John Havlicek: A Farewell to Remember, 1978

[Looking back on John Havlicek’s illustrious 16-season NBA career, it’s hard to find a disparaging word about him in print. Neither will you find anything acerbic in this encomium published on the occasion of Hondo’s retirement in the magazine All-Star Sports, Basketball Issue, 1978-79. Journalist Barry Roth dishes the high praise in this article headlined, “After Havlicek What? A Problem for the Entire NBA.” Well, the NBA certainly overcame these two questions marks. But many vintage NBA fans, myself included, still miss watching number 17 delivering in the clutch.]


“Daddy, daddy, Chris is up in his room,” exclaimed John Havilcek’s young daughter Jill

“I went upstairs, and there he was. He’d gotten out all the old snapshots of me playing, and he was sobbing over them. I had to sit down and try to explain to him,” recalls the man that they called Hondo. “. . .  that [my retirement] is just not something to feel sad about, that I’d have more time to spend with him. But it’s just not the same.”

No, it’s not the same. And it will never be the same again, because John Havlicek no longer will be running up and down the hardwood courts of National Basketball Association arenas, a feat he performed with style and grace for 16 remarkable seasons.

It will not be the same for the league, because Havlicek was one of its true superstars, a player of unusual quality (he set numerous NBA records that may never be surpassed) and a person of unusual characteristics (no one can recall seeing him lose is cool or getting out of control).

It will not be the same for the Boston Celtics, the proud organization that once formed the most powerful dynasty in sports, a dynasty in which Havlicek played a most significant role. And it will not be the same for Havlicek, who began playing basketball at the age of five and played continuously for the next 33 years before calling it quits last April 9.

On that day, one day after his 38th birthday, before a capacity crowd of 15,276 at Boston Garden, the man referred to as the Celtics’ Pied Piper danced his last dance in the NBA. And, as could be expected, the dance turns into a gala celebration . . . a real ball.

Havlicek showed up at Boston Garden in a tuxedo . . . and what player in NBA history ever did that?

The festivities and ceremonies began before the start of the game against the Buffalo Braves—the 1,270thNBA game for Havlicek, more than any player in league history. They continued during halftime, and they culminated in the closing minutes of Boston’s 131-114 victory when the pumped-up Havlicek scored nine at his game-high 29 points before leaving with 15 seconds to play.

At that point, the fans gave him his 11th standing ovation of the emotion-packed afternoon. One ovation lasted 6 minutes, 45 seconds.

While the fans were applauding him loudly for the last time as a player, the sometimes blasé Celtics players also rose up for this occasion to honor their departing captain, the man who had been the heart and soul of the club for so many years, the man who never stopped running, even during his final season when the team lost a record 50 games.

Dave Bing, who replaced him in the game, hugged him long and hard. Don Chaney, a teammate for eight seasons, took Havlicek’s hand. At that point, Havlicek said, “I broke a little.”

“I tried hard not to break down,” he added afterward, “but it was not easy.”

“He was never in a hurry,” said Chaney. “He’d always take the time to help out. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more likable guy in my life. I think he could have played at least a couple more years.”

“I guess his body just told him it was time to go, but I hate to see it,” said Jo Jo White, who played nine seasons with Havlicek.

“My suggestion,” said Dave Cowens, the Celtic’s center for the past eight years, “is that they retire his number from the league. Don’t let anyone wear No. 17 again. That’s how much I think John’s meant to the NBA. Just take 17 and stash it up there in lights.”

“He just didn’t want to hang on for another year’s pay (close to $300,000),” explained Red Auerbach, the Celtics long-time coach and now the team’s general manager and president.

“If I had a son and he were like John, I’d be the happiest man in the world,” added Auerbach. 

“This career I’ve had has been one of happiness,” said Havlicek. “Everything a player could accomplish I’ve done.”

Did he think that he would do anything in the future as intensely as he had played basketball?

“No,” he replied.

So, the most intense moments of his life were over?

“Yes,” he answered.

“Wasn’t that sad?”

“No,” he said.

“I’m not going out sad,” continued Havlicek.  “I knew this would be my last season when I reported to training camp. I talked it over with Red when I came in. This is the way I wanted it. I’m ready to enter the next phase of my life.”

The next phase of Havlicek’s career included work as a color commentator on NBA playoff games last season, work as a manufacturer’s representative in his home state of Ohio, and according to Auerbach, a part-time position in the Celtics’ front office. 

“I guess I won’t know how much I’ll miss the game until next season (the 1978-79 campaign)” said Havlicek.

What will be missed about it all?

