While watching the impressive playoff run of the 2010 Boston Celtics team, I was reminded of the days when I first became a fan of the team. It was back in the early 70''s and they were still playing in the old Boston Garden. I immediately took a liking to the unusual parquet floor that was the signature of the old garden. But the main attraction of the team in those days was a player who would one day be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and be chosen as one of the top 50 players in NBA history. The fact that this player was also a Buckeye hero was the clincher on the deal. I am speaking, of course, of the great John Havlicek.
John J. "Hondo" Havlicek was born in Martins Ferry, OH and starred in football, baseball, and basketball at nearby Bridgeport High School. He chose Ohio State but decided not to play football, but despite that he was eventually drafted by the Cleveland Browns when he graduated in 1962. He played on the baseball team but spent most of his energies on basketball, where he would become an All-American. Havlicek was one of the key players on Ohio State's only national championship team as a sophomore in 1960. As a Buckeye, he was mostly overshadowed by teammate Jerry Lucas (Lucas was named tournament MVP in 1960), but the "team first" mentality would serve him well in the NBA. He finished his OSU career averaging 14.6 points per game and the team had a record of 78-6 while he played there.
Havlicek was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 1962 NBA draft. With the Celtics, he did not start right away, but came off the bench as a "sixth man". As it turned out, he excelled in this role. One of Havlicek's most impressive traits was his incredible endurance. He was known for wearing out his opponents with his relentless energy and movement. Because of this, whenever he came into the game, he injected a fresh dose of fire to the team. At 6'5" and 205 pounds, he was able to swing from guard to forward with no problems. His versatility made him that much more difficult for opponents to handle. He was too big and physical for most guards, and too quick for most forwards. He did not shoot a high percentage, but had a knack for the clutch play. One clutch play in particular defined him in the minds of many fans and commentators.
In the 7th game of the 1965 Eastern Conference finals, Boston led Philadelphia 110-109 with 5 seconds left. But as legendary center Bill Russell went to inbound the ball, his pass struck a wire supporting the basket and that gave the 76ers another chance. Hal Greer attempted an inbound pass to Chet Walker, but Havlicek, who was guarding Walker, spun and intercepted the pass and immediately tipped it over to teammate Sam Jones, thus sealing the victory and a spot in the finals for Boston. Celtics announcer Johnny Most immortalized the play with his famous call "Havlicek stole the ball!" The Celtics would go on to win the NBA championship, the 3rd of 4 consecutive titles in Havlicek's first 4 seasons.
For his career, Havlicek was part of 8 NBA championship teams (second only to teammates Russell and Jones, who both played on 9) and was MVP of the Finals in 1974. He was an All-Star 13 times (in 16 seasons) and All-NBA first team 4 times. His number 17 was retired by the Celtics as soon as he retired, and he was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1984. He averaged 20.8 points per game in his career while finishing with a total of 26,395 points, making him the Celtics' all-time leading scorer. In 1996, Havlicek was chosen for the NBA's 50th Anniversary Team, and the 1964-65 team was named one of the 10 best NBA teams of all-time. He was the first player ever to score 1000 points for 16 consecutive seasons. At the time that he retired in 1978, he was the NBA's all-time leader in games played, and was also in the top 10 in points and minutes played. All this was achieved while playing the first half of his career as a non-starter.
But his exploits on the court do not tell the whole story. Havlicek was as fine an ambassador of the game as you could ask for. NBA legend Jerry West once said "The guy is the ambassador of our sport. John always gave his very best every night and had time for everybody-teammates, fans, the press." Teammate Dave Cowens suggested that the NBA should retire the number 17 throughout the league. And former coach Red Auerbach said "If I had a son like John I'd be the happiest man in the world." For his excellence both on and off the field, John Havlicek is one of the greatest of all Buckeye legends.