Krátka sezóna: Havlicekov posledný rok v NBA

1978hondo

KRÁTKA SEZÓNA
Diár Bostonu Celtics, 1977/1978
© 1979 John Powers

-John Havlicek, 1977/78-

Zistil som, že nikto v tíme ho nevolá Hondo. „Volajú ma rôzne,” vysvetľoval. „Cappy [pretože bol kapitán]. ‘Cek. Sidney [Wicks] ma začal volať Alexander Čechov.” Väčšinou bol ‘Cek.

-September-

Havlicek počas leta podstúpil vysiľujúcu operáciu slepého čreva a kamaráti, ktorí ho videli, hovoria, že vyzerá pochudnutý a uťahaný. Navyše, je nepodpísaný.

Havlicek, dobre platená inštitúcia majúca 37, nemal problém s ničím okrem predstavy dvojfázových tréningov. Každý si ho predstavoval sediaceho pri pobreží na loďke so svojím rybárskym výstrojom, až do konca nasledujúceho týždňa, keď sa zahlási v bezchybnej forme s plným kufrom lufár dravých.

28. september
Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts

Jeho vizitka leží na vrchu radu skriniek v šatni – široký modrý denimový kovbojský klobúk s vrcholom ozdobeným rybárskymi návnadami. Kapitán sedí na hornom poschodí v konferenčnej miestnosti športového oddelenia v tréningovom úbore . . . starý dres číslo 17 a čierno-zelené tepláky vyhrnuté po kolená. O pár minút začne tlačová konferencia s ním v hlavnej úlohe. „Ale najskôr,” hovorí John Havlicek, „si chcem prečítať ten kontrakt a potom chcem zavolať Larrymu [Fleisherovi] a prečítať mu to. Len kvôli akýmkoľvek zmenám, pridaniam a vymazaniam. Chápete.” Proste Havlicek tak ako ho poznáme . . . vždy precízny.

„V skrini doma je všetko jeho oblečenie zavesené polovicu palca od seba,” povedala mi Beth Havliceková, keď som ju požiadal o svedectvo znalca. „Všetko od skrinky s liekmi cez šuplíky na bielizníku po garáž je udržiavané týmto spôsobom.”
„John sa asi už tak narodil . . . Nemyslím si, že je to niečo, čo by ste sa mohli naučiť. On by chcel, aby boli také aj deti. Domnievam sa, že si myslí, že to je jeho najväčšie zlyhanie.”
„Hovoríte, že ony nie sú také?” divil som sa.
„Kto je?” pokrčila plecami, v pobavenom údive.
Po celé roky sa Havlicek zobúdzal v Portlande a Atlante a Indianapolise a čítal rovnaké články, takmer odsek po odseku, v novinách Oregonian a Constitution a Star. Bionický Celtic, písali. Pľúca také veľké, že potrebujú dve röntgenové snímky. Pulz taký nízky, že je sotva nažive. Žiadne potné žľazy, o ktorých sa dá hovoriť. Články však nikdy nespomínajú Havlicekovu skriňu – niežeby sme od nich mohli očakávať, že o nej vedia. Avšak práve toto bolo skutočným tajomstvom Hondovskej športovej dlhovekosti.
Havlicekova skriňa a stravovací rituál a tyrkysová misa s ľadom a symetrický kufor. Jednoduchosť je tým pravdivým dôvodom, spolu so zdravým rozumom, disciplínou, plánovaním vopred a štipkou excentricity. Určite ste už čítali narodeninové pocty o 100-ročných írskych babičkách, ktoré sa len držia svojho rozvrhu dňa – porobiť si domáce práce, zjesť ľahký obed, povedať ruženec a dať si hlt whisky pred uložením sa na odpočinok. John Havlicek má v sebe viac než štipku vdovy O’Reillyovej.
Robte všetko rozumne, taká je myšlienka. A robte to rovnakým spôsobom každý deň vášho života. „Ako keď si ľudia vyzliekajú bundy a jeden rukáv je správne, ale druhý je naopak,” hovorí mi Havlicek, vykladajúc jeho 95 téz. „Prečo ju nevyzliecť tak, aby boli oba rukávy správne, takže keď si ju idete obliecť naspäť, je už celá správne? Alebo sveter, stiahnuť si ho naopak. Dáva to zmysel?”
„Robíš všetko týmto spôsobom?” spýtal som sa ho. „Paušálne?”
„Jasné,” hrdo prikývol. „Keď som bol slobodný, nikdy som nenechal tanier až do toho bodu, kedy by bol schopný skôrnatieť. Vždy som ho opláchol, takže sa potom ľahšie čistil. Alebo skladanie uterákov. Do toho som blázon. Alebo kufre – obzvlášť ten druh, ktorý majú Celtics. Ak si ho zbalíte poriadne, potom ak sa nejako stlačí alebo doňho niečo treskne, vnútri ostane všetko súmerné.”
„Ďalšia vec, ktorá ma otravuje, je to, keď ľudia použijú zubnú pastu a nevymyjú ju z drezu. Hovoril som ti už, ako som si odtrhol končeky prstov na Ohio State? Niekto sa holil a nechal fúzy v umývadle. Ja som sa tak nahneval, že som prešiel k zásobníku na papierové uteráky, siahol dovnútra po hrsť a . . .”
Anektody mali tendenciu označiť ho ako kríženca medzi Pánom Whippleom a vaším učiteľom hygieny zo siedmeho ročníka. Do čerta, bol to proste excentrik. Čo je presne to, prečo Havlicek zvládol vytrvať 15 rokov, večer po večeri, v najnáročnejšom športe, aký bol kedy vymyslený, a prečo podpisuje na ďalšiu sezónu.
Áno, usporiadal si šampóny, deodoranty, oleje, krémy, pleťové vody, rôzne náradia a poštu od fanúšikov v premyslenom poradí nad jeho miestom v šatni arény Boston Garden. Ale taktiež poznal požiadavky, obmedzenia a možnosti svojho vlastného tela lepšie než ktorýkoľvek chlap, ktorý hrával basketbal.
Možno bol jediným hráčom v NBA, ktorý si skladal ponožky na vešiak. Ale takisto poznal pravidlá, palubovku, hráčov a vzťahy medzi všetkými tromi lepšie ako ktokoľvek, kto kedy žil. Takto raz prišiel k záveru, že vymedzené územia v aréne Spectrum vo Philadelphii boli o dve stopy užšie – po tom, čo tam hralo šesť tímov a nevšimlo si žiadny rozdiel. Takto získal loptu pred dvanástimi rokmi, dokonca otočený k akcii chrbtom.
Havlicek vedel, že Hal Greer mal iba päť sekúnd na vhodenie lopty, v duchu si počítal . . . 1001, 1002, 1003 . . . a inštinktívne sa pohol.
Ale tým, že sa zaoberáte hlavne jeho idiosynkráciami, by vám mohla uniknúť tá ozajstná šírka a hĺbka, ktorá ich robila pôsobivými. Tam, kde sa väčšina z nás snaží vypratať si kút a žiť v ňom, hromadiac okolo nás chaos a neporiadok ako špinavý sneh, Havlicek zvládol rozložiť si svoj každodenný život do stovky oddelených a dôležitých segmentov a zaobchádzať so všetkými rovnako.
Usúdil, že týmto spôsobom je to ľahšie. Všetko, čo potreboval, bol zmysel rozoznať, čo je nevyhnutné a sebaovládanie vykonávať to deň čo deň, dokým sa to nevyvinulo z rutinnej úlohy cez zvyk až do inštinktu.
„Na výške,” povedala mi Beth Havliceková, „mal John po celý rok pocit, že pitie koly znižuje jeho efektívnosť. Takže ju vyradil úplne. Ak by mu niekto povedal, že má cukrovku a už viac nemôže jesť sladkosti – nikdy –, už by sa žiadnej nikdy nedotkol. Má takýto druh disciplíny.”
Čo nás privádza k Historke o tyrkysovej mise, azda najfundamentálnejšej anekdote o Havlicekovi-ako-Sparťanovi. V 1976 si na začiatku playoff roztrhol šľachu na pravom chodidle; povedali mu, „Ľaduj si to a možno . . .”
A tak si Havlicek zaobstaral tyrkysovú plastovú misu z lacného obchodu s rozličným tovarom, vysypal do nej vodu a ľad („dve Hondove priehrštia,” povedal) a máčal si tú nohu zhruba šesť krát dlhšie ako mu navrhovali. Nakoniec zmeškal len tri zápasy, hral 53 minút v slávnom finálovom zápase proti Phoenixu a získal pre seba prsteň číslo osem.
O tomto bola tá myšlienka, alebo nie? Robili ste to, čo bolo potrebné, nezáleží na tom, do akej miery to bolo neortodoxné. Tri roky skôr, keď mal zranené pravé rameno v sérii s New Yorkom, Havlicek proste vymyslel repertoár striel ľavou rukou a pomohol Celtics zostať nažive.
A minulú sezónu, keď sa mu nazhromaždila tekutina v ľavom kolene – to, ktoré Havlicek používal na nájazdy do koša, skákanie, všetko – a nemohol strieľať normálne ukážkové strely z jumpu, vynašiel strely, pri ktorých vypadal ako baletný tanečník Nureyev.
„Streľba ľavou rukou cez hlavu, pravou rukou cez hlavu, dopich lopty po odskoku z jednej nohy,” povedal by vám, chichotajúc sa nad tým, aké to bolo bláznivé. „Jump shot po odraze z polovičnej nohy a bez rovnováhy.” A predsa všetky fungovali, možno preto, že Havlicek vedel, že budú musieť – jedného dňa – a v skutočnosti niekoľko z nich skúšal vo svojom voľnom čase. Viac než ktokoľvek od doby Hippokratesa doviedol filozofiu malej prevencie do jej logického zakončenia.
Nauč sa, ako robiť všetko, rozhodol sa. Predvídaj čokoľvek. Možno je len reinkarnovaným Paulom Revereom, pracujúcim len niekoľko blokov od svojej starej usadlosti v štvrti North End. Až na to, že Havlicek by vedel, že Briti nakoniec prídu – pravdepodobne backdoorom – a uzavrel by každú middlesexskú cestu v roku 1770.
Dnes by pravdepodobne vedel naspamäť odrecitovať každý detail z jeho nového kontraktu . . . ale stojí za to zavolať do Manhattanu, nie?
Akonáhle zavesí, svetlá sa zapnú a kamery zaostria; Red Auerbach aj Havlicek obaja hovoria o tom, ako sú potešení z tejto najnovšej jednoročnej dohody, a potom Havlicek vybehne na palubovku a absolvuje tréning s mužstvom . . . vo forme a mentálne pozorný. Aká apendektómia?
„Mal si počuť tie fámy,” hovorím mu neskôr, po tom, čo sa osprchuje. „Že vraj ti museli ísť dnu cez chrbát, zlomili tri skalpely na tvojej muskulatúre, museli ti to vytrhnúť vlastnými holými rukami.”
„V skutočnosti,” hovorí Dave Cowens, škeriac sa, „museli ísť dnu cez jeho krk.”
Havlicek sa uškŕňa. „Prečo si mi nezavolal? Aký si to do pekla reportér? Naozaj, nebol to typ zranenia, ktoré je skutočne vážne. Ak by to bola noha, členok, rameno . . . ale slepé črevo nie je niečo, čo potrebuješ.”

-Október-

4. október
Portland, Maine

Čaká na nás stôl v reštaurácii na prístavisku a prinesené sú parné hrnce a pivo. Havlicek ochutnáva Heineken a spokojne povzdychne.
„Toto je dobré,” prehlási. „Holandské. Viete, Francúzi vyrábajú pivo, ktoré nestojí za nič. Ale ak sa niekedy dostanete do Pobrežia Slonoviny, vyskúšajte pivo Flag. Chutilo by vám.”
Napokon preňho donesú masívneho takmer dvojkilového homára a fotoaparát, a Havliceka si vyfotia s podbradníkom okolo krku, roztopeným maslom pred ním a usmievajúcimi sa čašníčkami na obidvoch stranách.

Jim Ard a Havlicek, obidvaja vášniví rybári, začínajú rozprávať o treskách škvrnitých a morských jazykoch a treskách obecných a kde ich môžete nájsť pri pobreží Nového Anglicka.

18. október
San Antonio, Texas

Bolo po desiatej v čase, keď sme dorazili do Hiltonu, a odpoveďou je mexické jedlo. Päť-minútový dril, Kapitán nariaďuje. Otvoriť dvere, hodiť tašky do izby, strhnúť si kravatu, stretnúť sa vo vestibule. Vychádzame na ulicu South Alamo a Ard, Cedric Maxwell, Curtis Rowe, Dave Bing, Havlicek a ja sa napcháme do dvoch taxíkov a smerujeme do Mi Tierra, nonstop („Nikdy nezatvárame”) kaviarne a pekárne v strede starého trhu s plodinami.

Havlicek, na druhom konci stola, sa hihúňa. „Počul som, že [bývalý hráč NBA Reggie Harding] dvakrát zašiel do miestneho obchodu, aby ho vykradol,” hovorí, „a majiteľ doňho dva razy strelil. ‘Prečo sa tam potom stále vraciaš,’ pýtali sa ho. ‘Lebo viem, že ma nezabije,’ povedal im.”

21. október
Houston, Texas
Celtics 0 výhier – 1 prehra

Kapitán vie, kde chce večerať. „Elan,” rázne povie taxikárovi a behom desiatich minút sme štyria z nás vyložení pri dverách najexkluzívnejšieho večere-a-disco podniku v meste.
Je len pre členov, za niekoľko stoviek dolárov ročne, ale Havlicek kráča priamo k recepčnému pultu a skúša pokorne sebaistý prístup, zatiaľ čo Ard, Kevin Stacom a ja sa hodne namáhame zostať nenápadní.
„Prepáčte, ale sme tu s profesionálnym tímom z Bostonu a pár dní tu zostávame,” začína Havlicek, jemne. „A boli sme zvedaví, či by sme možno mohli využiť vašu pohostinnosť dnes večer . . . snáď si dať nejaké jedlo, vypiť trochu vínka a popočúvať nejakú hudbu. Mohol by som tu nechať meno a hádam, ak máte voľný stôl . . . meno je Havlicek. H-A-V . . .”
Hosteska, dvadsiatnička, prekrásna blondínka, odrazu vzhliadne hore. John Havlicek, jej ústa hovoria, bez slov. Trvá možno tridsať sekúnd, kým dostaneme stôl pre štyroch a rundu drinkov. Odporúčací list od samotného H. L. Hunta nemohol byť viac efektívnejší.
Havlicek sa pozerá na prostredie naokolo – odkrytá tehla, všade visiace rastliny, hrubé obrúsky, kvalitné striebro a krištáľ –, vidí na menu slimáka a stejk, kývne hlavou, spokojný. Miluje život na ceste.

Aj po šestnástich rokoch je pre Havliceka stále vzrušujúce vyraziť si pozrieť Skalnaté vrchy alebo chytať oregonské pstruhy. Starostlivo si usporiada deň na jednodňovej zastávke v New Orleans tak, aby mohol mať veľkolepý obed v reštaurácii Galatoire’s, polnočné šišky a kávu v Café du Monde, a ešte stihnúť aj predzápasové zdriemnutie. Toto viedlo k takým inováciám ako dvojminútový dril po príchode do hotela a k inšpirácii pre NBA reštauráciu týždňa, minirecenzii, ktorú zaraďujem medzi moje nedeľňajšie basketbalové poznámky.
Bežne si Havlicek pýta teľacinu . . . „Ak by som šiel na šibenicu a mohol mať jedno posledné jedlo,” premýšľa nahlas, „bol by to v podstate nejaký druh teľacieho mäsa, na taliansky spôsob.”
Ale dnes večer vidí 23-uncovú kotletu a rozhodne sa, že to pôjde dobre so slimákom a karafou červeného vína. Nakoniec máme všetci stejk, plný stôl cibuľovej polievky, marinovaného sleďa a špenátový šalát umiestnený tu a tam.

Stoly na backgammon lemujú steny a všade sú róby a trojdielne obleky. Nikto by tu od vás nepýtal autogram, čo Havlicek (ktorého podpis je vypracovaný) oceňuje.
Preferuje zostať v pozadí, popíjať biele víno a sódu a pozerať sa, ako ľudia schádzajú a odchádzajú po schodoch. „Pripravení?” povie pred polnocou . . . a sme preč.

-November-

…John Havlicek, ktorý by vám vedel odrecitovať jeho vlastných posledných dvanásť jedál…

9. november
Boston, Massachusetts
Celtics 1 výhra – 8 prehier

Prejdem k Havlicekovi a pýtam sa ho, či dokáže nájsť niekde v jeho dvadsiatich štyroch hráčskych rokoch paralelu k súčasnému stavu. „Na strednej škole sme raz mali bilanciu 4 výhry a 19 prehier,” vraví. „Ale nemali sme vlastnú telocvičňu.”

10. november
Boston

Maxwell, ktorý nastúpil z lavičky na pätnásť minút proti San Antoniu a strelil 13 bodov, bude zajtra na palubovke pri úvodnom rozskoku namiesto Havliceka, ktorý sa vráti k svojej role šiesteho hráča.

