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Remembering John Havlicek

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The most complete Celtic ever was a humble superstar; not a machine, but a mortal human.

Columbus Blue Jackets v Boston Bruins - Game Two Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

With the slew of tributes, articles and interviews about the recent passing of Celtic legend John Havlicek, it brought up even more memories and new information I discovered and wanted to share.

Firstly for one small thing, I read a lot and watch as many old games on NBA TV, ESPN Classic and youtube as I can find to learn as much as possible about the game’s history. In doing so I came across an interesting note about Havlicek.

When John was a rookie in the 1963 NBA Finals, legendary ABC announcer Marty Glickman repeatedly called the speedy, hustling youngster “Johnny” Havlicek.

Ten years later in the 1973 All-Star Game, ABC play by play man Chris Schenkel and the public address announcer at Chicago Stadium were still calling the always-running, 11th-year veteran “Johnny” Havlicek.

I think it says something about his hustling style, naive appearance and unassuming personality that made Hondo seem like everyone’s likeable younger brother, even at age 33.

But by the 1974 Finals, when he was named series MVP, he was being called John Havlicek. Interestingly, his infamous college teammate at Ohio State was also called “Bobby” Knight well into his 40s, probably due to his volcanic temper that some associate with immaturity. Reds baseball catching great Johnny Bench was also always called Johnny...

Anyway, when Knight was early in his Indiana coaching tenure, he was sometimes derisively called Bobby T. Knight, with the middle initial standing for technical since he got a lot of those fouls back then. years later a slightly-less fiery Knight had his old teammate Hondo come and speak to his teams before the 1981 and 1987 NCAA finals, both of which Indiana won.

In a book about his life, the introverted Hondo recalled Knight was without inhibitions in their college years. At movie theaters, Bobby might loudly crunch peanuts and throw the discarded shells all over the aisle, no matter who was nearby. He then would exclaim “hey John” loudly at important points in the film.

By the way, Havlicek was given his nickname “Hondo” after the 1953 John Wayne western because one of his friends said he resembled the Duke, who also stood 6-5.

Columbus Citizen-Journal sportswriter Kaye Kessler said the cocky Knight was Mr. Odd, and small-town greenhorn John was “Mr. Awed” by everything when he came to Columbus and the big campus at Ohio State in the fall of 1958.

Havlicek, who was raised in Bridgeport by Czech immigrant parents, grew up on the West Virginia border in eastern Ohio. Legend has it that he learned his choppy, quick running style that allowed him to change directions well by running through the woods near his home and avoiding trees, sometimes in the dark.

Since Ohio State had reeled in the greatest recruiting class in program history in 1958 (led by Jerry Lucas and including Knight among several other in-state standouts), the humble Havlicek was close to attending West Virginia instead of OSU. He wasn’t sure if he would get enough playing time with such a talented team.

Had he gone to West Virginia, as a sophomore (freshmen were ineligible to play varsity then until 1972) he would have teamed with senior superstar and future Laker rival Jerry West. As a junior, West led the Mountaineers to the 1959 NCAA title game, where they lost 71-70 to California despite Jerry being named Most Outstanding Player of the tourney.

Certainly West Virginia would have been the favorite to win the NCAA tournament in 1959-60 with West and Hondo as a great one-two punch. Instead Havlicek went to Ohio State to team with Lucas and future Celtic teammate/best buddy Larry Siegfried, and they beat defending champ Cal in the 1960 championship game.

West was shown by ABC TV cameras at the Los Angeles Clipper/Golden State sixth game last Saturday night. After a timeout where the Clippers had just paid a nice tribute to Havlicek on the scoreboard, his emotions were plain to see.

Jerry’s eyes were clearly red and teared up after glimpsing John’s picture and some career stats on the scoreboard high above the Staples Arena floor.

The Laker legend said that “the thing with John, he competed against you at the highest level and he wanted to win badly,” in a recent story by Tom D’Angelo for the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.

”But he was always a really nice person. I don’t think I ever heard anyone say a bad word about John. He was pleasant off the court, and pleasant on it. But he really, really competed against you,” added West.

During the decade of the 1960s, Havlicek was synonymous with championship basketball, in fact ubiquitous. During his three varsity seasons at Ohio State, the Buckeyes won three Big 10 crowns, one national championship and lost in the NCAA title game twice to Cincinnati.