“I won’t miss running up and down the floor,” he said. “I’ll miss the stuff in the dressing room. The remarks—and that’s private—in here.”

While Havlicek contends he will miss the camaraderie, the players will miss their Marathon Man, their constant man in motion, the man who so often capped their patented fastbreaks.

He played on eight NBA championship teams. He played in a record-tying 13 All-Star games. He is the only player in NBA history to score at least 1,000 points in 16 consecutive seasons. He scored 26,395 points, third on the all-time list, behind Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, although he claimed “scoring points doesn’t enter my mind.” He was named to the NBA’s first or second All-Pro team 11 times. And he was chosen to the All-Defensive team nine times. 

But Havlicek’s value was not reflected in numbers, as impressive as they were. 

“He’s the ambassador of our sport,” said Jerry West, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and the player who had been third in NBA scoring until Havlicek surpassed him last season. “John always gave his very best every night and had time for everybody—teammates, fans, the press. He is simply the ideal everybody expects an athlete to be.

“He’s a freak,” continued West in a complementary, rather than derogatory, manner. “His endurance is incredible. There’s not a man in the NBA who can stay with John the entire game and survive. His body is made to go on forever.”

Perhaps so, but not in the NBA, even though he was the only Celtics’ player to play in all 82 games last season, including 41 minutes in the dramatic, emotion-packed final game. “Few athletes took care of their bodies as conscientiously as did Havlicek,” said Dr. Thomas M. Silva, the Celtics’ team physician. “And his body seldom betrayed him.”

“My game was based on speed and also on stamina, wearing the opposition down,” explained Havlicek. “I don’t know if you could call it overpowering them. Perhaps it’s better to say overrunning them. But I always found that you were only tired when you thought you were tired, so I made a habit of pushing myself when I started thinking about it. It increased my stamina and, truthfully, I can’t say I was ever really tired in my life.”

Havlicek might not have tired himself, but he certainly wore out his opponents. Bill Bradley, the former New York Knicks’ forward and now a New Jersey politician, used to regret the times he had to guard Havlicek, attempting to keep up with the Celtics’ perpetual man in motion. “I don’t think there will ever be another John Havlicek,” said Bradley, speaking the party line.

“Every coach tells his players to watch and learn from Havlicek,” said Rick Barry, this superstar forward of the Golden State Warriors. “Havlicek was the only true superstar.”

“Not many coaches have the opportunity to work with a guy of Havlicek’s caliber,” said envious Golden State coach Al Attles. “I, for one, will miss his style.”

“John is the one guy in the NBA who never made a mistake,” said Paul Westphal, Phoenix’ all-star guard.

“He was apple pie, hot dogs, and all that stuff,” said Bob Lanier, the hulking all-star center of the Detroit Pistons. “His greatest contribution was as a model for our kids.”

“The man has lived in an extremely clean life,” said  Tom “Satch” Sanders, Boston’s coach and Havlicek’s former roommate. “He has remained untouched by the broadening experiences of the world.”

Havlicek began his illustrious career with the Celtics in 1962 after he and teammates Jerry Lucas, a former NBA all-star, and Bobby Knight, Indiana University’s volatile coach, had led Ohio State to one NCAA championship and two second-place finishes.

“I remember the year I drafted him,” said Auerbach. “We had the last pick of the first round, and it came down to John, Chet Walker, and Terry Dischinger. Walker was the perfect forward—big, strong, good shot. But I took John because he played the Celtic game. He gave everything of himself on the court.”

Indeed he did, from his very first game to his very last. Although he was not the most-gifted player in the league, nor the most graceful nor even the fastest, Havlicek was relentless, persevering, determined, durable, and versatile. He could dribble the length of the court and drive straight on toward the basket or go around a defensive player for a reverse layup. He was an accurate jump shooter from almost any angle on the court. He could shoot with either hand. He was a pass master, often giving up easy shots to hit an open man. And although not exceptionally big or strong, he knew how to position himself for rebounds and keep the ball alive under the basket.

He was “Super John,” even if that nickname was not often applied to him.

Although his first two seasons in the league were quite productive, it was not until the 1964-65 playoffs, his third year in the NBA, that Havlicek begin getting national recognition. Specifically, it was in the Eastern Division final series against Philadelphia that his greatness was acclaimed nationwide. With five seconds to play and the Celtics trailing by one point in the seventh and deciding game, the 76ers had the ball out of bounds.

Hal Greer made the inbounds pass. Havlicek, ironically guarding Chet Walker, intercepted the ball, shoveled it off to Sam Jones, and Jones dribbled the length of the court for the winning basket. Boston then went on to outclass Los Angeles 4-1 in the final series, the Celtics’ seventh championship in a record string of eight.

