Thursday, 23 May 2019


John Havlicek, Boston Celtics' star from 1962 through 1978, died last month. I couldn't get any papers in Britain interested in his obituary, but he has remained in my thoughts since then, running around my brain the same way Hondo ran around a basketball court, and it spurred a lot of recollections, which made this reminiscence sneak itself down a lot of tangential alley ways. I suppose it has something to do with his career coinciding with my prime years of sporting attention, and something with to do with the kind of athletic ideal he personified: a rare sort of physical ability combined with the vision only the greats possess, linked to an ability to play at full speed for more time than anyone else without tiring, and a drive to do just that in pursuit of the team goal of winning. Whatever it was the Celtics needed Havlicek to do: score, defend, pass, rebound, run, run, run, he would do it.

I was watching the 1974 Finals, against the Bucks, the double-overtime loss in game 6. Just as the announcer mentions how tired everybody looks, Havlicek, the game's high scorer, who played all 58 minutes, comes running off a great circle route to take a backdoor pass and hit a baseline turnaround. That sort of thing. Without any flashiness, without any attention-seeking. It was part of that Celtic mystique that the team was bigger than any player: I saw the same thing with the Montreal Canadiens of that era, which is why they were my favourite hockey team, and they played the same way as the Celtics: 'head-manning' the puck the same way the Celtics found the lead man upcourt to run and beat the other team back. No player was better suited to that game than Hondo. He got the nickname because someone thought he looked like John Wayne; I never saw that, but I could see the resemblance in the ambling walks. It beat being called by some rhyming sportswriter thing, like Chet the Jet Walker.

And of course Havlicek Stole The Ball. From Chet.

That was the seventh and final game of the 1965 NBA Eastern final, in the Boston Garden, the Celtics led their fierce rivals, the Philadelphia 76ers, by three when Bill Russell allowed Wilt Chamberlain to dunk the ball uncontested. Now with five seconds to play, the Celtics led by one and Russell would inbound the ball. But his inbounds pass hit a wire supporting the backboard, and possession went over to the Sixers. Russell was the heart of the Celtics' supremacy, and for him to suddenly make a crucial error was frightening. Now Hal Greer of the Sixers looked to pass the ball in, with Wilt lurking under the basket, and Russ, four inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter, fronting him desperately to prevent the pass for an easy shot. So Greer looked upcourt, and launched a pass to Chet Walker, and, in Johnny Most's call on the radio: 'Havlicek stole the ball!” Havlicek, playing off Walker to the inside, had started counting in his head, knowing Greer had only five seconds to inbound the ball, and on four he looked back, tracked the ball, and knocked it away. Sam Jones picked it up, and dribbled the five seconds off the clock. The Celtics advanced to the NBA finals against the Lakers and beat them, as they always did.

I still have, somewhere in my brother's attic, a record album with that 1965 call on it. The funny thing is that Most, and the rest of us, mispronounce Havlicek's name. We say Have-li-check'. But Hondo himself said 'Havel-check', like Brett Favre being 'farve'. I realised this as I watched him speaking on a nice video made on the steal's 50th anniversary. Looking at the grainy black and white footage, I saw something for the first time I've never seen referenced before: when Russell inbounds the ball, he's a full four feet behind the end line, and Chet Walker, with arms up in Russ's face, is over the line, then leaps forward until he's just about touching Russell. Even the official is in front of the two of them. No wonder the ball hit the wire.

What's also touching is to watch the fans mobbing Havlicek, carrying him off the court while ripping the jersey off his back. Meanwhile, Russell pushes through the crowd to hug Hondo as he's being carried off. In a sense, Russell's amazing streak of winning: 11 titles in 13 years, had its most dangerous self-inflicted challenge right there, and Havlicek saved the team from his mistake.

I also wonder now what would have happened had Havlicek not stolen the ball. Walker would have had it 20 feet away from the hoop, with his back to it, and Hondo all over him. In today's game he could have, like Kawahi Leonard did recently, tuck the ball, take three steps, bounce the ball once and take another two steps before throwing up a shot. Or maybe he gets a twisting alley-oop pass off to Wilt that Russell can't get to. Or bounces it back to Greer. I don't know, but it might have been a tough thing for the Sixers to actually get that basketball. Hondo's D on that play was team man-to-man the way I was taught both in basketball and lacrosse, but the deflection of the ball was more like an NFL receiver, which, funnily enough, Havlicek nearly was.

