John Havlicek: Forgotten Basketball Legend

It’s been a while since I posted anything here on this blog. I’ve had my hands full with various work projects and personal stuff. I wish I had chosen something more cheery to write about as my first post in a while. But the news that came down the wire last night is enough to spark my reflection and the memory of Celtics and Ohio State fans with far more experiences than I have. One of Basketball’s most overlooked all time greats has passed and must be remembered as such.

John Joseph Havlicek was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, on April 8th, 1940. He was a natural athlete and grew to stand 6’5″ and had natural stamina that few in his hometown could keep up with. He was a multi-sport talent and became a legend at Bridgeport High School, the same place that produced famed Arizona State and Iowa State wrestling coach Bobby Douglas, MLB Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro, and MLB All-Star pitcher Joe Niekro. All were in attendance at Bridgeport around the same time.

Havlicek starred on the school’s football, baseball, and basketball teams. On the gridiron, he quarterbacked the team to many wins and was voted an all-conference performer. He was recruited by schools like West Virginia and Ohio State.

On the diamond, Havlicek hit .400 as a shortstop and led his team to two conference championships.

His best successes came on the hardwood, where he averaged 27 points a game for his career and led his school to a championship in 1958.

The super-athlete decided to stay in-state, attending The Ohio State University, a hotbed of athletic talent with Woody Hayes leading the football team to National Championships and Jack Nicklaus toiling on the golf course in those days. While at Columbus, Havlicek stopped playing football, but continued time on the baseball diamond. But ultimately, Hondo found his greatest success on the hardwood. In three years playing (freshmen were not allowed to play varsity in those days) the Buckeyes reached three Final Fours and three National Championship Games. Havlicek averaged 14.6 PPG on 50.8% shooting and added 8.6 rebounds per game. Teaming with future Cincinnati Royal and New York Knick great Jerry Lucas, future Boston Celtics teammate Larry Siegfried, and future Indiana coaching legend Bob Knight, Havlicek helped the Buckeyes to a Final Four win over New York University (yes the Violets used to play big time NCAA Basketball) and a National Championship Game win over Cal Berkley. Havlicek scored 12 points and pulled in 6 rebounds in the only National Title Game Ohio State has won in their program’s history. They followed it up with two more Title game appearances and two losses to in-state rival Cincinnati.

After college, Havlicek was drafted by the Boston Celtics with the seventh pick in the 1962 draft. In an enormous credit to his natural athleticism, the NFL’s Cleveland Browns (a model franchise at the time) drafted him in the seventh round, 95th overall, to be a wide receiver despite not playing organized football for four years while attending one of college football’s premier schools. He actually joined the Browns for training camp but ultimately was cut.

Celtics Coach Red Auerbach commented that the decision was a mistake by Cleveland. But, Auerbach wasn’t complaining. When Hondo arrived, the Celtics had won five of the last six NBA championships and the last four consecutive, including a legendary series with the Lakers in the most recent Finals. Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, and Bob Cousy were the cornerstones of the greatest dynasty in sports, yet they improved dramatically when Hondo arrived.

Auerbach created the role of sixth man by bringing Havlicek as his first man off the bench. His stamina and adrenaline allowed him to lift the Celtics when the starters needed a breather and gave the team a near unbeatable formula. It were as if the C’s had six starters. As Cousy and Heinsohn retired, Hondo (a nickname inspired by the 1953 John Wayne movie and character of the same name) continued to help the C’s win, earning four straight NBA Titles to open his career and getting the Celtics and unfathomable eight consecutive championships. In the middle of all this came Hindi’s defining moment.

On April 15th, 1965, the Boston Celtics hosted the Philadelphia 76ers for Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals. Sam Jones led the Celtics with an astounding 37 points while Bill Russell pitches in 15 points, 29 rebounds, and 8 assists while mostly matched with Wilt Chamberlain. Havlicek had one of his best performances of the season, posting 26 points and adding 11 rebounds. The Celtics led by 11 in the dying minutes and Auerbach lit his traditional victory cigar. But Wilt Chamberlain has none of it. He proceeded to score 10 of his 30 points (some off his game high 32 rebounds) consecutively to bring the Sixers to within 1 point with five seconds left. Auerbach put out his cigar and Russell took the inbound. He made the mistake of hitting a guide-wire that held up the backboard. That meant the ball was out of bounds and possession went to Phili. In the ensuing timeout, Russell pleaded for someone to take the goat horns off his head. Hondo came to the rescue.