11. november
Boston

Dnes podvečer sa okolo Kapitánovej skrinky dve hodiny pohyboval chlapík zo Sports Illustrated. John Havlicek tipoval, že sa objaví. „Hej, ďalší vlk na love,” zachechtal sa Havlicek, potriasajúc si rukami s Currym Kirkpatrickom. Počul to isté vzdialené zavýjanie ako všetci ostatní.

…Havlicek povedal, že mu nevadí prenechať miesto v základnej päťke Maxwellovi…

29. november
Atlanta, Georgia
Celtics 6 výhier – 12 prehier

Cestou do miestnosti pre médiá prechádzam okolo Havliceka v sprchách; stojí tam sám.
„Myslieval som si, že viem niečo o basketbale,” hovorí potichu. „A teraz, ja proste neviem.”

-December-

5. december
Boston
Celtics 7 výhier – 14 prehier

…Jo Jo White a Charlie Scott, opory z backcourtu Celtics posledné dva roky, sa posadia na lavičku namiesto jedinej 71-ročnej komibinácie v lige, Havlicek a Bing…

15. december
Boston
Celtics 9 výhier – 16 prehier

Keďže toto je posledný voľný deň, ktorý Celtics budú mať v Bostone pred Vianocami, termín každoročnej tímovej párty v Boston Garden stanovili na dneskajšie popoludnie.

Ale dnes sa unúvali prísť len Havlicek s Whiteom a ich rodiny.

17. december
Na ceste do Los Angeles, Kalifornia
Celtics 10 výhier – 16 prehier

…Havlicek má úžasnú zbierku škótskej whisky…

Hollywood vpredu pred nami a sám Hondo, sediaci krížom cez uličku, si prezerá reštaurácie na západnom pobreží v hrubej žltej knihe.

20. december
Portland, Oregon
Celtics 10 výhier – 17 prehier

Telefón, film v hlavných úlohách s Charlesom Bronsonom a Leeom Remickom o amerických/sovietskych dvojitých agentoch, sa premieta na poludnie krížom cez ulicu, vraví Havlicek. Možno by sme mali zistiť, či má asistent kouča Tom Sanders, oddávna veľký kinofil (a Havlicekov bývalý spolubývajúci), záujem.

Minulú zimu, keď mával Havlicek problémy s kolenom a jeho streľba riadne klesla, dokríval do toho kina na King Konga a vyšiel odtiaľ cítiac sa celkovo lepšie.
Vždy bol za výlet cez voľný deň, poobede alebo večer, a vedel si spomenúť na zdanlivo málo dôležité detaily z nejasných dejových línií. Raz naša partia vyšla vonku po večernom predstavení v Seattle, smerujúc k autu a na neskorú večeru, ale Havlicek uviazol v dave pri východe a zaostával za nami o niekoľko stoviek yardov.
Keď začul naše výkriky, z ničoho nič začal úplne presne napodobňovať Ratsa Rizza, s konskou nohou a kmitajúcimi plecami, krívajúc pozdĺž stredu ulice v honbe za Polnočným kovbojom.

22. december
Seattle, Washington
Celtics 10 výhier – 20 prehier

Joey „Sonar” Hassett, ktorý vyrastal v Providence, hrával so Stacomom na výške a zbožnoval Celtics. „Hondo,” žasol, pri pozápasovom jedle s Havlicekom. „Nemôžem uveriť, že večeriam s Hondom.”

23. december
Phoenix, Arizona

Sme na letisku a titulok novín Post-Intelligencer v sekcii „Sporting Green” to hovorí drsne: SONICKÝ TRESK ZBOMBARDOVAL VANDRÁKOV Z BEANTOWNU. Havlicek, keď to zazrie, pokrčí plecami. Čo sa dá povedať? Prežúva ohromne hrubý hot dog, páchnuci cesnakom, ktorý si vzal zo samoobsluhy. „Všetko ostatné, čo tam mali, zvyčajne mávam na raňajky,” nazdáva sa.

V batožinovej zóne naliehavo pobehuje televízny kameraman, hľadajúc nejaké výroky.
„John, John, mohli by sme dostať vyjadrenie na kameru?”
„Iste,” povie Havlicek . . . potom, po chvíľkovom uvážení, potrasie hlavou. „Nemyslím si, že chcem. V tejto chvíli je veľa vecí, ktoré skutočne nepotrebujú komentár.”
Kameraman je zúfalý. „Ale no tak John, si kapitán. Všetci ostatní mi hovoria nie.”
„No tak dobre.”
A tak tam Havlicek stojí, v žiari reflektoru, a dáva dlhú litániu, zatiaľ čo sa za ním otáča pás s batožinami a jeho spoluhráči si berú svoje tašky. Problémy počas tréningového kempu, zmätok, čo sa týka rolí v tíme, proste všetko.

…Bing sedáva v šatni vedľa Havliceka; po zápasoch spolu potichu vtipkujú, táto tandemová dvojica rozohrávačov zo zlatej éry basketbalu. „Ja a ‘Cek sme v lige už tak dlho . . .” začal Bing a Havlicek, česúc si vlasy, sa zachechtal…

-Január-

25. január
San Antonio
Celtics 14 výhier – 29 prehier

„Zas sme boli blízko, že?” povedal Havlicek po zápase, v ktorom Larry Kenon zo Spurs prevzal behom niekoľkých desiatok sekúnd kontrolu nad koncovkou. „Ideme do zápasu mysliac si, že vyhráme. Nemyslím si, že niekto v tíme má porazenecký prístup. Ale vždy máme jednu štvrtinu, kde vybuchneme, nemám pravdu?”

27. január
Boston

Tie chýry sme začuli dolu v New Orleans – že Havlicek sa chystá ohlásiť koniec kariéry a v skutočnosti by to už urobil, ak by skoršie v týždni sneh nezrušil formálny obed v Tappoff Clube.
Kapitán ich odbil smiechom, keď som sa o nich vtedy zmienil . . . „Dezinformácia,” povedal. „Totálna fáma. Pravdepodobne sa to teraz každým týždňom zlepší.”
Nevedno, či je to lepšie alebo nie, ale dnes je to silnejšie. Klub zvolal na nedeľné ráno tlačovú konferenciu v Boston Garden. Samozrejme, mohla by byť o čomkoľvek, od Auerbachovho odchodu do dôchodku, ktorému toto leto končí kontrakt, po predaj organizácie Irvom Levinom.

Predsa len, najlogickejší predpoklad je odchod Havliceka. Nespomenul Auerbachovi odchod do športového dôchodku predtým, než začala sezóna? Nechystal sa ohlásiť to počas večere organizácie B’nai B’rith, až pokiaľ ho od toho Auerbach neodhovoril? Nelobovala pre to jeho manželka?
„Áno,” pripustil Havlicek, pred zápasom v aréne Superdome. „Beth si myslí, že je čas.”
Nastal čas, aby som sa trochu zahral na naozajstného detektíva. Najskôr volám Kapitánovi domov.
„Nejaký chlapík z časopisu Time sa ma opýtal, či pôjdem v nedeľu na tlačovku,” hovorí vyhýbavo, „a ja som mu povedal, ‘Hej, ak ma na nejakú pozvú.’”
To hej, ale bude sa to týkať tvojho konca kariéry?
Havlicek sa chichoce. Viem si ho predstaviť, ako má stiahnuté pery a začína sa uškŕňať. „Nemyslím si, že sa niečo deje,” vraví mi. „Zajtra idem na tréning a nemyslím si, že by si mal mať v novinách niečo o mojom konci kariéry.”
Znamená to teda, že nekončís kariéru?
Ďalší chichot. „Naozaj si nemyslím, že je to záležitosť, ktorá stojí za reč. V každom prípade, ak by som išiel ukončiť kariéru, prečo by som mal tú informáciu poskytnúť nejakej konkrétnej osobe? Ozaj som o tom ešte nehovoril ani s Redom. Ale môžeš napísať čokoľvek, čo chceš.”

Volám k telefónu Boba Ryana, najbližšej veci k božskej intervencii, ktorú dokážem narýchlo zohnať.
„Kapitán,” začne. „Pri telefóne je tvoj životopisec . . .”
Prejde pár minút a prevracia očami. Havlicek sa chystá robiť verbálny menuet až do konca víkendu.

Musí to byť Havlicek, nakoniec dedukujem, vracajúc sa k tomu, čo je očividné. Napíšem na stroji tri strany pre raňajšie vydanie; v článku píšem, že „takmer určite” to bude Havlicekov koniec kariéry.

Ako posledné overenie sa rozhodneme zavolať Willovi McDonoughovi, rezidentnému Sherlockovi Holmesovi redakcie.

„Dajte mi päť minút,” hovorí. Potom zavolá naspäť. „Havlicek,” povie, definitívne.

29. január
Boston

Kapitán prišiel pred poludním oblečený pre televízne kamery, Beth a deti majúc na sebe svoje najlepšie nedeľné oblečenie, a celú rodinu zoradil za dlhý stôl. „Toto musí byť jedno z najhoršie strážených tajomstiev v histórii,” povedal Red Auerbach, pozerajúc sa na Havliceka, ktorý sa trochu rozpačito usmieval.
„V rozpore s tým, čo si myslíte,” začal Havlicek, zatiaľ čo kamery vrčali a blesky na fotoaparátoch sa blýskali.
„Red mi predlžuje kontrakt na ďalšie dva roky. Ale vážne, toto je môj šestnásty a posledný rok ako hráč. Je to niečo, o čom som dlho premýšľal. Vedel som, že toto bude môj posledný rok, už keď som sa dostavil do kempu . . . Ešte predtým som to prebral s Redom. Toto sa proste zdalo ako vhodný čas oznámiť to. Dá to ľuďom v iných mestách príležitosť, aby ma uvideli hrať ešte raz.”
Oznámenie sa chystalo byť urobené pred týždňom v piatok, ale zasiahla snehová búrka, povedal Havlicek. „V nedeľu bola búrka stále s nami. Toto bola ďalšia príležitosť.”
Takže pokiaľ Celtics nepostúpia do playoff, Kapitán bude hrať svoj posledný zápas 9. apríla proti Buffalu v Boston Garden, deň po jeho tridsiatich ôsmich narodeninách; v ten dátum preňho klub usporiada „deň”, tak ako spravili pre každého Celtica končiaceho kariéru. Takisto bude vyradené jeho číslo a na jeseň vyvesené pod strop haly.
Keď odíde, Havlicek si so sebou odnesie prinajmenšom tri ligové rekordy – najviac odohraných zápasov (1232), najviac odohraných zápasov v playoff (172) a najviac 1000-bodových sezón za sebou (16). Bude mať osem prsteňov šampióna NBA*. A odíde ako stelesnenie tradície, podobnú ktorej asi už nikdy znova neuvidíme.

* Havlicek v skutočnosti nevlastní osem prsteňov šampióna. Hondo v roku 2011 povedal, že za víťazstvo v NBA má päť prsteňov (z rokov 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968 a 1969), dvoje náramkové hodinky (1974 a 1976) a jednu striebornú misu (1964). „Veľa ľudí nevie, že za majstrovský titul sme vždy nedostali prsteň. Tak to proste vtedy bolo. Bill Russell nedostal jedenásť prsteňov, až neskôr mu ich dal David Stern, aby ho mohli s nimi odfotiť. NBA ich pre neho vyrobila. Čo sa týka prsteňov, nosím ten z roku ’69, pretože si myslím, že vyzerá najlepšie, pretože mi najlepšie sadne na prst a pretože nie je taký objemný. Ale taktiež je najšpeciálnejší v tom, že v tej sezóne sme po základnej časti skončili štvrtí a neočakávalo sa od nás, že vyhráme titul. Russell si vzal posledné dva týždne voľno na odpočinutie a každý očakával, že vypadneme hneď v prvom kole playoff.” Pokiaľ ide o hodinky, Havlicek nosí tie, ktoré obdržal po získaní titulu v 1976. „Mal som ich už trikrát renovované. Sú to hodinky Omega, presne také, aké nosieval Red.”

„Kariéra, ktorú som mal, mi priniesla veľký úspech a šťastie,” hovorí teraz Havlicek.
„Snáď všetko, čo hráč môže dosiahnuť, som dosiahol. S Celtics som prešiel z jednej éry do druhej. Som v podstate posledné spojivo medzi Russellovsko-Auerbachovskou érou a touto.”
V roku 1960 bol vynechaný z nominácie do olympijského basketbalového mužstva – jedno z veľkých sklamaní jeho života, tvrdil – avšak Havlicek bol úžasným všestranným športovcom. Cleveland Browns ho draftovali ako wide receivera z Ohio State dva roky na to a len neochotne sa ho vzdali. V tíme už mali jedného z najlepších hráčov na svojej pozícii, Garyho Collinsa, na chytanie prihrávok. Takže Havlicek šiel do Bostonu, kde sa Bob Cousy chystal odohrať svoju poslednú sezónu, a hlásil sa Auerbachovi.
„Päť minút po tom, čo prišiel,” hovoril Auerbach, „som ho dal do tréningového zápasu. A potom som sa otočil ku koučovi Navy Benovi Carnevaleovi – pozerali sme ho spolu – a povedal mu, dívaj sa, akého sakramentsky dobrého hráča sme získali.”
Havlicek vedel hrať na poste forwarda aj guarda, posúvajúc sa bleskovo z jednej pozície do druhej, neprestávajúc behať . . . stále behať . . . a napriek tomu sa nikdy nezdalo, že by sa na ňom objavila čo i len kvapka potu. A bol odolný – za šestnásť rokov chýbal iba v štyridsaťjeden zápasoch. Ak bol Auerbach symbolom trvalosti Celtics, pri postrannej čiare a ako funkcionár, Havlicek bol týmto symbolom na palubovke. Bol Hondo, John Wayne v zelených teniskách, pripravený na čokoľvek, čo sakra prišlo.
Teraz sa chystal . . . iste, bude nablízku, povedal Auerbach. John zostane v definitívnom a priamom spojení s klubom . . . ale to bolo v hmlistej budúcnosti. Teraz je prvoradá rodina, Beth trpezlivo čakajúca jednu dekádu, a biznis záujmy v Ohiu.
Už hovoril s televíziou CBS o tom, že by robil spolukomentátora jej NBA basketbalových prenosov, a zaoberať sa samozrejme bude aj rybárčením. „A,” hovorí John Havlicek, „rád by som videl, ako niektoré z tých ostrovov** vyzerajú v zimnom období.”

** Havlicek hovorí o ostrovoch štátu Massachusetts.

-Február-

1. február
Boston
Celtics 16 výhier – 30 prehier

…Havlicek sa posunul na krídlo, kde nahradil nespoľahlivého Maxwella…

7. február
Indianapolis, Indiana
Celtics 18 výhier – 30 prehier

Dávam Havlicekovi malú fľašu domáceho šampanského.
„To máš na oslavu vášho prvého víťazstva vonku mimo hraníc okresu Milwaukee,” hovorím mu. „Nosil som to so sebou len dva týždne.”
Usmeje sa . . . a napchá si to do svojej cestovnej tašky.

…Cowens a Havlicek, ktorí bývajú v susediacich predmestských mestách…

13. február
Oakland, California
Celtics 18 výhier – 31 prehier

Havlicek, vo svojej funkcii ako Oficiálny uvítač, prešiel za Zaidom Abdulom-Azizom (rodeným Donaldom Smithom), aby s ním podal ruky.
„Nazdar Zaid . . . eh, Don . . . eh, Ziz,” hovorí mu. „Vitaj na palube.”

Po dvadsiatich štyroch rokoch sa Kapitán začína diviť, či ho basketbaloví bohovia znova nepreháňajú cez kolobeh minulosti. Prvý krát sa mu to prihodilo, keď bol druhák na strednej škole v Ohiu; nemali žiadnu domovskú telocvičnu a ich bilancia bola niečo ako 4-19, a frustrácie bolo tak veľa, že sa až rozplakal na palubovke.
Teraz, keďže boli odložené dva zápasy doma, budú mať Celtics na konci tohto nekonečného tripu v New Orleans odohraných jedenásť zápasov vonku za sebou a budú preč z Boston Garden po dobu jedného celého mesiaca. Proste SŠ Bridgeport odznova, negatívna bilancia a všetko to dohromady.

