The Pro’s Pros: Jerry West and John Havlicek, 1969

[During the 1960s, NBA fans liked to ask the hypothetical: Who would you take first at guard— Jerry West or Oscar Robertson? The consensus was Robertson, mainly because he was so smooth and effective. “Unstoppable” was the word of choice. 

But don’t tell that to the then-popular author Bill Libby, who’d just finished writing a book with West titled Mr. Clutch (which many of us later read, no, inhaled). West was his guy. In this article, Libby switched up the standard who-would-you-take-first question. First, he got rid of the question mark. Then he paired his man West with Boston’s John Havlicek, and as a statement of fact, declared them “the pro’s pros.” Or, as the article’s subhead describes his sentiments: “They aren’t big, they aren’t fast. They aren’t very colorful. But they get the job done! . . . the 1969 championship series was the stage on which the greatness of these heretofore unsung superstars glittered. It became somewhat of a personal duel between West and Havlicek, and both emerged as the pro’s pros.”

What follows is Libby’s thought on these two all-time greats, or pro’s pros, for Complete Sports’ 10th Annual Basketball magazine. The magazine features a color cover photo of West driving on Boston’s Larry Siegfried, not Havlicek. And it’s pasted just below.] 


For seven games they struggled with one another, sparking their respective teams with their spectacular skills and spirited performances, and when it was all over, John Havlicek, whose team had just won a trophy as the National Basketball Association’s playoff champions for 1969, went up to Jerry West, who had just been named the leading individual player of the series, and his eyes misted up, and he said simply, “I love you.”

West smile gratefully, wistfully, patted Havlicek on a shoulder and disappeared into the Los Angeles Lakers dressing room. This was the conclusion of West’s ninth year in pro ball. It was the sixth time his Laker teams had reached the playoff finals against the Celtics and the third time they had carried them to seven games. Each time they had lost. This was the finish of Havlicek’s seventh year in the NBA. It was the sixth time his Celts had won the championship.

The noise of the celebration in the Celtic dressing room banged through the thin walls into the silent depression of the Laker quarters. West sat awhile with an injured leg propped up on a stool until the sounds of victory got to him, and he said, “I can’t take this anymore” and vanished into the showers. Almost an hour later, after all the other players had gone, West came back into the dressing room. His eyes were red. He had been crying. He shrugged and put on his civvies and walked upstairs to the wake. Meanwhile, Havlicek beaming in the soft warmth of the Southern California evening, stood outside the Forum and signed autographs.

It had been one of the classic matchups of sports history and should not be forgotten. Not the battle between the two teams who have dominated pro basketball for a decade, because that is an uneven struggle which always produces the same result. No matter which coaches and players come and go, no matter what happens during the season or from game to game of the playoffs, Boston always wins. Usually it has been close, but it is as if it belongs to them, the Celtics. But the individual duels of the great stars over the years—Russell vs. Chamberlain, for example—are something else, and this one—West vs. Havlicek—was something else, indeed, one of the most dramatic duels in memory.

Individually, West won, which was not surprising. He is the better of the two, quite possibly, as this writer and many others now believe, the best ever to play the game. But Havlicek battled him to the wire in this classic confrontation. And if he is not, as West is, an all-time all-star, he is perhaps the most underrated star ever to play this game. He never even has been a first all-star any year of his career. Yet there is not a more valuable forward, nor many more valuable players at any position in the game today. Strangely, West, too is underrated, playing for years in the shadow of the more spectacular Elgin Baylor, playing in an era of domination by big men like Russell and Chamberlain.

There are, in fact, many areas of similarity between West and Havlicek. Both are small men for their positions. At 6-feet-3 and 190 pounds, West is a small guard. At 6-feet-5 and 205 pounds, Havlicek is an average-sized guard and a small forward, which is where he plays most often these days. Havlicek says he makes up for his lack of size with his large hands. “They’re unusually large for a man my size and allow me to control the ball as few men my size can,” he points out.

West feels he compensates for his lack of size with his long arms. “They’re much longer than usual for men as tall or even taller than me and enable me to get to the ball, to steal balls, to get shots off in a way that others my height can’t,” he comments.