Havlicek then moved on to the Celtics, where he won six NBA championships in his first seven seasons. The only year he did not win it all or make it to the finals in the decade was 1967, when the 76ers eliminated Gang Green in the eastern finals and went on to win it all, ending Boston’s record string of eight consecutive league crowns.

As a rookie, he roomed with veteran star Tom Heinsohn, a wordly east coast guy and talented painter. In an NBC Boston Sports youtube interview with Heinsohn last weekend, Hondo’s ex-teammate and head coach recalled that John was “green as grass” when he joined the fabled franchise straight out of rural eastern Ohio and OSU.

He remarked that John was always very sincere and 100 percent focused on basketball. Because of his sincerity and “affable” nature, he was beloved and great company, even though he rarely told jokes. He also kidded that the conservative John probably still had the first nickel he owned, and never paid for anything when they went out.

Heinsohn noted that Havlicek never shot outside 10 feet as a rookie, yet still averaged over 14 points a game becaus ehe fit their running game so well. When he came back for his second season, he noted that Havlicek had greatly improved his outside shot and ballhandling through diligent practice, upping his scoring to 19.9 ppg.

After the Celtics won their 11th banner in 1969, Bill Russell and Sam Jones retired. West averaged 38 ppg and was named series MVP in a losing effort. In the seventh game despite a strained hamstring, “the Logo” scored 42 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and passed out 12 assists.

Yet Boston prevailed 108-106 at the Forum to disappoint West for the sixth time that decade in the Finals - three of those times in seventh games decided by a combined total of seven points, including one overtime defeat in 1962.

A compassionate Havlicek assuaged a disconsolate West afterward, holding his hand and saying “I love you, Jerry.”

When he won his eighth and final NBA title in 1976 over the Suns in game six of the Finals, Havlicek grabbed the ball after a long shot at the buzzer, then started to run off the court. He then saw fellow veteran All-Star swingman Dick Van Arsdale, who had played the series with a broken wrist, walking dejectedly off the court.

Hondo came up behind and hugged an initially startled Van Arsdale, then congratulated and consoled him. In the locker room afterward, John told ex-referee turned CBS announcer Mendy Rudolph his eighth crown in Boston “was the most toughest” because of a painful foot injury he had dealt with in the playoffs in his slightly lisping voice. Then he said, “why don’t you talk to (Paul) Silas.”

With Russell and Jones gone the next season in 1970, the Celtics missed the playoffs for the first time in two decades. They traded aging star forward Bailey Howell, let Hondo’s roomie and best pal Siegfried go in the expansion draft and started to rebuild around John plus youngsters JoJo White, Don Chaney and rookie Dave Cowens.

”I went from being the young guy on the Celtics to being the old man of the team in one year,” Havlicek recalled. Only himself, sixth man Don Nelson and aging veteran defensive ace Tom Sanders remained from the glory years for new coach Heinsohn to rebuild part two of the Boston dynasty.

But by 1972, Heinsohn and Havlicek had led the new Celtics to the Atlantic Division title and the eastern conference finals vs. the rival Knicks. But they lost 4-1 to the crafty, skilled New Yorkers.

The next year, a determined Havlicek and league MVP Dave Cowens paced Boston to the best record in franchise annals at 68-14. In a rematch with the Knicks during the conference finals, Boston took a 1-0 lead. But in game three, playing all-out as usual on defense, Havlicek ran full speed into a blind screen set by burly Knick Hall of Fame forward Dave DeBusschere.

Sidelined with a badly injured right shoulder, Hondo watched as the Knicks went ahead 3-1. A double overtime Easter Sunday loss at New York with Havlicek on the bench put Boston in a deep hole.

The partisan MSG crowd gave Havlicek a near standing ovation when he was introduced in the pre-game - a nearly unprecedented show of respect and admiration for a hated rival’s superstar. In a pre-game interview with Keith Jackson, a clearly saddened Havlicek made no excuses and said he got hurt on a clean pick.

Havlicek returned to the lineup in game five and gamely helped Boston rally to force a seventh contest. But the Knicks prevailed (becoming the first team to ever win a game 7 at Boston Garden) with Hondo barely able to lift his right arm, and went on to beat the Lakers for the title that probably should have belonged to the Celtics (Boston had swept LA 4-0 in 1972-73.)

To show he held no grudges, Havlicek later became very close friends with DeBusschere when the duo retired to the same Florida city.