16. február
Phoenix
Celtics 20 výhier – 31 prehier

Nádherná krádež od starého Kapitána v posledných šiestich sekundách. Bola to proste len kontaktná obrana, nič viac, práve tá vec, ktorú John Havlicek používal proti svojmu starému kamošovi z Celtics Paulovi Westphalovi od začiatku zápasu.
„Hej, Havlicek ma držal,” sťažoval sa Westphal rozhodcovi Joeovi Gushueovi v jednom okamihu, „a prechádza mu to celý večer.”
Gushue pokrčil plecami. „Čo chceš, aby som s tým robil? Prechádzalo mu to celých šestnásť rokov.” Takže prečo by mu to nemalo prejsť ešte raz? Havlicek ukradol víťazstvo 98:95 a viac ako 12000 domácich fanúšikov odchádzalo z haly na parkovisko šomrajúc.
„Tu vo Phoenixe?” Cedric Maxwell sa divil, jeho oči naširoko. „Nuž, John je John, žijúca legenda.”
Niežeby išlo o nejaké okaté stiahnutie protihráča, skôr to bola vodiaca ruka, ktorá použila hybnosť centra Suns Alvana Adamsa proti nemu a priviedla celých jeho 206 centimetrov na Havliceka, čo rozhodcovia vyhodnotili ako útočný faul.
A keďže Celtics v tom čase viedli 96:95, a Phoenix vyhral v hale Coliseum šestnásť zápasov po sebe, mohli by ste povedať, že to bolo kontroverzné rozhodnutie. Adams tak urobil.
Sarkasticky sa čudoval, ako mohol tak zrazu stratiť balans . . . bez malej pomoci od priateľa. „Ako som teda celý spadol na jeho telo posledný meter a pol?” pýtal sa Adams rétoricky.
Možno s trochou pomoci od muža, ktorý sa počas šestnástich rokov naučil, že ruka môže byť rýchlejšia než oko . . . aj u súpera vonku. Na druhej strane haly Havlicek podával svoj vlastný pohľad s bezúhonným výrazom na tvári.
„Len som sa snažil zaujať pozíciu,” hovoril, „a držať nohy blízko pri tých jeho a ruky na ňom, aby keď Alvan nadobudol momentum, spadol na mňa. Takže začal padať, a ja som začal ťahať . . .” A tak spadli zamotaní do seba pri základnej čiare, rozhodca Tommy Nunez fúkol do píšťalky a signalizoval, nie, žiadne blokovanie. Prerážanie.

21. február
Houston
Celtics 20 výhier – 34 prehier

…Havlicek hral small forwarda v útoku and guarda v obrane…

-Marec-

4. marec
New York, štát New York
Celtics 23 výhier – 37 prehier

Bolo to v grafoch, ešte predtým, ako dnes ráno prišli sem. Kapitán vám o tom mohol povedať počas tohtotýždňového letu z New Orleans.
„Boli sme mimo rytmu, nemám pravdu?” pokýval hlavou dnes večer, po tom, ako boli Celtics porazení 99:91 v posledných siedmich minútach v Madison Square Garden. Tlačové zbory z Gothamu, zvyknuté na viac konvenčné analýzy prehier, bzučali v rozpakoch.
„Zlý biorytmus,” pokračoval Havlicek. „Fyzicky sme boli v klesajúcom cykle . . . a nepadalo nám to do obruče. Čo viac môžem povedať?”
Mohli by ste viniť rozhodcov Jacka Maddena a Mela Whitwortha za ich krátkozrakosť, tak ako to bolo po zápase populárne v bostonskej šatni. Alebo ste sa mohli pozrieť na rytmy, ktoré Havlicek študuje od vtedy, čo mu niekto dal kalkulačku.
Pred piatňajším letom do Loganu* ju vytiahol v tímovom autobuse a rýchlo všetkým vypočítal ich rytmy – fyzické, intelektuálne, emocionálne – na víkend. Ak ste mu dali váš dátum narodenia a ten vašej manželky alebo frajerky, vedel urobiť plnú analýzu vášho vzťahu.
Niekde nad Severnou Karolínou sa o tom dopočuli stevardky z Delty a prišli na výklad. Havlicek získava dátum narodenia, stláča tlačidlá a o chvíľu zdvíha obočie.
„Vy a váš priateľ, vychádzate spolu dobre fyzicky?” pýta sa jednej ženy, ako keby bol lekár. Tá sa začervená, zatiaľ čo jej kolegyne sa chichocú. „Myslím, že ani tak celkom nie.”
„Nemyslel som si to,” hovorí Havlicek vážne. „Ale máte len štvorpercentnú kompatibilitu.” Tom Boswell, sediaci krížom cez uličku, nemôže uveriť tomu, aký potenciál majú tieto pravdivé spovede.
„’Cek,” hovorí. „Kde si si zaobstaral tie prístroje? Paráda.”

* Letisko vo východnej časti Bostonu.

16. marec
Cleveland, Ohio
Celtics 25 výhier – 40 prehier

„Myslím, že naozaj potrebujeme pomoc,” pripustil konečne Havlicek, po tom, čo preskúmal každý dostupný oblak, ale nenašiel ani kúsok dúhy. „V jednom bode som si myslel, že skutočne nebudeme potrebovať žiadnu, ale teraz . . .”

19. marec
Boston
Celtics 28 výhier – 40 prehier

Najlepší výkon roka v podaní Celtics, rozdrvenie Denveru výsledkom 122:95.

Prím hrali 37-ročný John Havlicek a 34-ročný Dave Bing, dvojica rozohrávačov zo zlatej éry. V troch zápasoch z možných 288 minút na rozohrávačských postoch odohrali 230; pauzu mali len počas oddychových časov: dali si poriadny dúšok vody, trochu sa vydýchali a potom sa vrátili späť na ihrisko bojovať proti mladším nohám.

…Havlicek nastrieľal 27 bodov za tridsaťosem minút na ihrisku…

Havlicek by hral celých štyridsaťosem minút, ak by ste ho nechali. Jeho telo fungovalo efektívnejšie pri väčšej záťaži, myslel si.

27. marec
Tillamook, Oregon
Celtics 29 výhier – 43 prehier

„Chceš chytať pstruhy*?” spýtal sa Kapitán, skôr než sme vôbec odišli z Bostonu. „Naposledy som v Oregone stretol chlapíka, ktorý povedal, že nás zoberie. Mám mu zavolať.”

* Steelhead = pstruh oceľový (pstruh americký).

Havlicek hovorí: „Ten chlapík – volá sa Bob Zwand – nás vyzdvihne na letisku, hneď ako vystúpime z lietadla zo Seattle. Má kompletnú výstroj. Zoberieme so sebou Birda** a pôjdeme priamo na chatu.”

** Prezývka Kevina Stacoma.

Pred polnocou sme vo Wilson Hiltone, útulnom drevenom dome na úpätí hrádze, naokolo ktorej sa rysujú kopce. Všetko, čo by ste potrebovali, je tu – poschodové lôžka, kachle na drevo, kúpeľňa a prívetiví spoločníci na rybačku. Jim a Dave Farleyovci, bratia, budú našimi prievozníkmi. A Dale Ott bude komický filozof.
O šiestej ráno dávame výstroj do truckov, zatiaľ čo všade sa dvíha hmla. Vzduch je studený a jediným zvukom je rieka valiaca sa tridsať metrov odtiaľto. Je to fakt surrealistické.

Neskôr máme výdatné vidiecke raňajky – vajíčka, toasty, klobásy, opekané zemiačky, kávu, džús – v zariadení Big Cheese Grill.

O ôsmej sme na rieke Wilson; predtým sme vyložili člny a skĺzli ich po blatistom brehu na piesok. Stromy – stromy sú tu všade – sú stále zahalené hmlou. Vzduch je svieži a čistý, voda sa trblieta. Švajčiarsko, pomyslím si. Niet divu, že miestni každému hovoria, že tu stále prší. Nechcú, aby tu prišli masy a ničili prírodu. NEKALIFORNIKUJTE OREGON, hlásali nálepky na nárazníkoch.
Wilson je úzky, na niektorých miestach hlboký, ale na iných ležia tesne pod hladinou balvany, ktoré môžu spraviť dieru na dne člna.

Ako sa plavíme dolu prúdom, zdá sa nám, že čas sa pozastavil. Môžete sa tu plaviť dve hodiny bez toho, aby ste videli ďalšieho rybára alebo počuli niečo iné ako vrčanie navijaku, zurčanie vody a vzdialené kvílenie truckových pneumatík na asfalte.

Je poludnie a nikto sa ešte ani len nepriblížil k nejakému pstruhovi. Pozerajúc sa hore prúdom vidíme Havliceka a Otta ako stoja, hádžu udice, navíjajú, znova ich hádžu. Nič.

Zimná migrácia skončila už takmer pred mesiacom, ale Celtics sa tu skôr dostať nemohli.

Ako sa blíži čas večere, ostáva nám už len približne jedna míľa rieky na rybárčenie.

Havlicekovi to, zdá sa, nevadí. Zriedkakedy som ho videl vo väčšej pohode, naozaj. Miluje prírodu a všetko, čo sa týka rybárčenia, a medzi sezónami sú preňho ako únik z reality. Minulé leto chytali so Stacomom ryby v Maine. „Ľúbilo by sa ti to,” povedal mi. „Jedli sme všetko, na čo sme dostali chuť.”
A taktiež si vyrazil do Montany, spolu s koučom univerzity Indiana Bobbym Knightom, bývalým spoluhráčom z výšky, a s niekoľkými ďalšími kamarátmi. Vybrali sa tak ďaleko, ako sa len dalo, s koňmi, panvicami na vyprážanie pstruhov a vysokými rybárskymi čižmami. Aby ste si ráno umyli tvár, museli ste rozbiť ľad na vodnej nádrži. „Skrátka sme si zbalili nejaké veci,” vravel s rozširujúcim sa spokojným úsmevom Havlicek, „a užívali si tam relax.”
Tento dnešný deň voľna si vypýtal od kouča Toma Sandersa pred dvoma mesiacmi, najmä kvôli tej príjemnej izolácii v prírode. Každý chytený pstruh by bol bonus.

Vraciame sa späť do Portlandu a do ďalšieho Hiltonu. Nasledujúci večer, v hale Memorial Coliseum, sa Blazers rozlúčia s Kapitánom; medzi ich darčekmi bude okrem iného aj grafitová udica.
„Šli sme hľadať ryby,” povie Havlicek divákom, „a obišli sme naprázdno. Takže ste mi niečo dlžní.”

-Apríl-

9. apríl
Boston
Celtics 31 výhier – 50 prehier

Vypožičal si smoking – sako, košeľu, manžetové gombíky, šerpu okolo pása, čiernu viazanku, proste všetko –, pretože si myslel, že rozlúčiť sa s kariérou po šestnástich rokoch by sa mal hráč v takomto oblečení.
„Špeciálny deň,” hovorí John Havlicek, tesne pred poludním, „a na špeciálne príležitosti by ste na sebe mali mať špeciálne oblečenie.”
Bol toho názoru, že na váš posledný deň by ste mali doraziť na pracovisko zavčasu, oblečení vo formálnom odeve a zavesiť každý kus oblečenia na osobitný vešiak. Dres a trenky by ste si mali obliekať pomaly a uistiť sa, či sú šnúrky na teniskách narovno. Mali by ste mať napísaný a nacvičený váš prejav a potriasť si rukou s každým od majiteľa po policajta pri dverách.
A potom by ste sa mali hlboko nadýchnuť a snažiť sa, aby sa to na vás celé nezrútilo. Pod kontrolou ste mohli mať iba určitú časť. Havlicek vedel o darčekoch. Odvtedy, čo v januári urobil to vyhlásenie, v každom meste pri zápase vonku zorganizoval domáci tím na jeho počesť polčasovú slávnosť. V Oaklande dostal sponu na peniaze z čistého zlata, v Seattle prívesný motor, od Denveru Nuggets dovolenku v rezorte. A vo Philadelphii na neho naložili horu lokálnych vecí, všetko od sekanej z mäsa a zeleniny po Zvon slobody, dokopy sedemnásť položiek. Späť do Bostonu sme ich odniesli polnočným lietadlom; torty a hokejky sme strčili pod sedadlá. Päťkilová kóšer saláma skončila u Toma Sandersa, ktorý ju vliekol za sebou, keď sme kráčali dolu chodbou.
Dnes Celtics nahromadili darčeky v strede ihriska, niečo od každého mysliteľného obchodníka od North Endu po Freeport v štáte Maine, a požičali pre Havliceka truck z požičovne, aby si ich mohol na ňom zobrať domov.
A vo vestibule haly člen bezpečnostnej služby dohliadal na 50000-dolárový mobilný dom, objednaný na zákazku klubom. Havlicek o ňom sníval odvtedy, čo ho poznám. „Pamätáš si, keď sme šli na tú výstavu rekreačných vozidiel v Seattle?” vravel mi. „No a . . .”
Ak ste boli aspoň raz v hale, keď klub organizoval jeden z týchto „dňov” pre hráčov Celtics končiacich kariéru, museli ste sa nad tým usmievať. Hráč zvyčajne dostal cadillac, ale dohoda bola taká, že musel odovzdať svoje vlastné auto. Za plne vybavený obytný voz, žartovalo sa, bude musieť Havlicek predať svoju dušu.
Malo to tak trochu kráľovskú auru, ale aj Havlicek prišiel s darčekmi. Minulý večer daroval každému spojenému s klubom, od sekretárok po členov partie štatistikov, špeciálne dizajnované pracky na opasok s logom Celtics a jeho číslom.
A pre ľudí, s ktorými cestoval a delil sa o letiskové raňajky a jazdy autobusmi, mal vyrezávané zlaté vreckové hodinky. Vnútri stálo: ČAS PRE KAMARÁTA. JOHN.
Pred dnešným večerom myslel na všetko – na všetko sa dalo pripraviť okrem haly a divákov v nej. Keď zamieril ku košu kvôli svojmu dvojlayupovému fetišu (vždy trafil dve strely z pod koša hneď po tom, čo bol odpískaný koniec predzápasovej rozcvičky – bola to tradícia Celtics, ktorú zdedil), dostal Havlicek od fanúšikov ovácie, ktoré ho prekvapili. „Nevedel som, že na to čakajú,” pomyslel si.
A keď ho hlásateľ predstavil, Havlicek vyšiel do stredu ihriska a dvakrát sa hlboko poklonil. V tom momente všetok hluk padal na neho. Boston Garden bola vypredaná dva týždne vopred a všade viseli zeleno-biele transparenty. Na jednom stálo: „The Buckeye Stops Here.”*

* Buckeye (pagaštan konský) je prezývka obyvateľov štátu Ohio a taktiež športových tímov univerzity Ohio State. „The Buckeye stops here” by sa dalo preložiť ako „Buckeye tu končí”.