Another significant championship for Havlicek came in 1969, because that was Bill Russell’s last season as a player (and coach) and also the final year for guard K.C. Jones. In the final series, again against Los Angeles, Havlicek scored 37 and 43 points in the first two games. “I think those were possibly the two best games I ever played,” said Havlicek, “and we lost both by close margins.”

But the Celtics, who had finished a distant fourth in the Eastern Division that season, did not lose the series. They won the next two games at home, tying the series, then split the next two games, and went to Los Angeles for the final game. Jack Kent Cooke, the Lakers’ feisty owner, had strategically placed balloons throughout the Forum and planned to have them unleashed when the Lakers won the title. 

The balloons remained in place. 

The Celtics, after losing a big halftime lead, hung on for a 108-106 victory. “I don’t know that I’ve ever run as hard as I did in that series,” said Havlicek. 

The following season, Havlicek was the team’s veteran, and he was not well-prepared for the situation. “I remember when we played an early exhibition game at Florida State,” said Havlicek. “We walked onto the court, and a referee asked, ‘Are these the Celtics?’ It was unnerving. I was at the peak of my physical abilities, but we lost so many veterans that we had to struggle.”

That season, under new coach Tom Heinsohn, the Celtics failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1949-50—20 years earlier. They missed again in 1970-71 and were eliminated in the second round the following two years, before winning their 12th championship in 1973-74 in a rousing seven-game final against the Milwaukee Bucks. 

No one was more pleased than Havlicek. In the dressing room after the final game, he went around hugging each player and said, “Thanks for doing this for me. This is the greatest one.”

There was one more championship to go. It came in 1976 when the Celtics beat the Phoenix Suns in a six-game series that featured what is considered one of the greatest—if not the greatest—game in NBA history, the triple overtime fifth game in which the Celtics prevailed 128-126. “It was the most-exciting game I’ve ever played,” offered the usually unemotional Havlicek.

Another playoff high came during the 1973 second-round series against the New York Knicks. Havlicek played one game with his injured right arm hanging limply at his side—and scored 18 points left-handed.

And then there was last season, the Celtics’ worst ever, tempered only by the fact that Havlicek announced his retirement on January 29, so that when Boston made its final tour of the league cities, the team’s poor record was overlooked while the opposing clubs and media poured out their affection for Hondo.

“The fact that we’re not winning has nothing to do with my retirement,” Havlicek emphasized, reiterating that he had planned it before the start of the season. But one Celtic player, who preferred not to be identified, said, “When you’re that age, who wants to be running around the country with a loser?” At that stage of your career, it gets harder to play every night . . . and when you’re losing, it makes it real hard. Especially when you’re used to winning like John is.”

It was an unfair comment, because it hurt Havlicek, perhaps more than anyone connected with the Celtics, to bow out on a loser and especially after so many upbeat seasons. It was just that he had made up his mind that it was going to be his final season—win or lose—and nothing was going to change that decision.

“What more is there to accomplish,” Havlicek said. “I think the day has come for me to spend more time with my family—and with any luck, get out without any serious injury.”

He did. But it was not his style to go out by having fans and players lavish gifts upon him. However, he decided to give the fans in the NBA cities the opportunity to know that he was making his last trip around the league because other Celtics in the past had done it that way. “It’s an established tradition around the Celtics . . . and that meant something to me,” said Havlicek. 

“Of course, it’s a gate hype,” he added. “You don’t want to brag about your career, fans have been favorable to me in every city, and the NBA has been great to me. It set me up for life. The fans are responsible and the franchises, too. If I can help out and get some more people in the buildings, I’m happy to do it.”

The fans came in great numbers to pay tribute to a player they all admired, a player they hated to see leave the game, a player who had been so great and so dedicated, a player who had been an NBA champion.

“A lot of people have trouble identifying with the great talents like Dr. J. and Kareem and the rest,” said Boston teammate Kermit Washington. “But they know and love Havlicek because John wasn’t born the best. He had to depend on hustle and determination and guts to get through all those years and win all those games. Fans relate to that.”

It may take the fans some time to realize that John Havlicek no longer is a member of the Celtics, but unfortunately, it is true.

“The time has come for him to retire,” said Beth Havlicek, John’s wife. “This is the right time.”

How sad.

[The Boston Globe’s Leigh Montville is one of my favorite sportswriters. And since we were lucky enough on April 9, 1978 to have Montville there to capture Havlicek’s goodbye, let’s reprise the moment in his own wonderful words, which ran on the Globe’s frontpage the following day.]