As was the ideal in those days, Havlicek was a three-sport star in Springfield, Ohio; all-state in football, basketball and baseball. He grew up with the Niekro brothers, Phil and Joe, who thought the kid who hit .440 in high school could have played pro. Woody Hayes wanted him to play football; the story goes that he used to tell people that the best quarterback in the Big 10 was at Ohio State, but he was playing basketball (shades of Otto Graham at Northwestern). But Paul Brown, who had coached high school football in Ohio and was still well-connected, knew all about Havlicek. He drafted him in round 7, the 95th pick overall, in the 1962 NFL draft. Hondo lasted until the final cuts, which wasn't that much of a surprise, since the Browns' first pick in that draft was Gary Collins, who won't mean much to folks today, but was your prototype 'flanker', he and Bowd Dowler, both of whom are on the NFL's all-decade team for the Sixties. Big, long-striding receivers who could run deep or catch slants; Havlicek would have fit the role perfectly. The Browns offered him a taxi squad role, and supposedly chased after him again, but Havlicek went to Boston to play for the Celtics, who had taken him with the seventh pick of the first round (ninth overall) NBA draft. I'll explain soon why the seventh pick was the ninth.

At Ohio State, Havlicek was not the big star in basketball; that was Jerry Lucas, an even bigger Ohio high school legend. The team also included Larry Siegfried, a scrappy guard who would wind up on the Celtics, and Mel Nowell, almost as big an Ohio high school legend as Lucas, a sharp-shooting point guard. On the bench was Bobby Knight, who would go on to coach at Army and Indiana and elsewhere, and be the guy who cut Charles Barkley and John Stockton from the 1984 USA Oympic team. Not that they needed them to win the Olympic gold in LA with Jeff Turner and Bobby Alford.

Ohio State beat St Louis for the 1960 NCAA title, Havlicek's sophomore year (and first year on the non-freshman varsity). It was Lucas who played on the 1960 Olympic team, along with Terry Dischinger (whose NBA career was lessened by a severe knee injury) Oscar Robertson and Jerry West; Havlicek might have made the cut had the team not had five spots reserved for players from the AAU leagues and the military. The other college guys included Walt Bellamy and Bob Boozer, along with Oscar the only other blacks, and Darrell Imhoff, coach Pete Newell's star center from Cal. Of course they didn't need Hondo to win that title easily.

Ohio State went to the NCAA finals each of the next two years, losing to the post-Oscar Cincinnati team both times, a team built around its defense and star center Paul Hogue. Lucas was the star; Havlicek was the captain. It's easy to speculate why the Celtics drafted Hondo; it's highly likely GM Red Auerbach was going on a word-of-mouth recommendation...teams often didn't see players who didn't play locally. In fact, Lucas was the first pick of the draft, with a special 'territorial' pick, to the Cincinnati Royals, who already had Oscar after a similar draft. But Lucas had signed a deal, which included a share of the team, with George Steinbrenner of the ABL's champion Cleveland Pipers. The NBA then tried to merge them into their league and kill off the competition, but the Royals complained about their territory, demanding compensation which Steinbrenner eventually defaulted on. Lucas then signed another deal with other Cleveland businessmen. But a team never materialised, and after missing the 62-63 season, Lucas began playing with the Royals, who had retained his rights. and the second pick was Dave DeBuschere, to Detroit; he would wind up both pitching baseball and playing basketball before becoming a 23 year old player-coach of the Pistons.

So Hondo went after Billy 'The Hill' McGill, Hogue, Zelmo Beatty, Len Chappell, Wayne Hightower and Leroy Ellis, all of whom were big men. Big Z had the best NBA career of the bunch. Terry Dischinger went with the pick immediately after Havlicek, at the top of the second round, which also included Chet Walker and Kevin Loughery.