Havlicek cannot compare to West as a shooter, though John is an outstanding scorer, too. West, perhaps the most graceful performer in sports, has a jump shot that is smooth as silk and seldom blocked, and he was able to drive on Boston’s giant genius of defense, Russell, sinking reverse layups in the last playoffs as no player before him ever dared to attempt. Throughout his pro career, he has sank more than 47 percent of his shots and averaged more than 27 points a game. He holds the NBA records for guards with 63 points in a single regular-season contest and 53 points in a playoff game. Havlicek, who busts in for rugged jumpers or drives, has connected on more than 42 percent of his shots and averaged 19 points a game, many of them as a part-timer. He has scored as many as 43 points in both a regular-season and a playoff game.

Neither is a natural-born stylist, but mastered the details of their profession through concentration, determination, and practice. There are no better all-round players today. Both get a large share of rebounds for men of their size and position. Both have become superb ballhandlers and playmakers, who averaged seven assists a game each down the stretch. Both are tremendous defensive performers, though this attracts little attention. If they are not too valuable to risk wearing out or fouling out by being used on rival stars, they would be rated the best defenders at their positions. West is unorthodox. Blessed with the quickest reflexes in sports, he lets his men by him, then darts in to defeat them. Havlicek is orthodox, staying on top of his foes, wearing them down.

West cannot compare to Havlicek in the matter of durability. Jerry’s nose has been broken eight or nine times. His hands have been broken twice. He has pulled or torn almost every muscle in his body. He has missed more than 100 games in his pro career, which depresses him deeply. “I’ve never admitted it before, but I guess I have to say, I’m injury prone. There is no other logical explanation,” he says sadly. Still, when he plays, he plays more than 40 minutes of the NBA’s 48-minute game. And he has missed playing in only one playoff game.

Havlicek is astonishingly tough. He has missed only 17 games in his pro career. Though “Super Sub” most of his career, he usually plays regularly during playoffs and averaged an unsurpassed 47 minutes of each playoff game last season. “I have a system,” John smiles. “I always go as hard as I can for as long as I can. If I start to feel tired, I talk myself out of it.”

Both are intense competitors. To say such is to use a cliché used too often about too many. The fact is, under pressure, some choke up, some do as well as they usually do, only a handful do better. West and Havlicek are among the select few. West is called “Mr. Clutch.” Probably no athlete in the history of sports has won as many games with key plays in the waning moments. He is the only player in the history of the NBA to average more points in the playoffs than he did in the regular seasons every season of his pro career. Havlicek missed the first couple of seasons, but has accomplished this five seasons in a row now, too. And he has won far more than his share of games with last-second baskets.

Together, they typify what is best about the pro athlete. They are quiet and shy, straight and modest individuals who play hard and brilliantly every game and are at their best when it counts the most. They are superstars and super hustlers, men who made themselves what they are today, small in size, but large in spirit and enormous in performance.

They arrived at their dramatic playoff duel through circuitous routes.

West is a country boy from West Virginia, nicknamed “Zeke From Cabin Creek,” who still speaks with a slight southern accent. As a boy, he was tall and skinny and short on clothes and cars and almost painfully shy. He flopped at other sports, but set state high school records in basketball and led his team to the state championship. That was his last team title. He led West Virginia University to its greatest college triumphs, but fell one point short in an NCAA championship game. Snapped up quick in pro ball, his Lakers three times have fallen just two points short in NBA title games. 

The years have matured and altered him. West will not play if he is not paid at least $100,000 this season. He has sharpened and polished. And he has been accorded almost every individual honor a player can achieve. But he carries around with him the burdens of his team’s ultimate defeats.

“I sometimes think I’d give up everything I’ve gotten to have been part of a world championship team,” he sighs wistfully. “There are many good reasons for playing the game, but winning is the only one that counts. No one wins games alone. I used to blame myself for every defeat. I don’t anymore. I feel like I’ve done almost all I could most of the time. But I can’t help feeling maybe I could have done just a little more sometimes, when a little more is all that was needed. I’ve gotten so much out of life. I can’t really say I’m not happy. And yet, I can’t help but feel that I’ll never really be happy until my team wins the NBA title. And now, it looks like we may never do it.”