Future Hall of Famer Hal Greer took the inbound for the Sixers. The play was for Greer to inbound to Chet Walker (also a future Hall of Famer), who would then pass to Chamberlain in the post. Havlicek knew the inbound timing, with five seconds to put the ball in, and read the strategy based on prior matchups. Auerbach always relied on intel gathered by his players through the course of the game, demanding that the players be ready to coach themselves on the floor. Hondo followed his coach’s direction and read the play perfectly. As he counted the inbound time down to four, Hondo broke toward Walker and looked up to see the inbound pass. The forward leaped and tipped the ball to an awaiting Sam Jones, who dribbled the ball into the front court and killed off the remaining time. The fans at Boston Garden rushes the floor to mob their hero and Celtics radio announcer Johnny Most immortalized the play with basketball’s greatest call.

Greer is putting the ball into play. He gets it out deep. Havlicek steals it! Over to Sam Jones! Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans! Bill Russell comes over to hug John Havlicek; he squeezes John Havlicek.

The play not only stands as Hondo’s iconic moment, but also as an all-time moment for the Celtics and the NBA at large. It’s the most famed play in Celtic history and rightly so. The C’s went on to beat the Lakers and in five and win that year’s NBA Championship, but 1965 will forever be the year in which Havlicek stole the ball.

In the waning years of the 60’s, Hondo became a starter on two final Bill Russell led championship teams, including on the unlikely 1969 edition that saw Russell and Sam Jones walk into the sunset.

Under new Head Coach but familiar friend Tommy Heinsohn, the Celtics retooled and followed Havlicek’s lead to two more NBA Titles in 1974 and 1976. Hondo was voted Finals MVP in an epic struggle between the C’s and the Kareem Abdul-Jabber and Oscar Robertson led Milwaukee Bucks that went seven games. Two years later, his heroics helped the C’s to an unprecedented 13th NBA Championship over the plucky Phoenix Suns, including a famed triple overtime game five at Boston Garden (my dad’s first ever NBA game).

Havlicek continued to play until 1978 when he decided it was time for retirement. When all was said and done, Hondo played more games and minutes and scored more points than any Celtic to ever set foot on the parquet floor. He’s still the Celtics’ all time leading scorer and only Elvin Hayes and Robert Parrish have played more games in NBA history than Hondo. In 16 seasons, Havlicek’s line was 20.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, and 4.8 APG. He was an All-Star 13 times over and a member of the First or Second All-NBA Team 11 times. He stamped his name on the Celtics history with eight championships. Only Sam Jones (10) and Bill Russell (11) have more rings as a player.

Despite all the success, Havlicek is often not mentioned as an all time NBA great. Of his era, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Hal Greer, Jerry Lucas, Walt Fraser, Kareem, and others earned more notoriety. Hondo never won an MVP and was never considered the best in the League. And when the NBA ballooned in popularity in the 80’s with Bird, Magic, Isiah Thomas, Dr. J, Moses Malone, and the new television deals, then dominated the sports landscape behind Michael Jordan’s Bulls of the 90’s, Havlicek’s legacy was forgotten, cast aside as little more than a relic of a bygone age.

The line became that Hondo was great for his time. Nothing more. I’d argue that John Havlicek is and ought be remembered as an NBA superstar on par with the greats of both his day and the current age. He was an ambassador for the greatest dynasty the sport ever knew, a participant in several moments indelibly marked in NBA history, and a humbly clutch performer who put the objectives of the team before his personal goals. He is everything a professional athlete should be. As far as the Celtics are concerned, Hondo is only outpaced in importance by Larry Bird and Bill Russell. He will forever be linked with the legacy of the Celtic green and white, but also with the Buckeye scarlet and grey.

His passing became real when Doc Emmerich, calling the Boston Bruins vs Columbus Blue Jackets playoff series opener, announced the sad news over the image of Hondo’s retired number 17 hanging in the rafters of TD Garden. The legendary Celtic and Buckeye was 79 years old and will forever serve as a beacon of athletic and leadership excellence and as a model for how a professional athlete ought act in the public eye.

May God rest the soul of the great John Havlicek.

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