Local 'scouting' might explain why the Celts, with the last pick of round 2, 16th overall, took Jack 'The Shot' Foley from Holy Cross. Maybe they thought he'd attract fans, maybe because they'd had great success with Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn from the Cross. Foley was a 6-4 forward, a white guy with a deadly outside shot. There were a lot of guys like that at the time, the next few years would see Donnie May of Dayton, Larry Miller from UNC, Pat Riley at Kentucky, Pat Burke of Fairfield, Larry Cannon from LaSalle. Soon it became apparent if you couldn't be big enough to play over the rim inside, or make your own shot (ie: beat a man to the hoop) outside, you couldn't play: the type evolved into Billy Cunningham, Doug Moe, Jack Marin types. The Shot lasted only one season.

The pick after Foley was the first of round three: Don Nelson from Iowa, who would wind up coming to the Celtics from the Lakers and being a key part of the 1969 win over LA: the most seemingly un-athletic 6-6 forward imaginable, but a crucial championship part. The Celts' pick at the end of the round was Jim Hadnot of Providence, who had been the center when PC won the NIT (still a big thing in those days) in 1961, beating the same St Louis team Ohio State beat the year before in the NCAA final. That was the team of Connecticut hero Johnny Egan, who led Hartford Weaver High to the New England championship in Boston Garden, and 5-8 Vinny Ernst at the guards (along with future Boston mayor Ray Flynn). Hadnot for to PC from Oakland, because Bill Russell had taken him on as a mentor after Hadnot's father died. He didn't make the Celtics, and played only one year of pro ball, five years later, for the Oakland Oaks of the ABA. Jobs were a lot tougher to get in those days: the NBA had 9 teams, rosters were 10 men, and the money was such that players fought to keep their jobs. Mel Nowell, as it turns out, was drafted in round 12, with the 92nd pick, but still played one season in Chicago, and also later in the ABA.

You see what I meant about diversions? I was a die-hard Celtics fan. So much so that in the spring of 1969, in what was player-coach Bill Russell's final go-round, I skipped hearing Joni Mitchell in the beautiful circular dining hall on my college campus (since torn down in the name of austerity) in order to watch the Celtics and Lakers on TV, and watch my roommate throw something through the ceiling as the Lakers managed to wind up on the wrong end.

When he joined the Celtics, Havlicek fit right into their style of play, and Bob Cousy, in his final season, had someone whom he could find almost at will for open layups. “I made a living off Bob Cousy,” he later explained. At that point Hondo was not a shooter, so he went home after the season and worked at it: the results were evident, and it's noteworthy he was lifetime 81.5% free-throw shooter, up from 72.8% his rookie year.

What else stands out about Havlicek's career? Playing left-handed and scoring 18 against the New York media-proclaimed Greatest Dynasty Ever Knicks on their way to yet another championship, their second!, in 1973. Just imagine, if the Celtics had played in New York, Steve Kuberski would have had his autobiography published. Forget about the Sixties, the Celtics matched that Knick dynasty by winning titles in 1974 and 1976.

I watched some of that 74 final against the Bucks, with Oscar, Kareem, and Bobby Dandridge: the game 6 double-overtime loss is amazing. The defense is tough: Havlicek, Duck Chaney, JoJo White, Paul Silas and Dave Cowens for the Celts; Dandridge's quickness, Oscar's strength, and Kareem's hustle getting back, like a young Russell, to contain the Celtics break. I also marveled at how the officials actually called things like traveling, three-seconds and carrying the ball. In today's game, some of these guys would have gone to town (and they would have had the three-point shot to open things up). Hondo was blessed with having another player who matched his effort, and had even more intensity: Cowens. The undersized center whose physical battle with Kareem was astounding. Cowens fouled out with a bump as Kareem backed in on him; I am still arguing that one now...his replacement was High Hank Finkel.

