sloan, Jeff Mullins, Keith Erickson, Tom Van Arsdale (Dick's identical twin brother), Lou Hudson, Don Kojis, Mike Riordan, Bill Bradley, Jon McGlocklin and 6-6 Doug Collins, whose idol was Havlicek. Only Erickson and Riordan, both quite solid players and athletes, from that group failed to make an NBA All-Star Game.

In fact, Collins gave up his starting spot for the East in the 1978 All-Star Game to his idol, John's last ASG, so he could start at guard in his place. It was a much bigger and more unselfish, but less publicized move than when Alex Rodriguez moved to third base so Cal Ripken could start at shortstop in his last All-Star Game almost a quarter century later. But the coverage was far lesser then, and baseball had more lore and ink.

Anyway, mere seconds after the heated 1976 Finals ended, Havlicek came up behind Van Arsdale and embraced him, one All-Star midwestern swingman from the Big 10 - Dick was from Indiana - consoling another.

After Dick's initial surprise he realized who it was and they exchanged truly respectful handshakes, showing the good sportsmanship so often lacking today, especially right after a hard-fought championship battle has been won and lost.

John was also hugged and congratulated by Suns forward Curtis Perry, who had lost to Hondo and the Celtics two years earlier in the 1974 Finals when Perry started for the Bucks. Respect.

When an injured Havlicek, in streetclothes, was introduced to the opposing crowd at New York's Madison Square Garden before game 4 of the 1973 Eastern Conference finals on Easter Sunday vs. the hated rival Knicks, the partisan Gotham crowd gave Hondo a sincere ovation. Perhaps they were glad he wasn't playing, but it was mostly a show of respect for a great, classy and well-liked ironman who was the Stan Musial or Lou Gehrig of the NBA.

He got his nickname since a schoolmate thought he resembled John Wayne in his title role of the popular early 3D 1953 western film "Hondo." Facially, in height and character Havlicek reminded his classmate of Wayne, since in the movie Hondo was an honorable cavalry man, the prototype strong, silent type, much like John on the court. Plus, John's unusual surname was hard for some to pronounce, while Hondo was not.

Havlicek's package of athletic ability, size, high skill, drive, basketball intelligence and conditioning has only been approached by the smaller John Stockton and maybe Bird. Only Stockton was as unassuming a superstar as Havlicek, and his position as a pass first point guard lent itself to unselfishness and making his teammates better more completely, while scoring less.

Admiring Portland All-Star sharpshooter Geoff Petrie wanted doctors to "take his body apart and see what's in it" when he retired.

"The toughest guy in the league to cover (because of his constant motion)," said Bradley and Riordan of Hondo, among others. "He's right in your shirt whether you're five feet from the basket or 20," said Bucks shooting ace McGlocklin. "He's harder to get shots on than anybody."

Hondo's uinque athleticism, humble rural upbringing and hard work ethic learned under first generation eastern European immigrant parents in the pre-computer age almost precludes another Havlicek from happening today in America.

The passage of time and the current era of hype have both made Hondo's legacy dimmer, yet at the same time brighter to aficionados. He played in an era before comparatively very little TV coverage (and no Internet), so there are not many sound bites or clips of him to show in today's highlight-saturated era. Pro basketball also reveres and celebrates its past less than the other major sports, treating his era as almost prehistoric.

Meanwhile, baseball stars before and contemporary to John are still held in the highest regard like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Gehrig and Musial, to name just a few. But the lack of any NBA player since Hondo's retirement to approximate his skill, value and versatility at 6-5 has also made the unassuming great's legacy even greater to hoop cognoscenti.

In a modern era where players over-dribble constantly in selfish, ego and stat-driven fashion, his anthithetical ability to move without the ball so well is an unappreciated anachronism yet a reminder about how the game is played best, with crisp ball and player movement, and selfless sharing of the ball.

The 2014 Spurs reminded us of this, but it is unlikely their success will spawn many American imitators. Not enough players can or know how to play that uniquely skillful and unselfish style. The individual, isolationist, dribble-drive style of play is so ingrained in American basketball that it will not go away anytime soon. Plus, traveling and palming rules are not enforced enough to make it harder to play one-on-one ball well.

It is certainly no coincidence that the majority of the Spurs roster is comprised of international players.

In a recent book chronicling the early 1970's Knicks championship era called "When the Garden was Eden" by Harvey Araton, Havlicek was asked how top stars from his era would fare against today's best. Hondo said that today's players are more flashy, but that for each dunk they might get, he or others from his era would get two backdoor layups.

Hondo was the absolute master of the backdoor cut for an easy layin, and made it often look easy. He was great setting up his man and then cleverly taking advantage of poor defensive fundamentals: a turn of the head, a lapse in opponent concentration or fatigue caused by his ceaseless probing and running, which usually resulted in a quick backcut and un-flashy layin. John almost scored without the ball, a very rare skill, especially in the instant gratification, look at me, over-dribbling world of big-time hoops today.

"I learned to score by taking advantage of every opening," he explained in the Underwood article. "I never had the shooting touch of a Sam Jones or Jon McGlocklin."

Always running. One wonders if he still runs in his 70's. Probably.

His Ohio State head coach Fred Taylor said that for many years high school coaches often encouraged him to recruit this or that guy, claiming he was the next John Havlicek. But as Taylor knew well, his ilk could not be duplicated, and never has been. They pretty much broke the mold that created the hard-driven Havlicek. "There is only one John Havlicek," said Taylor.

Perhaps what Bill Russell offered in that 1974 Sports Illustrated article by Underwood says it best. "John is the best all-around player I ever saw," said Russell, simply.

High praise indeed, even if people today have forgotten how great and unique a player John "Hondo" Havlicek was.

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Who is the greatest all-around player in Celtic history?

This poll is closed

  • 37%
    Larry Bird
    (93 votes)
  • 31%
    John Havlicek
    (79 votes)
  • 30%
    Bill Russell
    (75 votes)
247 votes total Vote Now

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