There was still the season ahead, of course. As always, a new season, a new chance. The powerful Lakers must be considered contenders again, with a new, but brilliant, coach, Joe Mullaney, taking charge of West, Wilt, Elgin Baylor, and the rest. But one cannot blame West if he feels time is running out on him and he is running out of chances. This will be his 10th and probably his last year as a player. An incredible career is concluding.

Havlicek is a Midwesterner from Bridgeport, Ohio, it was a high school star in football as a quarterback and later had a trial, and almost made the grade, as a flanker with the Cleveland Browns. He did not play football at Ohio State, but he helped the Buckeyes to an NCAA basketball crown. Unlike Jerry at West Virginia, John had considerable help at Ohio State and the persons of Jerry Lucas and Larry Siegfried, who also have become pro stars. Lucas was the bigger star in college, of course, snatched by Cincinnati’s Royals in the pro draft. Every other pro team had a shot at Havlicek before Boston took him as the ninth pick in 1962. Some who were taken ahead of him, such as Lucas, Dave DeBusschere, Zelmo Beaty, Len Chappell, and LeRoy Ellis, are still in the NBA, though none has surpassed him in pro play.

Had the Lakers taken Havlicek instead of Ellis, they almost certainly would have won that title which has eluded them, probably several times. Many made a mistake on “Hondo,” as he is called, though Boston manager Red Auerbach has explained, “He was well-scouted and highly-regarded by all the teams, but all were looking for big men that year, and there was doubt John at 6-feet-5 was quick enough to play guard or big enough to play a corner in pro ball.” Today, Los Angeles general manager Fred Schaus says, “John at 6-feet-5 is too strong for most guards and too quick for most forwards. He is uniquely versatile and valuable. He is one of the big reasons Boston has won so many titles.”

Havlicek himself says, “We’ve won titles because we’re a team. Bill Russell has been the big man, of course. Without him, no titles. He has been the heart and backbone of our club. Yet it has been a club, a united effort all the way. The Celtics always have played unselfishly, always willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team. Despite all we’ve won, we’ve always stayed home hungry for more, and we’ve never been outhustled. We play with the confidence, of course. When you’ve won as much as we have, you can play with confidence. This gives us an edge over our rivals. I feel I’ve done my part. I know I’ve contributed to the success of our team. That makes me a happy person. Winning is what this game is all about. When you’ve won as much as we have, I have to be a proud and happy guy.”

So, Havlicek, a $65,000 a year man, has, in a way, had much more than West ever can have.

At first, Havlicek had to content himself to making the scene as a bit player, though he played feature bits. Red Auerbach had success using Frank Ramsey off the bench as a sixth man to move in and ignite the Celtics. As Ramsey was going out and Havlicek was coming in, John was installed in Frank’s old role. He was so successful at it, years passed before he could escape it. John is a cool cat who takes things, including games, in stride. He shrugged and said, “Whether I start or come off the bench makes no difference to me.”

By contrast, when Schaus decided to break in West gradually by using him sparingly in his first pro season. Jerry, a tense, nervous performer, writhed in despair on the bench and has never quite forgiven Fred for it, though he has played regularly, of course, ever since. “I just can’t stand to sit on the bench and watch others play,” Jerry, now 31 years of age, admits. “That’s what has made the injuries doubly hard to take. I have to play.”

As the years and expansions have thinned the Boston roster of its superstars, Havlicek, now 29, finally has moved into a regular role. Because Boston almost always won, no one criticizes the Celts for having held Havlicek back so long. Yet, the way he plays full-time, has made it clear the Celts could have gotten even more out of John and been even stronger by giving him his head all these seasons.

“It’s not that I’ve improved, but the fact that I’m playing more that has improved my record,” Havlicek says. “Playing more, I accomplish more. It’s just that simple.” No one plays more than Havlicek. He frequently plays every minute of a 48-minute game without breaking a sweat. He may be the best-conditioned athlete in the league. “I don’t work at it. It just comes natural to me,” he shrugs. A rival says, “He’s not a man, he’s a machine.”

West says, “Havlicek is one of the finest players and greatest competitors I’ve ever seen. He’s enormously effective. He plays the whole game, and he’s tireless. He hasn’t always had real good shooting percentages, but I’ve never noticed because he always seems to be showing up to hit four our five in a row against us, and he never seems to miss when it’s important. Sometimes, I think the Celtics are lucky. I guess I like to think that. When it comes to a big game, they throw up some kind of strange shot, and it always goes in for them. You have to give them credit. They’re winners. Russell has been the big reason. He’s by far the most valuable player the game has ever had. But Havlicek is another big reason. He’s unusually valuable. I really admire him.”