The long goodbye was stuck now at the end. It was like some 33 ½ LP, all the songs having been sung yesterday afternoon, the record still spinning . . . click, click . . . waiting for the man of the house to lift the arm and turn off the machine.

The man of the house didn’t want to move. Not yet. 

“The first day I came here, the locker room was . . . you remember the first locker room, don’t you?” John Havlicek said as he stood in his rented tuxedo pants in the present Boston Celtics locker room. “Remember how it was way down at the other end of the building? The ceiling was slanted, so Red had all the short guys dressing on one side. There weren’t any lockers like these either. Remember? Just nails to hang your clothes on.

“And the trainer’s room. Here I’d come from Ohio State, where they had all kinds of great equipment and trainers, and here . . .”

He talked, it seemed, just to talk. To procrastinate.

Friends and relations had gone to other places. There was a party waiting at Jason’s, a downtown discotheque. CBS television was long gone to the Master’s golf and to other dramas. The Braves were well on their way to Buffalo. The Celtics teammates, old and new, the ballboys, the gaggle of sportswriters and broadcasters, the 15,276 true believers, the tears, the emotions, the canoe from L.L. Bean, all the Pepsi-Cola a man can drink in a lifetime—everything, all the other parts of this mountain of a Boston Garden day for John Havlicek, had either left or been finished or carted away.

He still talked. To two sportswriters, to one radio guy, to two silent kids who somehow had cracked the locker room security, he talked.

“The first day I ever came here, I came with Jack (The Shot) Foley,” he said. “Remember Jack The Shot? We’d played in an all-star game in Kansas, and we both had been drafted by the Celtics, and we came in to talk contract.

“It was just this time of year. The Celtics were in the playoffs. The first place I ever ate in Boston, right across the street, Hayes and Bickford. We came in that day, and Red took us to the locker room. Frank Ramsey got up and shook my hand and said hello. I always remembered that and tried to do the same with anyone else who came in, to make them feel at home.

“The other guys, they were pretty busy. I understood. Do you know what game that was? The Sam Jones game, the game where Sam Jones picked up a chair and went after Wilt. It was the first professional game I’d ever seen in person. Another thing that happened, Guy Rodgers got into it with Jim Loscutoff. Loscutoff chased Rodgers right off the court, chased him around the press table. 

“It was a different game then, wasn’t it? More physical. I remember if teams would press us, Cousy would have some big guy set a pick and wham! Guys don’t do that anymore. The physical part’s gone. Guys just glide away from picks now on defense. Guys . . .”

He fidgeted. He stalled. He dressed, ever so slowly. One loafer. Talk. Another loafer. Talk. The tuxedo shirt. One stud. Talk. Another stud. Talk.

“You talk about physical,” he said. “I remember one time at Ohio State, Siegfried and I dove for the same loose ball. Arrived at the same time. Our heads collided. I was dizzy for two whole days . . .”

Even when he was fully dressed in his tuxedo—“I find I’ve worn one about three times every year”—even when his hair was blow-dried and combed perfectly, even when he was ready to leave, he didn’t leave. He started searching for a box. 

This one? Wrong size. This one? Wrong size. This one? 

This one. 

Very carefully, he loaded the cardboard box. A couple of gifts. A pile of newspapers with retirement articles. A final box score. A long string of telegrams . . . no, he started to read the string of telegrams. 

“From John Wayne,” he said. “Hondo’s watching . . . From the manager, even on that Ohio State team . . . From . . .”

He read every one before he folded the long piece of paper and put it inside the box. He checked his locker shelf for anything else that should be taken. He checked his hair again. He checked and checked until there was absolutely nothing left to check and absolutely nothing left to say.

“Well . . .” he said at 20 minutes to six on his last day of professional basketball on the second day of the 38thyear of his life.

He turned out all the lights in the room, just as equipment man Walter Randall had asked him to do. He picked up the box. He started to leave, then stopped, worried that he might have lost his championship ring. He found the ring in his pants pocket, put it on his finger, and stood at the open door in his tuxedo, the room black behind him.

“You should tell everyone that you’ve changed your mind,” he was told. “You should say you’ve decided to play another year. You should be like Gordie Howe, say that you’re going to keep playing so you can play with your son.”

“Geez, what would that take?” John Havlicek said. “Let’s see, he’s seven now and, if he was one of those guys who could come in and play right out of high school, that would be 12 years and . . . geez. I’d be 50 years old.”

Then, the man of the house closed the door. His retirement had begun.

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