Potom sa Havlicek s chvejúcimi sa perami a so slzami na krajíčku rozbehol k postrannej čiare, nad hlavou mávajúc rukou v kruhu.
„Poďme už,” zakričal na spoluhráčov, zatiaľ čo sa rev divákov stupňoval, chvíľu vrcholil a potom sa opäť začal zvyšovať. Tento hrmot pokračoval celých osem minút, ozdobený rytmickým skandovaním HON-do, HON-do, HON-do.
Nedalo sa robiť nič, len počkať, kým to skončí. K aplauzu sa pripojili aj hráči Celtics. Dave Cowens, ktorý daroval Havlicekovi od hráčov kuchynskú sadu spoločnosti Cuisinart, sedel sám na lavičke, hľadiac uprene pred seba a pískajúc dvoma prstami.
A potom Havlicek zobral svoj tím na palubovku naposledy. Predtým sme sa rozprávali o tom, ako chcel odohrať tento posledný zápas proti Buffalu. Odohraj celých štyridsaťosem minút, povedal som mu. A posledný kôš musí byť smeč, rovnako ako tvoj prvý kôš v 1962. Havlicek sa zaškeril. Malo to istú symetriu.
„Budem robiť všetko trochu pomalšie,” mienil, „aby som si to potom pamätal.” Tom Sanders postavil Havliceka do backcourtu s Daveom Bingom; rýchlo zariadil prihrávky na štyri koše, ale žiadny vlastný mu tam nepadal. Minul strelu z odskoku z vrcholu oblúka nad čiarou trestného hodu. Potom sa jeho strela z výskoku po zadnej obrátke odrazila od obruče. Ďalšia bola čiastočne zblokovaná.
„Dnes hádžem kopu tehiel,” povedal cez jeden oddychový čas.
„Si nervózny?” bol som zvedavý.
„Nie,” pokýval hlavou. „Silu mám. V tom problém nie je.”
Štyridsaťštyri sekúnd pred koncom štvrtiny to konečne prišlo: Kermit Washington mu poslal prihrávku a Havlicek sa prešmykol cez vymedzené územie a presne zakončil. Fanúšikovia zaburácali.
Dva ďalšie koše prišli v druhej štvrtine, ale Havlicek teraz dostával naložené. Po jednej rane od obrancu pod košom mu na moment stŕpla ruka. Lakeť Larryho McNeilla mu prerezal peru. A pred polčasom na neho odpískali tri fauly. Sanders ho musel na tri minúty posadiť na lavičku.
Havlicek dal svoj polčasový prejav cez napuchnuté pery, snažiac sa, aby sa nezrútil. „Veľa hlbokých nádychov,” povedal. „To bol jediný spôsob.” Poďakoval Redovi Auerbachovi, že ho draftoval, jeho rodine – Beth, Chrisovi, Jill a jeho matke – za podporu a fanúšikom za to, že za nám stáli.
„Dodali ste mi veľa vzrušení,” povedal im. „Najviac si budem pamätať vás, ľudí na tribúnach, a tie visiace zástavy nado mnou. Čo viac môžem povedať? Ďakujem ti, Boston, milujem ťa.”
Potom odišiel k postrannej čiare, zatiaľ čo mužstvá vychádzali zo šatní na druhý polčas. „OK,” povedal John Havlicek spoluhráčom. „Poďme ich sfúknuť.”
Boston mal zápas takmer v suchu. Celtics šli do šatne s dvanásťbodovým vedením a v druhom polčase náskok zvýšili, kedy sa im zachcelo. Jedinou otázkou bol teraz smeč. Podarí sa mu prekĺznuť za obranu a zasmečovať?
„Budem ho hľadať,” zaprisahal sa Ernie DiGregorio ešte v prvej štvrtine. „Tomu sakra verte! Budem ho hľadať prihrávkou v každom útoku. Sledujte.”
Sanders ho poslal do zápasu dve minúty pred koncom, a posunul Havliceka na post forwarda. „Bol by som rád, keby som mohol improvizovať,” povedal mu Havlicek.
A tak ho DiGregorio hľadal . . . a posledné dve minúty boli magické: 15000 kričiacich a dupajúcich ľudí a Havlicek behajúci ako šialenec.
„Posledné dve minúty ma nechaj hrať,” povedal Sandersovi. „Lebo na konci chcem byť na palubovke. ”
Zostávalo už len minútu a deväť sekúnd, keď sa DiGregoriovi konečne podarilo doručiť loptu Havlicekovi, ktorý zakončil donáškou po nájazde. Na smeč tam nebol priestor – Poodles Willoughby, podpriemerný hráč, ktorý sa ešte ničím konkrétnym nevyznamenal, nechcel, aby sa skrz neho niekto zapísal do histórie.
O jedenásť sekúnd neskôr ho DiGregorio našiel znova . . . a znova sa musel Havlicek uspokojiť iba s donáškou o dosku po podbehu koša. Štyridsaťjeden sekúnd pred koncom mal Havlicek ďalšiu šancu, ale jeho strela sa odrazila od obruče a po doskoku musel vystreliť z vymedzeného územia. Pri jeho poslednej skutočnej príležitosti o dvanásť sekúnd neskôr ho faulovali a Havlicek premenil jeden trestný hod, jeho 26395. kariérny bod v jeho 1270. zápase.
„Snažil som sa uniknúť a zasmečovať,” hovoril po zápase, „ale proste sa mi to nepodarilo. No o ten smeč by som sa pokúsil, ver mi. Po tom všetkom, čo som netriafal (dnes poobede premenil z poľa 11 z 33 pokusov), som usúdil, že najlepšie bude skúšať strieľať ďalej. Ukázať všetko, čo som kedy vedel. U nás doma mám kôš na dvore, vysoký okolo 215 centimetrov, pre syna. Možno by som mal ísť domov a zasmečovať na ňom.”
Nakoniec – bolo pätnásť sekúnd do konca a Scott Lloyd z Buffala stál na čiare trestného hodu – dal Sanders pokyn Bingovi.
„John, chcem ťa vystriedať,” povedal Sanders už skôr, ale Havlicek potriasol hlavou. „Moju kariéru som začal v behu a chcem ju aj ukončiť v behu.”
Ale teraz, usúdil Sanders, bol na to vhodný čas. Bing, ktorý sa celý rok v šatni prezliekal vedľa Havliceka, vbehol na ihrisko a objal ho. Rovnako tak urobil aj Don Chaney, ktorý strávil s Havlicekom v Bostone takmer osem sezón a podieľal sa s ním na dvoch majstrovských tituloch.
Havlicek potom odkráčal k lavičke, zdvihol ruky smerom k fanúšikom, posadil sa . . . a vzlykal, hľadiac na časomieru, s uterákom okolo krku. Jeho tvár bola skrútená, spodná pera sa mu chvela. Skončilo to 131:114 a ihneď potom ho hnali – všade dookola boli policajti – na masovú tlačovú konferenciu, kde mohol prísť v podstate hocikto. Tam dal svoj posledný rozhovor, so zakrvavenou gázou napchatou v ústach.
Čakal na neho telegram. Stálo v ňom: HAVLICEK. HONDO SA POZERÁ. GRATULÁCIA, JOHN WAYNE.
„Možno mu zavolám,” povedal Havlicek. „Bol veľkou súčasťou môjho života. Nikdy som ho síce nestretol, ale nosil som jeho meno dobrú časť môjho života.”*

* Mimochodom, J. Wayne zomrel v júni 1979.

Dlho potom, čo sa na ten film zabudne, si ľudia budú pamätať tú prezývku. Havlicek povedal, že skoršie v roku pozeral televíznu koláž svojich najlepších momentov, a jeho rodina sa zhromaždila okolo neho. „Chrisovi a mojej manželke sa zaslzili oči,” hovoril, „a Chris potom šiel po schodoch hore. Jill šla neskôr hore za ním, a keď prišla dolu, povedala, že ešte stále tam plače. Šiel som teda hore ja a Chris mal na podlahe rozložené všetky fotografie, na ktorých nás spolu odfotili, a na niektorých som bol ja ako dieťa. A on na ne uprene civel a vzlykal pri tom.”
Celtics pre neho prichystali pozápasovú párty na jednej z bostonských diskoték – malo na ňu prísť iba osemsto jeho najbližších priateľov. Ale Havlicek sa chcel aspoň na chvíľu zastaviť a vychutnať si to. Dlho potom, čo sa dav vypratal zo šatne, bol stále v svojom drese a trenkách; rozprával sa s tými, čo sa ešte zdržali dnu, a spomínal. Rozpamätal sa na prvý zápas, ktorý videl v Bostone, na playoff sériu s Philadelphiou, keď sa Wilt Chamberlain rozbehol po Samovi Jonesovi a Jones, celý vydesený, zdvihol v obrane stoličku fotografa. Prvé jedlo v Bostone jedol v jedálni Hayes-Bickford cez ulicu. A v jeho prvý deň ako hráč Celtics prišiel k nemu Frank Ramsey, aby ho privítal. Havlicek povedal, že si to zapamätal a v neskorších rokoch sa sám vždy snažil zájsť za nováčikmi.
Nakoniec prišiel k Havlicekovi Walter Randall, správca klubovne. Bolo 17:30, takmer dve hodiny po záverečnom klaksóne. „Hej John, vypni svetlá, keď pôjdeš, prosím ťa,” zamrmlal. Havlicek kývol hlavou. A po tom, čo sa osprchoval, poskladal dres a upratal si okolo svojej skrinky – všetko napchal do kartónovej krabice, spolu s jeho poslednými štatistikami (41 odohraných minút, 29 bodov, 9 asistencií, typická Havlicekovská produktivita), pomaly sa obliekol do smokingu, zapínajúc si gombíky pekne jeden po druhom.
Potom sa uistil, že okná sú zatvorené a svetlá vypnuté a zamieril k dverám. Odrazu sa však zastavil a zalovil vo vreckách na saku. Vytiahol svoj prsteň šampióna. „Vedel som, že tu niekde jeden mám,” zamrmlal.
A potom, s objemnou krabicou pod pazuchou, John Havlicek zamkol dvere jednej éry na Causeway Street*.

* Ulica, na ktorej bola hala Boston Garden (domáca aréna Celtics v rokoch 1946 až 1995).

hondolastgame14

-Epilóg: Leto 1978-

Na začiatku júla šiel Auerbach na Manhattan a Knicks mu tam urobili ponuku. Reorganizujeme a ty budeš prezidentom. Štvorročná zmluva s najväčším platom v histórii ponúknutým funkcionárovi v NBA. Auerbach sa vrátil do Bostonu, jeho myseľ rozhodnutá. Rozhodol sa odísť.

Potom mu jedného dňa zazvonil telefón a na druhej strane bol Havlicek. Ak tu nezostaneš, Kapitán mu povedal, Celtics môžu zabudnúť na vyradenie môjho čísla.
„Bolo to celé tak sakramentsky lichotivé,” povedal mi Auerbach.

…a tak sa Auerbach vrátil na Manhattan na posledný rozhovor…

…rozprával sa s novým majiteľom Celtics Johnom Y. Brownom, povedal mi Auerbach, a dohodli sa, že to bude partnerstvo…

…a tak Celtics ohlásili viacročný kontrakt, zatiaľ čo Auerbach sa škeril a mával cigarou a nešetril anekdotami pre kamery a zápisníky. Ľudia v Bostone ma dostali, povedal. Bolo to „neuveriteľné v histórii športu”, že generálny manažér meniaci zamestnanie spôsobil taký veľký rozruch…

1978celtics

***

John Havlicek Collection

https://catalog.scpauctions.com/bids/bidplace?itemid=16733

Hondo78ASG

Reklamy

The Green Running Machine

by John Underwood
October 28, 1974

When John Havlicek was a rookie Boston Celtic, one of the most important second-string players on the Boston team was Jim Loscutoff, the National Basketball Association equivalent of a middle linebacker. Loscutoff was sometimes called “The Enforcer.” In the first scrimmage of that 1962 training camp at Babson Institute in Wellesley, Loscutoff introduced Havlicek to the realities of a noncontact sport. The more noncontact Havlicek had with Loscutoff, the closer he figured he was coming to the emergency ward at Massachusetts General. Loscutoff outweighed him by 25 pounds, and was not disposed to coddle. The shoe rubber, Havlicek recalls, was screeching on every play.

Rookie Havlicek responded to this intimidation by running. He ran veteran Loscutoff into the floor, as surely as if he were a 10-penny nail. It is a style peculiar to Havlicek and, since it requires the physiology of an Arabian saddle horse, impossible to imitate. Havlicek runs and runs (scoring, rebounding, defending tenaciously, making key passes, setting up plays), and when his opponent begins to go under, he runs some more.

“Hey, you’re crazy,” panted Loscutoff as they lined up during a free-throw lull. “Nobody runs like that. Slow down.”

Havlicek explained that he was not an unreasonable man, and that if he was making Loscutoff look bad, he had a solution.

“Quit pushing me around,” he said, “and I’ll quit running so hard.” The compromise at least saved Loscutoff from an early swoon, but it has not saved the rest of the NBA from Havlicek in these intervening 12 years. Red Auerbach, then the Boston coach and now its president and general manager, remembers that first scrimmage, and having thought, “Oh, have I got something here. Are they going to think I’m smart!”

Smart Red had drafted Havlicek off the Ohio State campus at a time when his Celtic team was a philharmonic of Cousys, Heinsohns, Russells and Joneses. Eventually Red relinquished the baton to Russell, and the blend was altered to include Sanders, Nelson and Howell. Then Russell, too, turned it over, this time to Heinsohn, and the empty chairs were filled by a brassier medley of Cowens, Chaney and Jo Jo White. And always the insatiable Celtics won—well, seven out of 12 NBA championships is almost always—and always there was Havlicek.

Then at an age (34) when he was at last showing some faint signs of breaking into a sweat, Havlicek emerged last winter into total light as the physical, spiritual and appointed leader of the Celtics in their seven-game championship decision over the Milwaukee Bucks. Havlicek was named Most Valuable Player in the series.

The vote was academic. A case could have been made that Havlicek was more like Most Valuable in the Game Today. Or the Best Athlete the NBA has ever had—which would rank him right up there universally because few other sports demand anywhere near as much of an athlete as pro basketball.

Pshaw, you say. How can that be? How can such things be said of a guy who doesn’t shoot as well as the best, isn’t strong enough to smother a backboard, doesn’t have breathtaking speed, can’t dribble behind his back and isn’t 7 feet tall? How can that be as long as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is alive and living on the basket rim?

There is no arguing Abdul-Jabbar’s preeminence. Basketball is a game divided between centers and other fellows, and the best big man will get the franchise owner’s vote. The best centers are called “dominant forces.” Abdul-Jabbar, as the reigning dominant force, follows the skyline of George Mikan, Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. But inevitably he will make way for another. Already there are pretenders: a redhead named Walton in Portland and an adolescent named Moses in Utah. It is only a matter of time.

But it is altogether unlikely that you will ever see another Havlicek. The dimension John Havlicek has brought to basketball is entirely and uniquely his own, and it will probably go with him once he finally winds down. At that time Geoff Petrie of the Portland Trail Blazers would like to have them “take his body apart and see what’s in it.”

The record books are not conclusive on the subject of Havlicek: 20,814 career points represent an alltime Celtic high, but a lot of guys can put a ball in a basket. Furthermore, Havlicek does not fit any of the grooves: he plays two positions—forward and guard—not just one. Sometimes he plays them alternately during a game, sometimes interchangeably as a fill-in, though it has been a while since he was known as the Celtics’ “sixth man.”

The 6’5″ Havlicek is what is known in the NBA as a “tweener,” an in-between-size player, usually too slow for guard and too small for forward, ff you have basketball in mind, a tweener is not what you want to grow up to be. Havlicek has managed to breach the definition. His play is fast enough for the guards, big enough for the forwards.

“He is the best all-around player I ever saw,” says Bill Russell simply. As a forward “he may be the best in the league right now,” says Bill Sharman, the Lakers’ coach. “The toughest in the league to cover,” says Bullet Forward Mike Riordan. As a guard, says Jon McGlocklin of the Bucks, “he’s right on your shirt whether you’re five feet from the basket or 20. He’s harder to get shots on than anybody.” “He plays bigger than 6’5″,” says Jerry West, late of the Lakers. (“Right,” says Havlicek. “I’m actually 6’51”. I think I’m still growing.”) “A road runner,” says Laker General Manager Pete Newell, “taking you through every ditch, every irrigation canal, barbed-wire fence and cattle guard. You’ve had a trip over the plains when you’ve played him for a night.”

There are a lot of fine shooters I around,” says Al Attles, the Warriors’ coach, “but when it gets right down to taking that big shot, the one that really means something, they’re off in a corner somewhere.” “He’ll not only take it,” says Sam Lacey of the Kings, “he wants it.”

If you gauged worth by pure skill, a veteran basketball observer believes, “Havlicek would not rate in the top five. But if you were playing for a million bucks, he’d be in the top two.” Jerry West, a less practical jurist, says: “Superstar is a bad word. In our league people look at players, watch them dribble between their legs, watch them make spectacular plays, and they say, ‘There’s a superstar.’ Well, John Havlicek is a superstar, and most of the others are figments of writers’ imaginations.”

It would be reassuring for those who become melted butter in his wake to believe that Havlicek is some kind of genetic fluke who grew into a large pair of lungs connected to a long pair of legbones, the whole held together by wire, rubber and whipcord. But in Havlicek’s case his particular style was charted by him as surely as if it were a sea voyage. The pivotal moment occurred during his sophomore year at Ohio State, when he was growing in the shadow of Jerry Lucas, just as he would later live in Bill Russell’s more encompassing one in Boston.

For the record, Havlicek was born in Martins Ferry in the athlete-rich Ohio Valley, raised on the West Virginia line in rural Lansing, Ohio (pop. 1,000) and schooled in nearby Bridgeport. He was the second son of an immigrant Czechoslovakian butcher, Frank Havlicek, who, until he died last year, never lost his accent and believed soccer was the only sport. While mother and father tended the Havlicek stores John became a prime item at Bridgeport High, his names—Yunch, Boola, Big John, Mr. Clean—on everyone’s lips. He never met a sport he didn’t like. In baseball he hit .440, and teammate Phil Niekro, now with the Atlanta Braves, says he would have been a cinch big-leaguer.

As a 6’3″, 180-pound quarterback, Havlicek was not only the class of the Bridgeport football team but also most of its size. He could throw a football 80 yards, but never had time to because his guards and tackles weighed 130 pounds. To compensate he got to be so good running the split-T option that twice in one game officials blew the ball dead because they couldn’t find it.

Of such stuff legends are made, of course, and responsible people enjoy nurturing them. Red Auerbach says he once asked John how far he could swim, having seen him knifing through a motel pool. Red says John replied, “I don’t know, it’s just like walking to me.” There are similar stories about Havlicek hefting a tennis racket for the first time and winning a class tournament at Ohio State, and about his picking up a foil and performing like Douglas Fairbanks. Havlicek laughs them off. Basketball was his best and true love, and he had no illusions about how he had to play it, even as a high-schooler. “It’s true I’m not a shooter,” he says, “not the way Sam Jones was or Jon McGlocklin. I never had their touch. I learned to score by taking advantage of every opening.” He found early on that when confronted with taller players he could “lean back and throw it up, then run get the rebound and put it in.” Sooner or later he always put it in. After Havlicek scored 28 of his team’s 31 points in one game, the rival coach told the Bridgeport coach he knew how to stop Havlicek. “Put three men on him man-to-man, and play the other two in a zone under the basket,” he said. “And every time he gets near the ball complain to the referees that they’re favoring him.”

Old-worlder Frank Havlicek rarely saw John play anything, never having gotten over soccer, but Mrs. Havlicek became a devotee. She harbored a mother’s qualms about John playing football, though the football scouts came after him in droves. She found a sympathetic ear in Fred Taylor, the Ohio State basketball coach. Taylor has never been overly fond of what he still calls “oblong ball.” “Mrs. Havlicek,” he told her, “if you don’t want John to play football, then he’ll play it over my dead body.”

Even that might have been arranged at Ohio State, because Woody Hayes himself wanted Havlicek. John told Hayes he didn’t think he could hack basketball, baseball, football and the books, too, and he had a mind to play basketball and baseball. “How do you know until you try?” replied Hayes.

But Woody finally relented, and he told Havlicek he was the kind of boy they wanted at Ohio State “even if you don’t play football. So come on, and I won’t bother you again.” And Hayes didn’t, says John. His assistant coaches did. For the next four years they scattered hints like rose petals every time John passed by. Hayes himself was just slightly more subtle. He would introduce Havlicek to his football recruits as “the best quarterback in the Big Ten who isn’t playing.”

The 1960 Ohio State basketball team was the NCAA champion, led primarily by sophomores—Jerry Lucas, Mel Nowell and John Havlicek. It was just before that season began that Havlicek came unilaterally to the conclusion that very likely made his career.