In 1976, the Celtics took Phoenix in six, including the triple-overtime game that had more controversy than a Farage campaign stop, including a Boston fan attacking Richie Powers. Toward the end of regulation, with the Suns trailing by one, Paul Westphal, who had been traded from Boston to Phoenix, did a Havlicek stole the ball, to Havlicek, and Havlicek missed a rebound, tapping the ball back to Curtis Perry who hit on his second try to put Phoenix up one with six seconds left. But Havlicek hit a soft running bank shot to put the Celts ahead by one as the buzzer sounded. But the shot had gone through the hoop before the clock expired, so after arresting the guy who attacked Powers and sorting everything out, the Suns got the ball back under the basket with a second left. At which point Westphal, knowing the Suns had no timeouts remaining, called time. JoJo White hit the technical foul for Boston, now leading by two, but Phoenix got the ball back at midcourt, and Garfield Heard hit a turnaround buzz-beater to tie the game once again.

Havlicek would always say he thought he should have had two more titles: one in 73 had he not hurt his shoulder, and one more later, in 77, had the Celts not traded Westphal (for Charlie Scott) and later Paul Silas (for Curtis Rowe). They got Scott ostensibly to replace Chaney's D (for some reason they never seemed to trust Westphal) while Curtis Rowe, we'll never know. He was supposed to be a better offensive player than Silas, but he wasn't a Celtics' type, and had they kept Westphal and let him play, they probably wouldn't have needed the extra firepower. The Celts, with Glenn MacDonald coming off the bench in his moment of glory, built a six point lead in the third OT, but Westphal hit two baskets, and nearly stole another inbounds pass, as the Suns finally lost by two. It was Havlicek's eighth NBA title.

Things would go downhill for the Celtics. Red Auerbach traded for Rowe and signed Sidney Wicks, reuniting the UCLA teammates, but they were never the same in the NBA. Wicks' former team, Portland, went to the NBA title without him (and with another UCLA guy, Bill Walton). Havlicek announced the 1977-78 season would be his last. The ill-fitted Celts started out 11-23 and Heinsohn was fired, replaced by his assistant Satch Sanders, who had left the Harvard job just that year. Havlicek scored 29 points in his final game.

After the season, Celtics' owner Irv Levin traded the franchise to John Y Brown for the Buffalo Braves, whom Levin then moved to San Diego to become the Clippers, because he wanted to live in California. Brown was a millionaire from Kentucky Fried Chicken, had owned the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA before the Braves, and was a notorious meddler with his teams. As part of the deal, the owners engineered a trade that sent Billy Knight, Bob McAdoo and Tiny Archibald (all of whom he had acquired in Buffalo) to Boston for Wicks, Kermit Washington, Kevin Kunnert, and Freeman Williams, who had been a number one pick of Boston's but never played for them. On paper it looked good, but in Red's office the ceiling was nearly destroyed by his head exploding. He had a plan, as usual, and he and Brown never could agree on who ran the club. Sanders was fired soon into the season, and Cowens took over as player-coach: he was simply too intense for that job on top of playing. Luckily, the Celts got to keep the extra draft pick they had, which became the rights to Larry Bird, drafted a year before he finished college. It's fascinating to consider what might have happened had Hondo been able to wait out and play one more season, then a final one with the rookie Bird. It would have been a handover of sorts, but the two of them would have clicked immediately.

In retirement, Havlicek moved into a country club resort where Bob Cousy had been comped, and he would get comped as well; he, Cousy, and former Knick Hall Of Famer Richie Guerin would golf. Havlicek carried a fishing rod, and, in some kind of breaking of golf protocol, often stop to cast into the water hazards if he saw signs of fish. Cousy also hosted a regular dinner; one week when Havlicek and his wife Beth didn't show up, he knew something was wrong. He died after suffering from Parkinsons, and catching pneumonia. It was hard to think of Hondo actually running down.

“The good players see the game in slow motion,” Havlicek once said, explaining the play when he stole the ball. “Actually, they see what’s going to happen before it actually happens.” For someone who moved at the pace he moved, it was easy to think of his seeing normal motion as being slow, and it may have explained in part why he was so calm, so pleasant, so friendly off the court. I've spent a month going through the various permutations of Havlicek's career in Boston, and I'm afraid my mind is still running. The long-time Globe sportswriter and basketball savant Bob Ryan called Havlicek Stole The Ball “a moment that is not lost in time”. Neither was John Havlicek.

1 comment :

Michael Kaloyanides said...

Great tribute, Michael. And thanks for all the amazing trivia surrounding Hondo’s career.