The next season, Havlicek passed 20,000 career points in a home game vs. rival Los Angeles. Film clips show admiring Lakers Gail Goodrich, Bill Bridges, Elmore Smith and Pat Riley shaking a nonchalant John’s hand on the court during a short break to commemorate the achievement. In his final season, Laker legend West was out with an injured knee and not at the game.

Quietly determined to make up for the lost banner in 1973, Hondo led Boston to a 4-1 revenge win over the Knicks in the 1974 eastern finals. He then was voted series MVP as Boston beat Milwaukee 4-3 in an epic championship series.

Heinsohn mentioned Havlicek’s humility when before game seven of that series, he asked John to be a decoy for the decisive game as an attempt to throw off the Bucks. Heinsohn felt Milwaukee would make key adjustments to try and slow the running man, who had torched them for 36 points in game six, down.

Can you iamgine LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan accepting a decoy role in game seven of the Finals? Yet John did. And he still managed to score 20 points, including two clutch second half three-point plays that helped put the final nails into the Buck coffin.

Heinsohn called his sacrifice the ultimate “professional attitude”, meaning he would do whatever it took within the rules to win, even if it meant giving himself up - like he did as a sixth man at the start of his career. He was so good that he made second team All-NBA in his second and third seasons, when he was still primarily a sixth man - yet did not complain about not starting.

”Who finishes the game is more important than who starts,” he often said. Yet one has to feel that a motivating factor driving the quiet man all those seasons for so many miles was the lack of respect being a sixth man despite earning superstar status garnered him from some fans.

Havlicek may have been humble, but he was proud and confident. he had been second fiddle to Lucas in college, and to Russell or Cousy or Jones the firts half of his NBA career.

And as Heinsohn said, he always wanted to take the big shot and was a great clutch player at both ends of the court. Before big-shot maven Bird came along, no Celtic made as many crucial, late-game shots than Havlicek. Like Larry, he loved to prove doubters wrong.

Heinsohn recalled that the first time Havlicek, a superb defender, guarded Dr. J that John stole the ball from Erving four times in a row. John was voted all-defense eight times, but the number would have been much higher had the league begun the defensive awards before the initial year of 1969.

In an interview on TV Hondo once said Oscar Robertson was the toughest player he ever had to guard - “he had no weakness” explained Havlicek.

In 1978 at his 13th and final All-Star Game at Atlanta, the East head coach was ex-76er great Billy Cunningham. Havlicek had said Cunningham was his toughest forward to guard because he was so quick, intense and skilled. Billy C’s Hall of Fame career was cut short by a severe knee injury suffered in 1975 in his hometown of New York City at the Garden.

Three years later he was coaching the Sixers and the All-Star team. After the East won, CBS cameras closed in as Havlicek and Cunningham hugged and posed for a photo. Hondo could be heard saying “the young and the old” on nearby CBS microphones because the nearly 38-year old All-Star was three years senior to his head coach at the time.

Years after he retired, Havlicek answered opponents who griped about the hot, cramped locker room conditions at the old Boston Garden and claimed that they gave an unfair advantage to the Celtics. Back then Boston was very much a Red Sox and Bruins sports town, with basketball a distant third and the Patriots just starting out n the old AFL.

John noted that in his first season with the Celtics, who were tenants of the building owned by the Boston Bruins hockey team, that his locker room stall consisted of a single nail. And that was only enough hot water for one shower, and that first one was always taken by Russell.

When asked how the team stayed so hungry to win title after title when complacency sets in after one championship these days, Havlicek gave an answer representative of the times.

He said the salaries back then were so low (about the same as an NBA superstar makes in less than a week now), that winning the title and the corresponding championship playoff share meant the difference between getting a real full-time job in the off-season or not.

How times have changed in big-time pro sports.

I had one reader email me about his persnal encounters with Hondo a few years ago after he read my profile of John. This man owned a Boston-area pizzeria Havlicek used to frequent, often with his family. He said Hondo, who was a conditioning fanatic, never drank soda or beer - he always drank milk with his pizza.

In all the tributes, interviews and articles last week that I saw about the Celtic legend, everyone from Danny Ainge to Shaq, Charles Barkley and Ernie Johnson on TNT emphasized what a kind, unassuming and humble superstar John was to them.

Johnson happily remembered (“oh man” he said) as a youngster going to see Havlicek and the Celtics battle the Pete Maravich-led Hawks in Atlanta at the old Omni. Boston beat Atlanta in 1972 and 1973 in the eastern semifinals, both times in tough 4-2 series.