He walked into Coach Taylor’s office, as Taylor recalls, and respectfully informed him there was “only one basketball, and you’ve got plenty of guys who can shoot it. I’m going to make this team on the other end of the floor.”

“At the time,” says Taylor, “we were trying to sell our kids on defense. Defense is hard to sell, but here was John literally jumping at the chance. I never saw anything like it. And of course I never saw anything like John. By midseason I was usually assigning him to the opposition’s best player automatically, whether it was a frontcourt man or a backcourt man.”

In his three years, during which Ohio State won one NCAA championship and lost two in the finals, Havlicek drew them all: Lenny Chappel of Wake Forest, Terry Dischinger of Purdue, Cotton Nash of Kentucky. “We even put him on a couple of centers,” says Taylor. “He’d get upset if he didn’t think he was guarding the best.”

And Havlicek himself made a discovery: “I knew from the first time I played this game that the toughest guy to score on was the guy who kept after me all the time, nose-to-nose, basket-to-basket. The opposite is also true. The toughest guy to defend against is the guy who keeps running. Who never lets up. Never lets you relax. Who sneaks one in on you the first time you drag your feet. I never worried about the physical part, killing myself running or anything like that. I read once where a doctor said you’d pass out before you did any real damage. I never passed out.”

Dervishes are an ascetic order, and so are stoics, and Havlicek is one of those, too. Shy, self-disciplining (he punishes himself for athletic failures by running great distances or denying himself Cokes), a noncomplainer. He played hurt, and still does. In a 1973 semifinal series with the Knicks he played three games with a partially separated shoulder, his right arm virtually useless at his side. Against Los Angeles in the 1969 finals he played with an eye swollen shut by an accidental gouging. “I don’t think you should mind a little pain if you’re paid to play,” he says.

In that 1960 NCAA championship he played with a severely cut middle finger on his right (shooting) hand. Taylor remembers a time when John’s knee was in such pain from strained ligaments that he finally consented to try an elaborate homemade brace the trainer called an “octopus.” When Havlicek appeared on the practice floor his teammates whooped at the contraption, and John retreated to the training room. “I can’t wear this thing,” he said. “Take it off. It’s embarrassing.”

Havlicek was also quietly self-effacing about scoring, and Taylor finally suggested that John might want to take a shot himself now and then. He had been averaging no more than six or eight points a game. There followed a game in which Havlicek led the Buckeyes in scoring. When an astonished teammate asked what had gotten into him, Havlicek said, “Coach told me to.” In his All-America senior year Havlicek led Ohio State in scoring seven times. He was voted team captain on all ballots but his own, which he cast for Lucas.

Having played no football at Ohio State, Havlicek was nonetheless drafted by Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns in the seventh round of 1962. In all, five NFL clubs sent him feeler letters.

Havlicek was drafted by the Celtics, too, in the NBA’s first round, but in those days basketball owners were throwing dollar bills around as if they were hatch-covers. The Celtics’ original offer was $9,500, with no bonus—”your bonus will be the playoff money,” Havlicek was told. Unbeknownst to Havlicek, Taylor called Celtic Owner Walter Brown to plead for a better deal. “You college coaches are all alike,” said Brown, “always thinking your player is worth more.” “Mr. Brown,” replied Taylor, “the NBA never had a player worth more than this one.”

The offer was raised to $15,000, which equaled that from the Browns, except that the Browns agreed to throw in an Impala convertible. Not having satisfied an itch to try football at a level where the tackles weighed more than 130 pounds, Havlicek gathered up the keys to the convertible and reported to the Cleveland camp.

“On the first day, at the first meal, I loaded up my tray and took a seat by myself,” he says. “I wasn’t planning on doing much talking anyway, and I’d heard about the things they did to rookies in the NFL. Suddenly I began to hear these barking and growling noises, like they were maybe directed at me. But when I looked up there was this guy with two T-bone steaks on his plate. He was eating them raw. I thought, ‘Boy, this football is going to be tough.’ “

As a 6’5″, 205-pound wide receiver, Havlicek was called “The Spear” by the Browns. He ran the 40-yard sprints in 4.6 seconds and, he says, “caught the ball as well as anyone in camp, but the team was loaded with fine receivers—Gary Collins, Bobby Crespino, Ray Renfro. And there was a lot I didn’t know about blocking.”

Against the Steelers in the second exhibition, at Municipal Stadium, Brown sent Havlicek in. “The crowd gave me a big hand,” he says. “They were curious to see if a basketball player could play football. Somehow I made my block, on the cornerback, I think. A perfect block. Jim Brown ran a sweep 48 yards to the Pittsburgh two.

“Somebody in the huddle said, ‘O.K., Spear, do it again.’ I was feeling pretty good. This time it was an off-tackle play. I lined up looking into the face of Big Daddy Lipscomb. When they peeled everybody off the pile I was the bottom, my shoulder pads twisted around and the part of my helmet that was supposed to be over my ear was jammed against my nose. I said to myself, ‘Boy, this football is tough.’ “

Havlicek was the last receiver to be cut by Brown. “I liked Brown,” says Havlicek, “the way he ran things, the way everything was so precise. My kind of coach. He was very nice about it when he let me go. He seemed to know I had something to go to.”

Red Auerbach once said, “John Havlicek is what I always thought a Celtic should be.” A rival player, Jim Washington of the Hawks, perceives a more spiritual relationship. John Havlicek, says Washington, is what the Celtics have become. “They are one and the same,” says Washington. “He gives them leadership and inspiration, and their style of play is his style. It is a rare, beautiful thing.”

Late this summer, before the Celtics opened their training camp, Havlicek was back in Ohio. Early one sunny afternoon, he turned his Jeep Wagoneer out of the drive of the four-bedroom maple-shaded brick house in Wellington Woods, a suburb of Columbus, and headed out for some errand-hopping prior to an afternoon golfing date and an evening banquet to be held in his honor in downtown Columbus. “Actually,” he said, “it’s for the Children’s Hospital. I’m just a reason to get people there.” The Jeep had been the automobile of his choice for winning the MVP award. Its mates in the Havlicek garage were a bottle-green Cadillac convertible, an Audi and a Honda Trail 70 that had only 29 miles on it because all he uses it for is to take mini-rides around the neighborhood with his 4-year-old son Chris snuggled against his chest.

“I identify with the Jeep,” said Havlicek, turning into Olentangy Road. “You know, I could do this every day the rest of my life—play golf, fish, play tennis. Loaf around in these.” He pulled at the striped beach shirt he was wearing with the faded jeans and a scuffed pair of Adidas sneakers without socks. His hair was longer than it used to be, a concession to style, he said, and to his wife’s wishes.

He said it had not been that difficult to adjust his son-of-a-butcher’s tastes to his conspicuous success (his salary alone, as the highest-paid Celtic, is $200,000-plus). “We do not try to run up a lot of material things,” he said. The Havlicek homes in Ohio and in suburban Melrose outside Boston are tidy and attractive, but not pretentious; no swimming pools, no fancy rec rooms. Beth Havlicek, his college sweetheart, is a pretty girl with cornsilk hair and startling blue eyes. She has kept her cheerleader’s figure through two pregnancies (they have Chris and a daughter, Jill, who is one year old) by engaging John in a continuous round of shared activities. Beth took up tennis and golf for him, John took up skiing and horseback riding for her.

Havlicek made a grocery stop, then drove past the International Manufacturing and Marketing Corporation, a small but growing ($1 million assets) manufacturer’s rep of which John is vice-president. Under its aegis there is an expanding Havlicek line of sporting goods—five signatured items to date and, coming soon, a John Havlicek basketball game that is played like darts and will retail for $15. The president of IMM wants John to quit playing basketball and run the business full time. John said he told him that as long as he was in the shape he’s in he’d forgo the opportunity for a full-time desk job.

He patted his unabundant stomach. “I’m down to 193 now, but it’s not unusual,” he said. “I always lose in the off-season. I don’t go for sweets, and I don’t drink much, and in the off-season I run around so much that I don’t pay much attention to eating. Once we go to camp I’ll go to four meals a day, meat and potatoes, and be up to 205 in no time.”

He said he could remember that first Celtic camp as if it were yesterday. “I was absorbed right away. There was no trial period, no feeling out. Red never took a lot of guys to camp, and the old Celtics knew what to expect. All Red did was motivate ‘em. They’d all been champions either in college or as pros, and they never thought they should ever lose a game.

“The first year, Frank Ramsey and I divided playing time. Ramsey was near retirement, but he was still great. We were close. That’s when I first got to be called the ‘sixth man,’ Red said, ‘It doesn’t matter who starts, it’s who finishes.’ I wanted to finish. I’ve always taken pride in the ability to play guard and forward. No one else has really done it. Ordinarily a sixth man can handle the offense at either position, but the defense gets him. A guard can’t always pin a good forward in the corner, a forward can’t stay with a guard up and down court. My defensive background made it easier.

“To Red the idea of a team having character was as important as anything else. He was gruff and tough, but he transmitted something. The Celtics have always had a unity, a feeling for each other. On my first day in Boston, Bill Russell took me all over town to help me find a stereo. The biggest name in basketball. And I was a rookie. There were no factions, no personality conflicts that lasted very long, no black and white problems. There was no scuttlebutt, no rumors. It must have been rough on the Boston writers.

When Russell left as coach, I went from being the youth of the Celtics to the old man. K.C. Jones was gone…Sam…the next year, Bailey Howell. Nelson, Satch Sanders and I were the only vets left. People said, ‘Are these the Celtics?’ For a long while I didn’t think so. A lot of young players today don’t want to learn fundamentals, they don’t want to feed, block out, learn the plays. They have so much physical ability they try to take shortcuts. Well, I don’t want to be on a team that is fundamentally unsound. And that’s the way we seemed to be heading.

“In one game we set up two out-of-bound plays, actually called time-out to set them up. On the first one, the in-bounds pass was thrown to the wrong man. On the second the center lined up wrong. I couldn’t believe it. I doubt I’d done it before, but I came back to the bench screaming, and I had more to say in the locker room. Afterward I told a writer it was the dumbest team I’d ever been associated with. I said we had seven simple plays, and if a guy comes into this league making $20,000 and can’t learn seven simple plays, then he doesn’t deserve to be paid. The funny thing about it was we won the game.”

Heinsohn, his old roommate in the ’60s, gave Havlicek carte blanche to do and say what he pleased but Havlicek said he’d already figured it out. “I had a responsibility to pass on the Celtic tradition, to instill it if I could. I didn’t have to be told.

“The difference on the floor, compared with the old Celtics, is that we’ve shifted the emphasis from defense to offense. Russell was the greatest defensive center the game has ever known. Dave Cowens can’t be a Russell, but he’s a better shooter. K.C. was a great defensive player. Jo Jo’s a better shooter. I’m counted on now more for scoring than I was. Sure, I want the ball in a tight situation. I feel I know more what I can do, and I’m not bothered if I miss. As long as you know it’s the best you could have done, you should not second-guess a shot.

“The maturity we reached last year was remarkable considering how short a time we had had to rebuild. I could see it in the playoff series with Milwaukee, the very first game. We knew what we had to do, we did it. We played tough defense, made Oscar [Robertson] keep the ball as long as possible, get the time down to 18 seconds or so before he could get the ball to Jabbar. Let Jabbar have his 50 points. One guy won’t beat us.”

Havlicek steered the Jeep back into his driveway, turned off the key and settled back in the seat. “I’ve got two years on my contract,” he said. “You never know how you’re going to feel, so I’m not ruling out anything. This is a good business and I like it, but I’m going to play as long as I can play well. I’ll know. I’m not as fast as I was. I’m not as reckless on defense, partly because I’m smarter, partly because I’m called on more offensively. Partly because I’m older.”

That afternoon Havlicek drove his Jeep to play golf with his old Ohio State teammates Bobby Knight, now head coach at Indiana, and Gary Gearhart, who sells class rings in Columbus. Since Havlicek has not yet taken golf seriously, he suffered what would have been damage to his ego had he not been having so much fun. Only Knight really suffered. On the 12th hole he hit nine consecutive balls into the water. Havlicek and Gearhart tried to stifle their giggles.

“No wonder you can’t do anything,” said Havlicek, hefting a club from Knight’s bag. “These look like the covers of Mason jars.”

“My salary,” said Knight acidly, “is not dependent on my purring this hole.”

Their carts side by side on the next fairway, Knight looked over at the grinning Havlicek and shook his head.

“Greatest guy in the world. And he’s always been the same, from the beginning. Except now he’s rich.”

“You’d be surprised how naive we were,” said Gearhart. “John especially. Didn’t smoke, barely drank, probably never cut a class.”

“I had to study,” said Havlicek. “There were so many of you smart guys around I sure didn’t want to be the dumb one.”

“The wildest thing we did was go to the movies on Saturday night and throw peanuts around,” said Gearhart. “Lucas wouldn’t go with us. Havlicek would, but once inside he’d move away.”

“It would be embarrassing to get arrested for throwing peanuts,” said Havlicek.

“The fact is you were too cheap to buy them,” said Knight.

“Thrifty,” said Havlicek.

Havlicek’s next tee shot, a resounding whack, split the fairway and was past them all.

“Watch how I did that,” he said. “I never hit it the same way twice.”

Clank. Havlicek’s second shot, like a stricken toy plane, dived erratically into the left rough. John waved at it.

“In my opinion,” said Knight, “John Havlicek is the greatest basketball player who ever lived, bar none. I’m not saying he has more ability, I’m saying he’s the greatest player, because he can beat you so many ways, and nobody, nobody goes as hard for as long as he does.”

Bonk. Havlicek’s third shot, struggling to get airborne and out of the rough, hit a tree and caromed off into a sand trap. “My game,” said Havlicek, “has gotten itself together.”

“How can the world’s greatest athlete be so bad at golf?” asked Gearhart.

Schlump. Kerplop. Havlicek’s sand shot took off nicely but landed in a pond by the green. Havlicek raised his club into the air as if it were a standard.

“I’ll tell you a story,” said Knight. “At Indiana we were playing Providence after we’d lost in the NCAA semifinals. Playing for third place. John suddenly appeared at our team meal. He went around introducing himself, as if my players did not know who he was. Then he told them, ‘You have to play for third place tonight. It’s the best you can do. So you should do your best.’ Later, after we won easily, a writer asked me how I got ‘em so keyed up for a third-place game. I said I hadn’t.”

At the Havlicek banquet that night the menu included Boston Celtic parfait, and a group of ladies in green and white uniforms who called themselves the “Havlicettes” sang a medley of Havlicek, Super Celtic Handy and Give John’s Regards to the Buckeyes. There were film clips of key games and TV commercials John had made—Diet Rite among them—and a nostalgic reel or two of his wedding. Perhaps accidentally, the pictures of his high school football games came on the screen upside down.

People influential in Havlicek’s life got up to pay him tribute. His old high school coach told the audience that whenever he sees John on TV “I tell my son, “That’s John Havlicek. I coached him.’ It’s the greatest honor I could have.” Fred Taylor said that Havlicek was probably the only man in Ohio who could bring such a crowd together “on the eve of oblong ball season.” Bobby Knight said he wished he had Havlicek’s money. When John’s mother was called on to be recognized from the floor, John, on the podium, stood up and the audience followed. Mrs. Havlicek’s blush could be seen across the room.

Then the occasion himself came to the microphone. He said in his familiar, pleasing baritone that it was “hard for me to accept compliments very well,” and that the only reason he was there was that there were children who needed help. After that he and Beth passed out the door prizes—balls, posters, etc.—that John himself had donated.

When it was over and the dance band was whipping up a rock tune, Knight and a small knot of old Ohio State players and friends gathered around Fred Taylor near the podium. Taylor said he had called Havlicek after the final NBA championship game with Milwaukee. “I got him out of the shower. He said, ‘Fred, it’s the only time I ever won anything by myself,’ meaning without a Lucas or a Russell to take the spotlight. I said, “John, you’ve been winning all your life.”

“You know, I had a call just the other day, one that I seem to get all the time. The guy said, ‘Fred, I have a prospect for you. He’s another John Havlicek.’ I stopped him right there. I said, ‘Don’t ever tell me that. There’s no such thing. There’s only one.’ “

***

Classic SI Photos of John Havlicek:

http://www.si.com/nba/photos/2015/04/08/classic-si-photos-john-havlicek

Iron John

by Bob Ryan
August 24, 2006

He could have played with Larry Bird, you know.

John “Hondo” Havlicek would have been 39, but so what? He didn’t quit because he could no longer play. He retired from basketball in ’78 because he didn’t like going to work everyday any longer.

He had been used to teammates like Bill Russell and Dave Cowens, and by the ’77-78 season, he was saddled with the likes of Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe. Part of the deal for him was living the life; when the life became a drag, he thought it was time to say good-bye. But if he had really known what Larry Bird was going to be all about, well, who knows? He could have played until he was 40 or 41 and told the grandchildren that he had played with both Bob Cousy and Larry Bird. He would have been the linkage for 41 years of Boston Celtics, and NBA, history. As it was, he didn’t miss by much. He scored 29 points in his dramatic final game, averaged 16.1 points per game for the season—no surprise, because, as you’ve already heard, the man could still play.