Havlicek says, “West is the greatest. You have to say that. With all the injuries he’s had and all the tough final losses his team has taken, he still gives you everything he has every minute of the time, and when it comes down to the last minutes that count the most, there never has been a better man. We’ve had more of a team, a better team than L.A. all these years. The Lakers have had West and Baylor. Last season, they also had Wilt. But they weren’t a team like we were. But it wasn’t West’s fault. Like always, he did everything he could. No single man could do more. If there could be anything to make me sad about winning, it’s that a man like Jerry West has to lose.”

West didn’t give in gracefully. He carried the Lakers on his back almost single-handedly most of the playoffs. 

They had three of the greatest players the game ever has known and so were not supposed to lose any game any time. But all three were aging and prone to injuries, and there was no quality depth or teamwork to produce an endless stream of victories. With Wilt, the Lakers were torn by dissension, as all Wilt’s teams usually are.

At midseason, an uneasy truce was reached. Under a beleaguered coach, Bill van Breda Kolff, who would quit when the season ended, the Lakers slowly began to gather momentum. They won the pennant breezing. Then, in the playoffs, they began to struggle. Wilt, a moody man, often played indifferently. Baylor, a tired man, often play badly. They did reach the finals against Boston, but in those finals, West had to work wonders with only occasional support from others.

Meanwhile, Boston had struggled through its worst season in years. Then, in the playoffs, they came to life, as though they had been saving themselves. Russell no longer was the dominant force he had been. Sam Jones was only good in short spurts now. But Havlicek had just reached his peak as a player, and he had talented support to complement his driving leadership. He threw in an incredible last-minute basket to KO the Knicks and land the Celtics in the final. A duel for the ages, West vs. Havlicek, took shape.

The series opened in Los Angeles. In the first game, Havlicek threw in 53. He was all over the court, stealing the ball, making pinpoint passes with it, scoring with it. The Lakers won. In the second game, Havlicek outscored West, 43-41, but Baylor had his only good game of the series, and the Lakers won another.

The scene shifted to Boston. Havlicek was assigned to guard West, and he held him to 24 points while scoring 34 himself. Boston won. But, as West himself says, the really great shooters can only be stopped only by themselves. No single player can stifle Jerry. If he is not cold, he will score.

Havlicek, on the other hand, is not a really great shooter, and he can be defensed. A Laker spare, especially skilled at defense, Keith Erickson, was assigned to hound Havlicek. In the fourth game, while West was netting 40, Havlicek, though playing well as usual, settled for 28. However, other Lakers played badly, and with Sam Jones hitting one of those “lucky shots,” Boston pulled it out at the wire.

At this point, the series was tied, and team honors hung in the balance. Individual laurels, for whatever they were worth, clearly lay between West and Havlicek. However, helping their team win was all that really mattered, they said. Still, the press, public, and even the players themselves debated the issue, which added spice to the series. For some, long after the team details had been forgotten, the individual battle would be remembered.

In L.A., West outscored Havlicek, 39-18, and with Wilt playing his one great game of the finals, the Lakers won. However, in the final moments, West pulled a muscle in his leg and limped off court. The Laker dressing room and flight back to Boston were unusually somber and pessimistic under the circumstances. In old Boston Gardens, West, though limping badly, outscored Havlicek, 26-19, but the Celts outscored the Lakers.

Back in L.A. for the final, the Lakers iced champagne for toasts, hired a marching band to march, and strung balloons from the rafters to be released at the moment of victory. It never came. Playing in pain when he should not have been playing at all, West outscored Havlicek, 42-26, but the Lakers fell apart around Jerry and, despite a late rally, fell short. The champagne grew warm. The balloons went flat. The band packed up and went home quietly.

West was named MVP, a unique honor for a loser. “They should have given it to Havlicek,” West said. “He was the guts of the winning effort,” Havlicek said. “West deserved it, win or lose. They should give him the whole building.” Then, a loser who won, he went up to West, a winner who lost, and he said, “I love you.”

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