Havlicek set a club playoff record with 54 points on 24-36 field goal shooting and 6-6 foul shooting in a game two 134-109 win over the Hawks. he added nine rebounds and six assists for good measure.

A great athlete, childhood friend and neighbor Phil Niekro, the Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher with the Braves primarily, said that Havlicek could have been a major leaguer had he chosen to play baseball. A three-sport all-state pick in hoops, baseball and football, Hondo was recruited to Ohio State by Woody Hayes as a running quarterback.

But Hondo decided to focus on hoops when his concerned mother asked him not to play the gridiron game. Hayes would go on to say Havlicek was the best quarterback in the Big 10, even though he never played a collegiate down. He wore number 89 in his 1962 NFL tryout as a receiver with the NFL champion Cleveland Browns, and was the last player cut.

The Browns offered him try-outs for several years after that, but the proud Hondo never went back.

At the time he retired in 1978, Hondo had ironically returned to his original role as sixth man for part of the season. He was third in all-time NBA points and first in all-time games played when he finally hung the sneakers up for good. Only John Stockton had played more games with one team. He still is the Celtic franchise scoring leader (26,395) and is second in playoff points to Larry Bird. Only Kobe scored more points playing with just one team, with Hondo about 1,200 points ahead of West.

Despite coming in as a defender/runner, Havlicek tallied 20.8 ppg over 16 seasons. His 28.9 ppg season in 1972 was the club record until Bird passed him in 1988. From 1971-73 he nearly averaged a triple-double (28/9/7/5) despite being primarily a forward who had the ball much less T-D artists than Robertson or Russell Westbrook.

Havlicek still ranks second in all-time Boston assists (6,114)behind Cousy and just ahead of Bird. Showing off his versatility, Havlicek still ranks fifth in all-time Celtic rebounds, despite standing just 6-5.

Heinsohn noted that “everyone is still gaga over Larry Bird, and was a great, great player. But it is pretty tough to beat Havlicek.”

He felt Hondo was the most complete and best two-way player in Celtic history, and it is hard to argue with that since Hondo was such a great, versatile defender and an accomplished all-around offensive player. He could run the point, pass with pinpoint accuracy, shoot, drive and run the floor like a deer all day.

By now a wizened vet, Havlicek wistfully said said that had he known “this kid Bird” was coming, he would have hung around two more years until he was 40 to play with Larry. It would have been fitting to see him go out with a title as sixth man over the Lakers in 1979-80, Bird’s rookie campaign, and passing the torch to Larry.

For Hondo had served as the bridge from the Cousy/Russell dynasty throught he 1970s big three of Cowens/Hondo/JoJo almost all the way to the third dynasty, the Bird era.

Certainly he could have lasted that long had he wanted to, as he scoed 16.1 ppg at age 38 in his last season. But the 32-50 Celtics were in grave decline by then, having missed the playoffs for only the third time in his 16 seasons.

Harvard University even tested his legendary stamina at one point and found out his lungs were exceptionally large, as was his heart, and that his resting heart rate was in the low 40s.

Havlicek anonymously gave money to local charities and his alma mater’s basketball program, preferring not to let anyone know he could be so generous. This he did despite some local criticism that he did not care about the coal-mining valley area, or was too frugal to help out.

In 2007, his old high school renamed its arena “John J. Havlicek Gymnasium.” Before home boys and girls hoop games, a video highlight of his career, capped by the famed 1965 game seven-saving steal vs. the 76ers, is shown on the video board.

An avid golfer and fisherman in retirement, Havlicek held an annual charity fishing event in Florida that he invited ex-NBA stars and others to compete in.

Barkley noted last weekend on TNT that he regretted never attending the fishing event despite Hondo’s friendly invitation.

When asked what came to mind first about Havlicek in the NBC Boston interview after John’s death, Heinsohn answered, “He was a great, great athlete.” He added that his incredible ability to focus was the second thing that sprang to mind.

Maybe John’s assumed indestructibility is part of why his death came as bit of a surprise and elicited such sadness, even though it was known the private legend was suffering from an aggressive form of Parkinson’s disease.

Former teammate JoJo White passed away in recent years, but Celtic legends older than John like Heinsohn, Russell, Sam Jones and Cousy are still alive.

John Havlicek was hospitalized on his birthday, April 8, and never returned home. Somehow, one expected the NBA’s ultimate running machine to keep going indefinitely, or at least for another decade or so.

But his death at age 79 showed how human and mortal he really was - and reminded us that everyone else is, too.

To contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at