Playing with Bird would have been fun, and to some degree it would have represented a full circle. It would have borne some similarity to playing with Cousy, which Havlicek did in The Cooz’s final season. “All I did offensively in my rookie year,” Hondo once said, “was run around and make lay-ups on passes from Cousy.” He could have gotten passes from Bird in much the same way, and he knew it.

Of course, the truth is that he did play with Bird and against him. It’s just that the public was not privileged to bear witness to the annual April 8th ritual of the late 70’s and early 80’s. April 8th is Havlicek’s birthday, and every year, then-coach Bill Fitch took full advantage of the opportunity to bring Havlicek in for a workout with his team. At ages 39, 40, 41, and beyond, Havlicek demonstrated that he could still play. A terminally-awful left knee ended all that, but not before the point had been made to youngsters who might not have fully appreciated that John Havlicek remains one of the handful of greatest basketball players who ever lived.

It was fashionable in his time to anoint either Oscar Robertson or Jerry West as the game’s best all-around player, and in the early days there was also plenty of sentiment for Elgin Baylor. Havlicek was regarded as the game’s pre-eminent sixth man, no more—until he stopped being a sixth man and became the Bionic Man.

The fact that Havlicek was not a full-time starter during the first seven years he spent with the Celtics was utterly irrelevant. As legendary coach Red Auerbach was forever fond of saying, “It’s not who starts the game, it’s who finishes it.” And Auerbach knew what he had right from the start: as a rookie in ’62-63, Havlicek was third on the champion Celtics in minutes played. The next he advanced to second. And when it got to be what Magic Johnson called “Winnin’ Time,” Havlicek was on the floor, because he was one of the truly rare offensive players of note who is just as good on defense. Or maybe the other way around.

He did not exactly arrive in Boston amid great fanfare. Even though he had been a first-time All-American at Ohio State, Havlicek wasn’t even the most publicized player on his own team. That honor belonged to Jerry Lucas, a megastar in high school who was the acknowledged star of a Buckeye team that won the NCAA title in ’60 and finished second to Cincinnati in each of the next two years. Havlicek was the other guy.

He was the last man taken in the first round of the ’62 draft, and before he presented himself for Auerbach’s summertime inspection, he stopped in Cleveland to try out for the NFL Browns. They had drafted him as a quarterback even though he had not played since high school, but when he reported to their camp he was almost immediately converted into a wide receiver, a position he had never played. He performed in exhibition games and very likely could have made a weaker club. As it was, he was cut in favor of Gary Collins, a name any good football fan must recognize.

At 6-5 and around 210 pounds, John Havlicek had an ideally adaptable athletic body. His hands were large and exceptionally strong. He was amazingly flexible. And then there was that stamina.

That gift.

Other people got tired when they ran. John Havlicek didn’t. He attributed his exceptional stamina to his rural upbringing. He had grown up in the southeastern Ohio town of Lansing, where there wasn’t much to do besides play sports and play in the surrounding hills. Havlicek didn’t ride in a car—he ran from place to place. He didn’t bike. He ran. Everywhere. All the time. Just a way of life.

Of course, there was also the matter of the lungs. Jumbo-sized lungs so big they could not fit on a single X-ray plate. Havlicek always needed one and a half. True story.

John Havlicek was lucky to join the Boston Celtics, and he would be the first to tell you that. He walked onto a team that was in Year Six of an amazing 11-NBA-Championships-in-13-years run. Bill Russell was the sport’s reigning king. Cousy was still around. The Jones Boys, Sam and K.C., were ready to roar. Tom Heinsohn had three years left. Frank Ramsey was perfecting the sixth man art, and he would pass on his secrets to The Kid—starting with the practical suggestion that he take off his warm-up pants and drape the jacket around his shoulders, ready to spring into immediate action when his name was called.

Most of all there was Auerbach, who wasn’t just any coach because he didn’t think like other coaches. Looking at a player, he saw what was good and feasible, not the good and inefficient. He could deal with mismatched parts, always envisioning how they could be molded into a team.

When Havlicek entered the NBA, he wasn’t a terribly accomplished shooter. No problem—he was told to run lanes and move without the ball and subsist on leftover garbage points. He was told that if he played aggressive defense, the offense would take care of itself, and it did. The eager, athletic, thoroughly unpolished Havlicek averaged 14 points a game as a rookie.

When the ’62-63 season ended, he went home set on improving. He shot thousands of jump shots that summer, and returned a jump shooter with great range. He averaged 19.9 points a game his second season, and over the next 11 campaigns never averaged fewer than 18.3. It was classic Havlicek to identify a problem and address it so capably.

The defining moment of his career took place on April 15, ’65. He was in his third playoffs and already considered the game’s best sixth man. But by making one play at the end of one ballgame, he became a folk hero, and he would remain one until the end of his career.

***

It was Game Seven of a grueling Eastern Conference Finals series with Philadelphia. The Celtics led 110-109, with four seconds left, but the 76ers had the ball out of bounds underneath their own basket, following a bizarre Russell turnover in which an inbounds pass hit a guide wire running from the backboard to the first balcony. It was a scary moment. The 76ers had options ranging from jump shots by Hal Greer or Chet Walker to a power move by Wilt Chamberlain to an offensive rebound. But Havlicek prevented all that, deflecting a Greer inbounds pass intended for Walker over to Sam Jones.

What transformed the play from timely feat to historic moment was the late Johnny Most’s broadcast description, the most famous call in Boston sports history—it consisted of more than a minute of frenzied screaming in Most’s unique, raspy voice. Re-played the following morning by radio station WHDH, it enraptured the town. “Havlicek Stole The Ball!” later became the title cut of a best-selling album.

“I was starting to make inroads” Havlicek recalls, “but after that play people realized I was going to be around for a while. And the album definitely influenced the way people thought of me.”

Phase I of his career ended in ’69 with another championship (his sixth) and the retirements of both Russell and Sam Jones. At this point Havlicek was a perennial All-Star and the unquestioned number-one sixth man in the game, but his name was absent from the Oscar-West discussions. That was about to change

Few remember that rookie coach Tom Heinsohn wished to maintain Havlicek’s role as the consummate sixth man when the ’69-70 began. That last about three games—until Heinsohn realized that a) the team was not good enough to enjoy that luxury, and b) Havlicek might as well start since he won’t get tired anyway. There have been other great players, but nearly 30 years later, it’s very easy to contend that no one has ever played basketball the way John Havlicek did for the next five years. He was the ultimate king on the chessboard, giving his coach an All-Star player at two positions for as long as he was needed.

During the ’69-70 season Havlicek led the Boston Celtics in scoring, rebounding and assists while averaging a league-high 45 minutes a night. Understand that 45 Havlicek minutes were unlike any other player’s 45, because in the John Havlicek scheme of things there was no standing around. It was pedal-to-the-metal all the time.

And that’s not even the half of it.

With Russell and Sam Jones gone, the Celtics were in transition. There were young players coming in, but they didn’t know anything about the NBA; suddenly Havlicek was left with precious few allies from the old days. There were Don Nelson and Satch Sanders, and then there were kids. Havlicek had to do the scoring, the rebounding, the passing and the thinking for just about everybody.

His ’70-71 season was a reasonable carbon copy of the ’69-70 season, in which he had elevated into the league’s ultra-elite. He gained rebounding help from 6-9 center Dave Cowens, but Havlicek was still responsible for the heavy-duty scoring (a career-high 28.9 ppg), defending and playmaking. He was regularly submitting triple-doubles, except that back then we didn’t know enough to label them as such (that honor goes to Bruce Jolesch, a Laker PR man in the Magic Johnson era). The record keeping was less sophisticated than today, and it’s impossible to reconstruct the box scores, so the actual number of Havlicek triple-doubles is lost. Suffice it to say that, along with Robertson and West, he had plenty.

Havlicek had moved into the category of legend, a man who could play heads-up with the finest forwards and guards in the game. A man who needed no rest. Other coaches had to find places for their stars to take a blow, but not Heinsohn. If Hondo played 48, he played 48. He might not practice that hard the next day, but if there was a game the following night, he could go 48 again. “I’d give my right arm to have his stamina,” says Matt Guokas, then a journeyman forward.

Nothing seemed to deter Havlicek. After suffering a painful injury to his right wrist, he developed his let hand more fully. This adaptability served him very well in the ’73 playoffs, when the Celtics had won 68 games and with the Lakers were co-favorites for the championship. But first they needed to get by ancient rival New York, and the Knicks matched up very well with them, physically and psychologically. The teams were tied at a game apiece, and in Game Three, Havlicek found himself wedged between Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley while fighting through a pick. He wound up injuring his right shoulder.

The Celtics lost that game, and worse yet were informed that Havlicek would not be able to play in Game Four at Madison Square Garden. Boston put up a sensational Havlicek-less effort but lost that game in double overtime. Havlicek made it back onto the floor for Game Five, despite the fact that he had limited use of his right arm and shoulder. He scored 18 points on six baskets—four of which were left-handed—as the Celtics kept the series alive. He was somewhat less effective in the sixth game, another Celtics triumph, and he was not functional at all in Game Seven, a 94-78 New York win. But that incomprehensible performance in Game Five had reinforced his legend.

Havlicek was simply unlike other men. He was inherently disciplined and organized to a frightening degree. He was the only NBA player, before or since, known to hang his knee-length socks on a hanger. He arranged his colognes, talcum powder, etc. by ascending height on the shelf. His locker always looked ready for an inspection.

Such a man looks at the world in its simplest, most logical terms, one reason why Havlicek never attempted to coach. He knew himself and that his thought processes were not like everyone else’s. He could never understand the woeful failings of mortal men—men who, unlike himself, could not play a single game against a team and figure out all of its plays. What was obvious to John Havlicek was quantum physics to many of his mates.

No man, not even John Havlicek, could have reasonably continued to carry the physical and mental load of the early 70’s for very long. Fortunately for him, the team did get better, and his overall burden was lessened. By the time the Celtics won their first post-Russell title in ’74, Havlicek was sharing the spotlight with Jo Jo White, Don Chaney, Paul Silas and most of all Dave Cowens, by then a three-time All-Star.

Havlicek was 34 and in his 12th season. Heinsohn was taking him out of ballgames every once in a while, but when he needed his big gun to go the full 48, it was no different from six or seven years earlier. Havlicek was Havlicek, still an elite player. He was upset when the team failed to win the title in ’75, after bouncing back from a 9-8 start to win 60 games. The ’75-76 team sputtered somewhat, but hopes were higher when the playoffs began; it was potentially devastating when Havlicek sustained a foot injury in the very first game.

Thanks to some Cowens fourth-quarter heroics, the team pulled out a dramatic Game One comeback win, but as the team assembled for practice at the Boston Garden the following day, it was greeted by the sight of John Havlicek being wheeled down the corridor on a dolly. He had a torn plantar fascia (the connective tissue in the arch) in his left foot, a very painful injury. The prescription was to soak the foot for three hours a day in ice. Havlicek being Havlicek, he reasoned that if three hours a day was good, six or seven hours a day would be twice as good. He was ready to do whatever it took to get himself back in the lineup. And so, for the rest of the playoffs, from Boston to Cleveland and finally to Phoenix, Havlicek carried around a turquoise dime store dishpan. Day and night he would shuffle to the ice machine and load the dishpan with what he laughingly referred to as “two Hondo handfuls” of ice, then soak his foot as he watched TV.

At no point in those playoffs was he ever really himself physically, but he played. He played his two-position game as hard as he could through the six-game conquest of the Buffalo Braves and the six-game conquest of Cleveland and into the Finals. He never practiced, just suited up for the games. Bad foot and all, he played 58 out of 63 minutes in the Celtics’ stirring, triple-overtime victory in Game Five. He hit what seemed to be the winning basket, a difficult bank shot with one second left in the second OT, only to see it trumped by Gar Heard’s buzzer-beater. Two nights later in Game Six, Boston locked up the championship.

Havlicek had always been a major playoff performer, whether he was stepping into the starting lineup in a pinch back in the Russell-Auerbach days, scoring a team playoff record 54 points in the first Atlanta game in ’73 or executing the back-breaking three-point play to put away Game Seven against Milwaukee. That would continue to be the case the following year, when he submitted what may be his most noble showing of all. The opponents were the rollicking, frolicking Philadelphia 76ers, and Havlicek’s task at age 37 was to do something about Dr. J—Julius Erving, then 27 and very much at the all-around peak of his game. For seven games, Havlicek devoted himself to defense, and the good Doctor never went off. He never even got so much as a step on Havlicek, and the underdog Celtics took the Sixers to a seventh game before the overall Philly superiority came to the fore.

Havlicek would play one more year, not a particularly happy one. The team won 32 games. The atmosphere was bad. The only real interest was his Farewell Tour, and the only game that got anyone aroused was his last. He always had a good sense of propriety, and so he arrived at the Boston Garden for his 1,270th and final NBA game in a tuxedo. In the game, he went out and had a little fun. Never afraid to put up shots (he once went 15-40), Havlicek fired away 33 times. The Celtics were in control throughout, and as the clock wound down the crowd really got into it. Ernie DeGregorio was in the game for Boston, and the only man on his radar screen was Havlicek. Hondo had begun his career catching passes from Bob Cousy, and now he was ending it by catching passes from the only player alive who saw the game the way The Cooz did. In one 11-second span, Ernie D twice found Havlicek on sneakaways. He scored nine lightning points to an amazing roar, finishing with 29—a phenomenal farewell.

Havlicek was a man of his own time and place, and he retired with no major regrets. “If I hadn’t hurt my shoulder in ’73, we definitely would have won that year,” he says. “And if we had held onto [Paul] Silas and [Paul] Westphal, we might have squeezed out one more at the end. Other than that, no regrets.”

He’s been gone for 20 years, and we have not seen his like since. The only multi-positional players anywhere near his level have been Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and Jordan never really played much forward. Pippen, meanwhile, can only dream of possessing the legendary Havlicek stamina. As is the case with all special playres, people try much too hard to find equivalents. For a year or so, Dan Majerle was supposed to be the new Havlicek. He’s a nice player, but please.

If anything, Hondo would be even more effective in today’s game, if only because he had three-point range. He was every bit a “modern” ballplayer, and if you combine the sophistication and brainpower he brought to the game, it would really be something. On defense he’d be sinful—his lateral quickness and anticipation would fit perfectly into a modern scheme. But perhaps he’s better off not being around today. The NBA externals, the arena noise and the emphasis on irrelevant folderol would have irritated him.

No, John Havlicek played at the right time and was revered by his rivals, who knew him as both a great player and a great person. Playing against John Havlicek was a challenge and an honor, and Bill Bradley sums it up best in his wonderful book, Values of the Game.

“John Havlicek,” writes Bradley. “The guy drove my crazy. He drove everybody crazy. Covering John Havlicek was like trying to hold mercury in your hand. He worked harder than any player out there, constantly running, using screens, getting the ball at the right time, taking only the good shots. The ultimate competitor.”

True then, true now.

***

John Havlicek GettyImages Pictures

http://www.gettyimages.com/photos/john-havlicek?sort=mostpopular&excludenudity=true&mediatype=photography&phrase=john%20havlicek

Remembering the underappreciated Celtic great John Havlicek

by Cort Reynolds
October 13, 2014

How the most underappreciated superstar in NBA history ran (and willed) his way to the top echelon of the Hall of Fame

Mention the name John Havlicek and the first thing that springs to mind for most fans is “great sixth man.” Or maybe “Havlicek steals the ball.” Perhaps great swingman, something about running well without the ball, or being an extraordinary defender.

The sometimes-overlooked Celtic was all that and much, more more. The franchise all-time leading scorer who ranked third in NBA annals in career points when he retired in 1978 was one of the handful of best all-around players in hoop history, and played at a high level longer than anyone not named Jabbar, Stockton or Malone.

Along with Scottie Pippen and Michael Cooper, John was the most versatile defender in NBA history. An athletic 6-5 swingman considered by many to be the best all-around athlete in pro sports during the early 1970’s, he was a fine shooter and passer, and one of the greatest clutch players ever at both ends of the floor in league annals.

“Hondo” saw the floor extremely well, and was a good enough ballhandler to often swing to the backcourt and run an offense, as he did for much of the 1976 NBA Finals. He was also a good rebounder for his size, averaging as many as nine rebounds a game, and rarely missed a blockout.

John was old school fundamentals and toughness melded with new school athleticism. Almost every sport he tried, he excelled at. But he chose basketball when he could have been a pro in at least four sports. He was a superb finisher in transition at a time when teams ran the fast break constantly, none better than Boston, but he rarely dunked or did anything flashy except when absolutely necessary. He operated extremely well with an economy of motion.

When dribbling he often ran with quick, short choppy strides, which allowed him to change direction in the blink of an eye. Away from the ball, he sprinted with excellent speed, always moving, cutting, looking for an opening. The older he got, the better and more confident he became as a shooter. On defense, he shuffled his feet quickly and superbly, and kept his nose on the ball in textbook fashion, never giving up.

Along with John Stockton, he was the best-conditioned player and most indefatigable runner in NBA history. No player moved as well without the ball or as constantly, as he ran his weary defenders into submission and finished them off with a series of runners, bank shots, pull-up jumpers and drives. In college, he was afraid to even drink one Coca-Cola for fear it would affect his incredible stamina negatively.

