Remembering John Havlicek: A Tireless Champion Who Never Stopped Running
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.)