“I began my career running, and I want to end it running”
– John Havlicek on the eve of his final Celtics game on April 9, 1978 in which he scored 29 points
“HONDO is watching. Congratulations”
– Telegram from John Wayne to Havlicek on the day of his final game
I’ll never forget the first photo I ever saw of John Havlicek out of uniform. It was taken while he attended the first game of the 1967 World Series at Fenway Park (see below). Sitting alongside wife Beth in what are now the owners seats adjacent to the Boston dugout he was nattily attired in what appeared to be a Baracuta jacket and was wearing dark thick rimmed glasses. I remember thinking he was truly a real life Clark Kent who ditched the specs in order to leap parquet flooring at a single bound while defending truth, justice, and Celtic Pride.
Not long after I saw him play in several of the magnificent games that were part of the most underrated rivalry in team history, namely that between the Reed/Frazier Knicks and the Cowens/Havlicek Celtics. As a competitive runner (who also wore glasses) and hard work/no talent high school JV player I delighted in seeing John run both Bill Bradley and Mike Riordan into the recesses of the Garden rivets as the Celtic post Russell teams quickly honed their own championship credentials. Like Cowens, Havlicek was the athletic equivalent of a Mack truck with a Ferrari engine.
At a glance his Celtics record immediately informs us of his Herculean eminence. His stature as the leading scorer in franchise history is especially remarkable as he spent the first portion of his career as the quintessential Auerbachian sixth man for teams that won NBA titles in six of his first seven NBA seasons. Included in this run of success was the epic seventh game of the 1965 Eastern Conference finals in which Johnny Most’s radio call of his steal of a Philly inbound pass almost immediately became the voice print of the franchise and the signature moment for both men.
In the second phase of his career he was exclusively a starter for teams that captured two additional NBA titles in 1974 and ’76 and a third, in 1973, that was almost certainly a better team than either champion but lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to a superb Knick team only because Havlicek had injured his shoulder fighting through a pick by Dave DeBusschere in game three. Down three games to one Boston battled back to win games five and six only to lose game seven by a score of 94-78 as Havlicek could barely lift his right arm, much less shoot or pass.
Five years later he bowed out as a member of only the second non playoff team of his sixteen year Celtic career. In a ceremony that echoed the emotion of a similar farewell gathering for former teammate Bob Cousy Havlicek bowed at center court before proceeding to drop 29 points in a an emphatic 131-114 win over the Buffalo Braves.
In the pantheon of Boston sports greats was there ever a better all around athlete than John Havlicek? The Ohio native could have played major league baseball, NFL football, as well as having secured his unique niche as one of, if not, THE best “swingman” a/k/a shooting guard/small forward in basketball history.
After all, he played on an NCAA basketball championship squad at Ohio State with such teammates as Jerry Lucas, Larry Siegfried, and Mel Nowell and made the Cleveland Browns having not played a single down in college. Growing up in Bridgeport Ohio his neighbors included Phil and Joe Niekro who he’d chase among others of foot, due to the fact he didn’t own a bicycle.
Selected by the Celtics in 1962 on the recommendation of broadcaster and former college basketball player Curt Gowdy Havlicek was perhaps the best seventh pick in NBA draft history. Red Auerbach would later refer to him as “the guts of our team” and former college teammate Bob Knight refers to him as the greatest clutch player of them all.
His teammates remember him as the most dependable of colleagues as well as a character who displayed an array of fastidious grooming habits that included his hanging of each individual article of clothing in his locker on separate hangers. Yes, a hanger for each sock.
Havlicek was always impeccably dressed and former team executive Jan Volk recalled a post game scene in 1976 in an impossibly humid Cleveland press room following the Celtics six game Eastern Conference Finals win over a resurgent Cavalier team. Sitting in the middle of the chaotic celebratory scene was Havlicek, dressed to the nines in a suit and tie, silently observing his half dressed teammates and sweat stained writers jostling for interviews while while looking for a beer or two. At one point head coach Tommy Heinsohn glances over at his stoic superstar and says, “John, for chrissakes, can’t you at least loosen your tie?” to which Havlicek responds without missing a beat, “No Hanger Hawk.”