Hall of Famer Pete Newell, the man who coached California to the 1959 NCAA title before losing to Ohio State and Hondo in the 1960 finals, went on to be general manager of the Lakers in the 1970’s. The noted basketball genius called Havlicek a “road runner taking you through every ditch, every irrigation canal, barbed-wire fence and cattle guard. You’ve had a trip over the plains when you’ve played him for a night.”

Havlicek’s incredible cuts away from the ball were developed in part from running through the thick woods and avoiding trees during his youth in rural eastern Ohio near the West Virginia and Pennsylvania borders. His father was a Czech immigrant butcher who favored soccer over hoops, and his parents spoke Czech at home almost exclusively.

Neighbor friends included knuckleball-pitching Hall of Famer Phil Niekro and his brother Joe, a duo who combined for over 500 major league wins. In fact, John hit .440 in high school and Phil said he would have been a major leaguer for sure had he stayed with baseball.

Hondo even spoke with a slight lisp, which may have made his quiet personality even more reticent and self-effacing. He let his play do the talking more than any superstar ever, even in a more no-nonsense era relatively devoid of self-promotion and huge-money contracts.

His brief stint as a CBS commentator during the 1978 Finals shortly after he retired showed that John was probably too low-key, honest and non-hyperbolic to be what television wanted. Plus, he sounded depressed that for once he was done playing and not in the championship round, as he had been in 11 of the previous 19 seasons as a collegian and professional.

But don’t think for a minute he didn’t play with fire and intensity behind his poker-faced mask of concentration. He just controlled and harnessed it.

Even at 38 in his final season during the All-Star Game, this fire just below the surface was on display for those watching closely. John stripped the ball cleanly from speedy young guard Lionel Hollins, who thought he could get by the 16th-year veteran. Yet Havlicek had stayed with him, forced Hollins to the baseline and when the southpaw rose up to shoot, snaked his hand in and stole the ball cleanly away.

But the official, probably not believing a 38-year old Havlicek could still do that to a guard as young and quick as Hollins, mistakenly called the Celtic great for a foul. Havlicek reacted with an uncharacteristic, short burst of anger by slamming the ball down two-handed, but caught it on the rebound before it bounced above his waist and re-composed, handed the ball to the offending referee.

Havlicek was such a great athlete that he was all-state in football, basketball and baseball in sports-crazy Ohio. Reportedly he could throw a football 80 yards and also outrun anyone on the field. He was recruited by Woody Hayes to be the quarterback for the powerhouse Buckeyes, but turned him down to play hoops instead (mom preferred basketball).

The irascible Hayes said he would not bother John to play again, but he had his assistants do that for three more years, without success. Hayes would later tell recruits in the early 1960’s that the best quarterback in the Big 10 wasn’t even playing football, in reference to Havlicek.

Hondo actually was drafted by the Brows and tried out as a receiver with the perennial champions before his rookie season with the Celtics in 1962. At a trim 6-5 and 203 pounds he ran a 4.6 40-yard dash and had excellent hands. To show how good an athlete he was, despite not playing in college John was the last receiver cut from a contender loaded with wideouts, and was invited back for years but never tried out again.

Sixteen years, over 26,000 points, eight rings, a Finals MVP and 13 straight All-Star Games later, it is safe to say he made a good choice.

After winning the 1976 NBA title, the eighth and last of his career, as team captain the humble John was interviewed first in the victorious locker room by long-time NBA referee great turned CBS analyst Mendy Rudolph.

He had averaged 15.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in the Finals, despite being the oldest player on either team at 36 in a fierce series, and suffering from foot and shoulder injuries.

By contrast the Suns starters (ages 21, 23, 25, 27 and 27) averaged under 24.6 years of age.

As usual, John avoided any self-aggrandizing comments. Perhaps attesting to his modesty and discomfort at speaking publicly, he even stumbled nervously at first, calling this last championship “the most toughest” of his eight rings due to the team’s age, the spunkiness of Phoenix and his injuries.

The aging Celtics, with the oldest core in the league among their top seven (average age over 31) – and a short bench – had to overcome a triple-overtime game five marathon, fly across country and win a game six title-clincher on the road less than two days later.

Yet behind the veteran know-how, skill and toughness of Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Charlie Scott and JoJo White, they outlasted the younger Suns in a battle between two spent squads to win a defensive struggle in Phoenix, 87-80.

John then recovered to say that Cowens won game six for them – “we were finally able to keep him on the floor”, referring to his foul-outs in previous games. Dave’s fourth period nine-point spree capped by a superb steal despite five fouls, and ensuing full-court foray three-point play, iced the title. John added that Finals MVP White “played magnificently…why don’t you talk to (Paul) Silas now.”

It is hard to imagine many recent superstars making that sort of victory speech today after winning a championship. Probably only Tim Duncan. The egotistical Jordan, Bryant, O’Neal, and to a lesser extent James, were rarely if ever calm and self-effacing after winning titles.

“If you score a touchdown, act like you’ve been in the end zone before,” goes the old saying.

Havlicek epitomized that, especially with the nine rings he won. Only Russell, with 13, won more combined pro and college championships. Even after making a game-winning play, he usually would simply jog off the court, rarely changing expression. Old school.

After winning the eighth banner, Hondo was calm and spoke softly. He did no dancing or strutting, made no “I’m the greatest” claims nor thumped his chest. There was no self-promotion, tomfoolery or putting down of the opposition. But that was Havlicek. No nonsense, quiet, deflecting of praise, sportsmanlike, understated. Modest and classy.

Driving Havlicek throughout his long NBA career were several things. Great competitiveness, to be sure. But one motivator was to erase the sixth man stigma that wrongly made some people think he wasn’t good enough to start. This was a ridiculous notion, since by his second season John played more minutes (over 32 per game) than anyone except Russell on a Boston title team featuring eight Hall of Famers.

Besides, he was always on the floor at the end of games when it mattered most, usually making big plays that contributed to another win. And he was always running. Away from opponents, his more celebrated teammates, from father time, into the record books.

Even more telling is the fact that in his sophomore pro season, John made second team All-NBA while coming off the bench! No other player in league history can make this incredible claim.

During the ABC telecast of the 1973 All-Star Game, analyst Bill Russell called John “a fantastic guy” to play with and coach. “He ran so hard, sometimes we had to tell him to slow down,” Russ noted. Noted Celtic 6-8 enforcer forward Jim “Jungle” Loscutoff, a burly veteran, got worn out chasing the youngster in an early 1962 pre-season practice and told rookie Havlicek to stop running so much. “You’re crazy…nobody runs like that,” complained Loscutoff. “Slow down.”

John simply responded by saying, “Quit pushing me around and I will quit running so hard.” Yet he kept running past frustrated opponents from the beginning of his NBA career to the end 16 years later.

When ABC play-by-play man Chris Schenkel opined during a Havlicek foul shot in the 1973 ASG at Chicago that 11-year veteran John had gone from supersub to superstar, Russell quickly corrected his partner. “Maybe a supersub at one time, but always a superstar, always a superstar,” he pointed out.

As a second driving force, at Ohio State Hondo played in three consecutive NCAA championship games, back when freshmen weren’t eligible. OSU won it all when he was a sophomore, then lost two straight times to in-state rival Cincinnati. But the big man on campus for the star-studded Buckeyes was superstar center Jerry Lucas.

The memory expert was Mr. Everything in college, while Hondo was a quiet defensive and rebounding ace who shot and scored at a relatively a modest pace. Lucas shot, passed and rebounded incredibly well, and was Batman to Havlicek’s Robin.

With so many stars on the OSU team, including John’s best friend and future Celtic teammate Larry Siegfried, Havlicek yearned to play great defense, rebound and run the floor since often there were not enough shots to go around. He felt defense was the area he could make the biggest impact on, and asked to be the stopper, a coach’s dream. He wanted to guard the other team’s biggest star, and always did, usually well. Thus, John had the total respect of his teammates. They voted him team captain unanimously as a senior – except for one ballot – Havlicek himself voted for Lucas.

Also on those great teams was future Indiana three-time NCAA champion coach Bob Knight, Hondo’s backup. A knee injury to Lucas in the 1962 national semifinals probably cost the Buckeyes a second NCAA title. But after being picked seventh overall in the first round, sight unseen by the Celtics, Havlicek was free to blossom in their equal opportunity running game.

In negotiations, OSU coach Fred Taylor forced the Celtics to give John more money because he promised “they had never seen anything like him.” He was right, and the extra $5,500 Taylor extracted from patriarch Walter Brown may be the best money the Celtics ever spent.

Bereft of many shooting opportunities in college, he reported to camp a bit reluctant to shoot as a defensive ace rookie breaking in on a five-time NBA champion. But once Red Auerbach encouraged the reticent shooter to fire away, he loosened up and eventually took more career shots than any player in team history.

Lucas was a mainstay on the great 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal team with Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, while Havlicek just missed (somehow) making the club, or it would definitely go down as the greatest amateur U.S. Olympic team ever. But in the NBA, Hondo and Luke’s roles were reversed.

Lucas was an All-Star in Cincinnati and Golden State, and enjoyed a career good enough to land him on the league’s exclusive 50 Greatest List in 1997. Somehow though, his pro career seemed slightly underwhelming. Maybe the expectations were too high for a 6-8 center in a position dominated by bigger centers. Maybe it was just too hard to get by Boston, Russell and company.

Lucas only won one title, at the end of his career as a platoon pivotman with the 1973 Knicks. And that team only won after beating Boston in the East finals 4-3 because of a severe shoulder injury in game three suffered by Havlicek when he ran blindly into a hard screen by bruising Dave DeBusschere.

On the other hand Havlicek, grossly exceeded his pro expectations and morphed into Batman, if not Superman. Due in part to bad knees, Lucas faded at the end of his career and retired four years earlier than his college mate. John made 11 all-league teams, 13 All-Star Games, captured eight titles and won a Finals MVP award to decisively eclipse Lucas (no slouch himself with seven All-Star Games, four all-league honors and one ring).

As teammate and friend Knight noted in the mid-1970’s, the reason John was better than Jerry in the NBA was simply because from their college days, “he wanted to beat (surpass) Lucas.” Of course, great athleticism, skill and endurance helped too.

Thirdly, even though he was probably the greatest all-around Celtic before Bird, he never was THE man on a Celtic title team until 1974. The Boston team he joined as a rookie was, according to John, the most talented Celtic team he ever played on.

That 1962-63 club featured nine Hall of Famers – Hondo, Cousy, Ramsey, Russell, Sam and K.C. Jones, Clyde Lovellette, Satch Sanders and Tom Heinsohn. By the late 1960’s John was the best player on the Celtics, but it was still seen as Russell’s team. Especially since Bill was player-coach on the aging clubs that gutted and guiled their way to win it all in 1968 and 1969, with the help of another transplanted Hall of Famer in hard-nosed forward Bailey Howell, who was similar to DeBusschere.

When the rebuilt Celtics won it all in 1974 and John was named Finals MVP, he finally could say he had won a title without the more-acclaimed Russell or Lucas, even though Cowens was a great player. On the phone a few days after winning the crown with his college coach Fred Taylor, he admitted “it is the only time I ever won anything by myself” (i.e., without Lucas or Russell). To which Taylor replied, “John, you’ve been winning your whole life.”

And always running.

In find it incredible that 15 years into his college/pro career with eight of an eventual nine combined titles under his belt, the modest Havlicek still felt he had to prove himself. His story of gratification is reminiscent of Bird’s private celebration in 1984 after conquering the Lakers and his nemesis Earvin Johnson in the Finals. Bird publicly dismissed a cogent observation by CBS announcer Brent Musburger in the victorious locker room celebration after the game seven win, but inside he felt differently.

“Does this win get you even for what happened after all those years ago?” (the Michigan State NCAA finals loss in 1979) Brent asked Larry. “We don’t worry about that, we’re professionals now,” he answered in his southern Indiana drawl, “but I won this one for Terre Haute.” Larry’s reply belied his own answer, if one reads between the lines.

Even more telling, he avoided Brent’s gaze while running his hand through his blonde mane, drenched with sweat and alcohol, as he gave the politically correct response. “You sure did,” replied an admiring Musburger.

Yet in the wee hours of that post-game seven night, Bird confided the truth and his real feelings to teammate and friend Quinn Buckner about beating Johnson for the crown: “I finally got him.” But Hondo had to patiently wait more than twice as long into his NBA career to expunge his personal demons.

In game 6 of the classic 1974 NBA Finals vs. Milwaukee, Havlicek led Boston with 36 points in an epic 102-101 double overtime loss that evened the series, 3-3. He appeared to have made the title-winning shot just before Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nailed a long running corner hook over backup center Hank Finkel (Cowens had fouled out) before the buzzer to deny Boston a chance to celebrate banner 12 at home.

In that classic topsy-turvy Finals, the home team lost a record five of the seven games. As in 1969, the Celtics had to win on the road in the ultimate no-tomorrow game, or fail in the attempt to win their first banner without Russell.

In that high-pressure road game seven, John came up with 20 points to help Boston to a surprisingly decisive 102-87 victory over the Bucks and a young Jabbar in Oscar Robertson’s swansong. Hondo’s driving three-point play past Jabbar in the fourth period highlighted a 10-0 run that clinched the crown.

After making the tough drive while being fouled, the ultimate poker-faced Hondo allowed himself a brief moment of celebration. But even it was muted, as he punched two bent arms downward in a very short motion, fists clenched. When second-year teammate Paul Westphal came over to celebrate more, John quickly regained his concentration and ignored him, as if to say “it is not over yet, let’s stop celebrating and finish this off.” And then he canned the foul shot.

Robertson shot just 2-for-13 from the field in his final game as Hondo and the Celtics sent him to retirement with a devastating defeat, as they had many times before in the 1960’s when he starred with Lucas and the Cincinnati Royals.

Havlicek would later say, years later, that Robertson was the “toughest player I ever had to guard. He simply had no weaknesses.”

Fourth, the coverage in Hondo’s career from 1962-78 was nothing like today’s saturated sports TV market. The first third of his career was also played in a black and white TV age, which today must seem like the prehistoric era to younger fans, and thus somehow less valid.

Fifth, the Celtics have had so many great players and won so many titles that sometimes the soft-spoken Hondo – and his 1970’s Celtics in particular – get lost in the shuffle. No team has won as much, retired as many uniform numbers or can boast as many Hall of Famers (24) on its all-time roster.

Sixth, his dogged defense, unselfish passing and subtly graceful offensive style of constantly moving without the ball didn’t inspire ooh’s and aah’s in a game now dominated by highlight-style plays. But combined with everything else, his style was lethally effective, like a python slowly squeezing its prey to death once you’re in its grasp.

“Superstar is a bad word,” said all-time great and long-time Havlicek opponent Jerry West in that 1974 SI article by Underwood called “The Green Running Machine”. “In our league people look at players, watch them make spectacular plays and say, ‘There’s a superstar.’ Well, John Havlicek is a superstar, and most of the others are figments of writers’ imaginations.”

From 1969-74, Havlicek was probably the best all-around player in the NBA, along with Jerry West and maybe Walt Frazier. He averaged close to a triple-double for two seasons, was the league’s best and most versatile defender, could play forward and guard at an all-league level, and was an ironman who rarely missed a game and played a hard 44-45 minutes a night – at an all-out, relentless running pace.

When John retired in 1978 at halftime of his final game during a contest televised by CBS vs. Buffalo, the Celtic fans gave him nearly a 10-minute standing ovation before he spoke. In a tradition-rich city with numerous pro sports heroes from Bob Cousy to Russell, Ted Williams, Yaz and Bobby Orr (probably his closest parallel in terms of two-way offense/defense greatness and self-effacing modesty), Havlicek still ranked at or near the top as one of the Hub’s most popular greats.

Knight was just one of many basketball royals on hand to pay respect to a teary Havlicek in his final game. Red Auerbach called Hondo the “All-American boy”, irreplaceable, and said that if he had sired a son, he would have wanted him to be just like John.

When he retired, it is safe to say that only Cousy rivaled John in all-time Celtic popularity, and since then probably only Bird has surpassed him, 36 years later. “If I had know this kid (Bird) was coming, I would have stayed around a few more years to play with him,” Hondo lamented in the early 1980’s.

Indeed, it is enticing to think of Hondo cutting and receiving perfect passes from Larry Legend for easy layups and playing his final seasons as sixth man again with the new Celtic dynasty as the bridge from Russell to Bird. John may have gotten Boston over the top in 1980, Bird’s rookie season and the last for Cowens in a Boston uniform. Certainly at his level of athleticism and and conditioning, Havlicek could have been the first NBAer to play regularly at 40. After all, he still averaged 16.1 points per game and played all 82 games in his final season in 1977-78 at age 38.

Hondo was great in the clutch at both ends of the court. The steal at the end of game seven in the 1965 eastern finals, the record nine-point second overtime in the 1974 Finals, the running banker off glass at the end of game six’s second OT in the 1976 Finals are just a few of many examples of his greatness in the clutch.

“We always leaned on John to take the big shots and make the big plays,” said 1972-76 Celtic teammate Paul Silas. “He will not only take the big shot, he wants it,” said Sam Lacey of the Kings.

“Sure I want the ball in tight situations,” John said. “I’m not bothered if I miss. As long as it is the best you could have done, you should not second-guess a shot.” Typical Havlicek.

While John’s intangibles rival his numbers and they can’t begin to describe his ability and leadership, intelligence, clutch play, tenacity and toughness, here are his statistical career highlights…

It has become common knowledge that Oscar Robertson once averaged a triple-double for an NBA season back in 1961-62 with 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and a league-best 11.4 assists per game. Incredibly awesome numbers, to be sure. This impressive feat has long been trotted out as evidence that the Big O was the greatest all-around player of the pre-1980 era.

Yet Havlicek put together consecutive seasons in the early 1970’s that were better than Oscar’s vaunted triple-double season, and arguably as good or better than any in NBA history.

In 1970-71, the 6-5 Havlicek averaged a career-best 28.9 points per game while also yanking down nine rebounds a contest and dishing out 7.5 assists per game while playing forward and guard well. He shot 45 percent from the floor and 81.8 percent at the foul line and missed only one game as Boston finished 44-38.

Those prodigious stats might fall just short of Oscar’s, even though Robertson played in an era with more rebounds to a faster pace and lower shooting percentages, and as a point guard he had the ball almost all of the time. But when one factors in Hondo’s huge defensive edge over Robertson, Havlicek’s best seasons rank as better.

John was a perennial all-defense selection and played forwards and guards exceptionally well, making him even more valuable. In more modern terms, he was sort of like Scottie Pippen on defense with Chris Mullin-type skills on offense, although Mullin (who wore number 17 in the pros because of Hondo) was a better shooter and John was a better ballhandler and driver, and faster.

Only Pippen and Cooper, two lesser offensive players (particularly Cooper), can rival Hondo in terms of defensive excellence and versatility.

He was voted second team all-defense that 1971 season, and was capable of guarding anyone from small guards to big forwards with his quickness, tenacity, intelligence and most of all, incredible endurance.

Havlicek made the all-defense team eight straight years (five times first team, three times second team) from the award’s inception from 1969 through 1976, when he was age 29 to 36. No doubt in his six seasons before the all-defense team was born, Hondo would have made it at least five times, with only his rookie season in question.

On the other hand, Oscar never made an all-defense team. The Big O could play solid defense when he wanted to, but with so many duties on offense and rebounding, he saved his energy largely for offense.

As Bill Russell himself said on air during the ABC NBA telecast in 1972 of the Lakers at Milwaukee game where the Bucks ended LA’s record 33-game win streak, “Oscar doesn’t play much defense.”

Now the Oscar supporters might argue that he had to do so much on offense that it was unfair to expect him to be a standout defender. Perhaps there is some merit to that, but Robertson also monopolized the ball on offense and got more assists because he almost always had the ball and was an excellent passer.

In fact the biggest criticism of Oscar is that he dribbled too much. On the other side, Hondo excelled with and without the ball as the game’s best runner and cutter away from the ball. Havlicek also didn’t have the ball in his hands nearly as much. His 7.5 assists a game as a forward are almost as impressive as ball-monopolizing Oscar’s 11.4 assists in his triple-double season.

As mentioned before about 1961-62, teams took more shots and missed more per game than a decade later, allowing for more rebounds. Thus John’s nine rebounds per game were only a slight gap behind Oscar’s 12.4.

Although Oscar was a guard, at 6-5 and 225 or more, he was bigger than the lithe, incredibly-toned Havlicek, as well as almost every other guard in the league by a large margin. Thus he scored a lot of easy baskets by simply overpowering small guards and shooting short jumpers over them. He was Earvin Johnson with a much better jump shot 20 years earlier in terms of size compared to his peers.

Havlicek did not get such easy baskets in the halfcourt. His scoring game was moving without the ball tirelessly, driving, hitting 12-to 20-foot jumpers, running the court with greater speed and endurance than Robertson. All while playing up to 45 minutes per game at breakneck pace. Plus Hondo was considered, along with Jerry West, the best clutch player of that time, at both ends of the floor.

The next season in 1971-72, Hondo almost duplicated his landmark previous campaign. He averaged 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.5 rebounds a game while playing in all 82 contests for 45.1 minutes a night. He shot 45.8 percent from the field and 83.4 percent from the line.

He led Boston to a 56-26 record and the Eastern Finals, where they lost to New York. In Oscar’s triple-double campaign, Cincinnati was 43-37. Hondo had stars in young teammates Dave Cowens and JoJo White in his greatest seasons from 1970-72, but Robertson also played with All-Stars like Jack Twyman, Adrian Smith and Wayne Embry in his triple-double year.

Havlicek’s best seasons were a bit better because he was a far greater and more versatile defender than Oscar. His offensive and rebounding stats were basically equal when one adjusts for the era and his position. A group of five Hondo clones would beat five Oscar clones in a full-court game by out-running, out-shooting and out-defending his opponent, in my opinion. Hondo was the best-conditioned player in the game, while Oscar was not nearly in his class in that category. In the last third of his career, the Big O was overweight.

Interestingly, the University of Cincinnati did not win its two NCAA titles until right after Oscar graduated, in 1961 and 1962, over Hondo’s Ohio State teams. And Robertson never won an NBA championship until his 11th season when he was traded to Milwaukee and teamed with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to get his lone ring.

So why have Hondo’s great near triple-double seasons remained unheralded and all but forgotten, while Oscar’s TD is commonly known? Well other than the obvious reason that they just missed the double digit cutoff in rebounds and assists, one main reason is the over-reliance on statistics and love of numbers in our stat-minded analytics-driven era.

Often by those who don’t watch or understand the game but love to crunch numbers, there is a tendency to put “triple-doubles” up on a pedestal as THE standard for all-around excellence, even though it doesn’t take defense into account much if at all, and also is vulnerable to the low-number stat line (12-11-10 is a TD while 30-15-9 isn’t, for example).

Even though he may have been one of the earliest point forwards (long-time teammate Don Nelson resuscitated the term with Marques Johnson and Paul Pressey on the fine 1980’s Bucks teams), the early ’70’s Celtics shared the ballhandling duties and there were no such clearly delineated positions then such as point guards and off guards.

And Hondo was an excellent, clever passer (6,939 career season and playoff assists attest to that) who could thread the needle as well as almost any forward in NBA history, except for behind Larry Bird, LeBron James and Rick Barry.

Also, Havlicek was the consummate pro who didn’t seek the limelight or play in an era where the NBA was marketed that well. Basketball isn’t a sport that is as easily captured in stats like baseball is since so much happens all the time and away from the ball. A player’s defensive value is rarely well-captured by stats. In fact, blocks and steals are often compiled by guys who gamble a lot and don’t play particularly good defense.

So much happens beyond the box score in hoops, much more than baseball. There has not been an adequate stat officially kept to quantify good screens set, or box outs missed, or hockey assists, or stimulation of ball and player movement yet. Nor switches well hedged or un-hedged on picks, or screens called or uncalled.

In fact, in every season of the 1960s but one, Hondo’s college and pro teams made it to the championship round every year, winning six NBA titles and one NCAA crown. That is a pretty telling statistic. He was a consummate winner, a uniquely valuable and versatile player who contributed to wins in more ways than almost anyone.

No less an expert than his old college teammate and friend Knight himself has called Hondo the second or third most valuable player in basketball history, along with Russell and Jordan. Pretty good hoops company.

In a 1974 SI piece on Hondo by John Underwood, Knight said, “for my money, John is the greatest basketball player who ever lived, bar none. I’m not saying he has more ability, I’m saying he’s the greatest player because he can beat you so many ways, and nobody, nobody goes as hard for as long as he does.

But early on he was overlooked because Boston had Cousy, Russell, Sam and K.C. Jones, etc. By 1969 he had become the star who led Boston to the last title of the Russell era. Yet West, who was stupendous in a 42-13-12 triple double losing cause for LA, was named playoff MVP over Hondo.

Sometime in the early 1970’s announcers quit calling him “Johnny Havlicek” in favor of John, as if to mark his passing from crew-cut young sixth man to established, adult superstar with sideburns.

Not until 1974, when Havlicek led Boston to the first post-Russell NBA title in franchise history at age 34 and was named Finals MVP, did he finally begin to receive his just due. He averaged 26.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.9 steals per game in the series, while shooting 43 percent from the floor and 87 percent at the foul line. West, Robertson, Lucas, DeBusschere and Willis Reed all retired that year, Wilt had left the game in 1973 and Russell five years before.

Yet by the end of 1974 Hondo’s prime was just about at its end. Yet he remained stoic and self-effacing, and didn’t do many national ads – except for a comical “Lectric Shave commercial with backup teammate Steve Kuberski. Still running.

And don’t underestimate how great a competitor he was. Most fans know about his famous steal in final seconds of the 1965 seventh game against Philadelphia. Not many recall his nine-point overtime in game six of the 1974 Finals (including three huge baskets over the 7-2 Jabbar), or his apparent running game-winner off glass in the second of three OTs in the classic fifth game of the 1976 Finals – despite playing on an injured foot with a bad shoulder at age 36.

When one thinks of the other greatest all-around players in NBA history, these names come to mind: Jerry West, Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Havlicek, Walt Frazier, Rick Barry, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James.

Hondo, along with West, was the most self-effacing of this group and probably the least flashy. However, the depth and breadth of his skills, versatility and athleticism is probably rivaled only by West and Jordan. Yet John was overshadowed by other big names on his championship teams – first in college by Jerry Lucas, and in the NBA by Russell, Cousy, Jones and company.

In 1972-73, after helping Boston to the best record in club history at 68-14 with great defense, a team-high 23.8 points and 6.6 assists a game, center teammate Dave Cowens was league MVP, not John. But when Hondo was injured in the 1973 Eastern Finals, the Celtics lost to the Knicks, 4-3.

Hondo, along with Kevin McHale and Billy Cunningham, is one of three superstars to have started out as a sixth man on title-caliber teams yet make the 50 Greatest List. He didn’t draw attention to himself, and did not make first team All-NBA until after his ninth season at age 31 – following five second team all-league selections.

He probably is the oldest man to make his initial first team all-league at 31, and is seen as a bit of a late bloomer even though he probably deserved the honor earlier. He kept improving as a shooter thoroughout his long career until he became a very accurate marksman, and a deadly one at that in the clutch.

As evidence of his continued improvement, John shot a career-best 87 percent from the foul line in 1974-75, his 13th season. In his last season three years later, he shot 85.5 percent at the charity stripe, the third-highest such mark of his 16 seasons. Hondo never shot below 45 percent from the field in any of his last nine seasons after never surpassing 44 percent in his first seven years.

Like waiting to break into the starting lineup on the loaded Celtics of the 1960’s in the midst of their eight straight NBA title run, he had to slowly break into the public consciousness as a truly great superstar, as evidenced in part by his five second team All-NBA selections.

This waiting always kept Havlicek hungry, pushing and trying harder than almost any star well into his 30’s. Like the greatest of the great players, he was almost never satisfied and kept improving. Among the greats only Hakeem Olajuwon, a late-comer to the game, continued to improve so late in his career.

John also never won a regular season MVP, mostly because he played in an era with so many superstars and was overlooked because he was extremely consistent, non-flashy and quiet. He could easily have won it any year from 1970-73, but never finished higher than fourth in the MVP voting, curiously. When the Celtics posted a franchise-best 68-14 mark in 1972-73, teammate Cowens was voted league MVP, but ironically made second team all-league behind Jabbar at center while John was a first team all-league pick.

John may not have won the MVP in any season, but it is safe to say he was one of the best-liked top players of his time, and was probably the most respected player in pro basketball over his last five seasons. When he passed the 20,000-point mark against the rival Lakers at Boston in the early 1970’s, almost every player on both teams took time out to shake his hand when the game was stopped briefly to mark his accomplishment.

I was struck by something when watching on tape recently the end of game six in the 1976 Finals vs. the Cinderella Phoenix Suns. As time ran out in the close Celtic banner-clinching victory, Phoenix rookie Ricky Sobers threw a 75-foot shot toward the basket in final desperation.

The launch fell short at the buzzer and came down under the basket in the hands of Havlicek, who made like the NFL wide receiver he almost was to snare the sphere. He then cradled the ball in both hands like a running back and started sprintng up the court to the Celtic locker room through a crowd of players, coaches and fans.

When he reached the other end of the court, he saw Phoenix 6-5 veteran Dick Van Arsdale. In the penultimate season of a fine 13-year career, Dick had valiantly played with a broken wrist in the Finals, only to come up short in the quest for his first ring.

Like Hondo he was a 6-5 swingman, a tenacious competitor and athlete who made three All-Star teams, made all-defense and was a fine shooter/driver. In fact, he was probably the best (and most similar to John) out of the group of many 6-5 forward-guards that proliferated in the NBA during the late 1960’s and ’70s as teams searched in vain for “the next John Havlicek.”

Other very fine contemporaries of John who came up short in this impossible Grail-like quest were Jerry Sloan, Jeff Mullins, Keith Erickson, Tom Van Arsdale (Dick’s identical twin brother), Lou Hudson, Don Kojis, Mike Riordan, Bill Bradley, Jon McGlocklin and 6-6 Doug Collins, whose idol was Havlicek. Only Erickson and Riordan, both quite solid players and athletes, from that group failed to make an NBA All-Star Game.

In fact, Collins gave up his starting spot for the East in the 1978 All-Star Game to his idol, John’s last ASG, so he could start at guard in his place. It was a much bigger and more unselfish, but less publicized move than when Alex Rodriguez moved to third base so Cal Ripken could start at shortstop in his last All-Star Game almost a quarter century later. But the coverage was far lesser then, and baseball had more lore and ink.

Anyway, mere seconds after the heated 1976 Finals ended, Havlicek came up behind Van Arsdale and embraced him, one All-Star midwestern swingman from the Big 10 – Dick was from Indiana – consoling another.

After Dick’s initial surprise he realized who it was and they exchanged truly respectful handshakes, showing the good sportsmanship so often lacking today, especially right after a hard-fought championship battle has been won and lost.

John was also hugged and congratulated by Suns forward Curtis Perry, who had lost to Hondo and the Celtics two years earlier in the 1974 Finals when Perry started for the Bucks. Respect.

When an injured Havlicek, in streetclothes, was introduced to the opposing crowd at New York’s Madison Square Garden before game 4 of the 1973 Eastern Conference finals on Easter Sunday vs. the hated rival Knicks, the partisan Gotham crowd gave Hondo a sincere ovation. Perhaps they were glad he wasn’t playing, but it was mostly a show of respect for a great, classy and well-liked ironman who was the Stan Musial or Lou Gehrig of the NBA.

He got his nickname since a schoolmate thought he resembled John Wayne in his title role of the popular early 3D 1953 western film “Hondo.” Facially, in height and character Havlicek reminded his classmate of Wayne, since in the movie Hondo was an honorable cavalry man, the prototype strong, silent type, much like John on the court. Plus, John’s unusual surname was hard for some to pronounce, while Hondo was not.

Havlicek’s package of athletic ability, size, high skill, drive, basketball intelligence and conditioning has only been approached by the smaller John Stockton and maybe Bird. Only Stockton was as unassuming a superstar as Havlicek, and his position as a pass first point guard lent itself to unselfishness and making his teammates better more completely, while scoring less.

Admiring Portland All-Star sharpshooter Geoff Petrie wanted doctors to “take his body apart and see what’s in it” when he retired.

“The toughest guy in the league to cover (because of his constant motion),” said Bradley and Riordan of Hondo, among others. “He’s right in your shirt whether you’re five feet from the basket or 20,” said Bucks shooting ace McGlocklin. “He’s harder to get shots on than anybody.”

Hondo’s uinque athleticism, humble rural upbringing and hard work ethic learned under first generation eastern European immigrant parents in the pre-computer age almost precludes another Havlicek from happening today in America.

The passage of time and the current era of hype have both made Hondo’s legacy dimmer, yet at the same time brighter to aficionados. He played in an era before comparatively very little TV coverage (and no Internet), so there are not many sound bites or clips of him to show in today’s highlight-saturated era. Pro basketball also reveres and celebrates its past less than the other major sports, treating his era as almost prehistoric.

Meanwhile, baseball stars before and contemporary to John are still held in the highest regard like Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Gehrig and Musial, to name just a few. But the lack of any NBA player since Hondo’s retirement to approximate his skill, value and versatility at 6-5 has also made the unassuming great’s legacy even greater to hoop cognoscenti.

In a modern era where players over-dribble constantly in selfish, ego and stat-driven fashion, his anthithetical ability to move without the ball so well is an unappreciated anachronism yet a reminder about how the game is played best, with crisp ball and player movement, and selfless sharing of the ball.

The 2014 Spurs reminded us of this, but it is unlikely their success will spawn many American imitators. Not enough players can or know how to play that uniquely skillful and unselfish style. The individual, isolationist, dribble-drive style of play is so ingrained in American basketball that it will not go away anytime soon. Plus, traveling and palming rules are not enforced enough to make it harder to play one-on-one ball well.

It is certainly no coincidence that the majority of the Spurs roster is comprised of international players.

In a recent book chronicling the early 1970’s Knicks championship era called “When the Garden was Eden” by Harvey Araton, Havlicek was asked how top stars from his era would fare against today’s best. Hondo said that today’s players are more flashy, but that for each dunk they might get, he or others from his era would get two backdoor layups.

Hondo was the absolute master of the backdoor cut for an easy layin, and made it often look easy. He was great setting up his man and then cleverly taking advantage of poor defensive fundamentals: a turn of the head, a lapse in opponent concentration or fatigue caused by his ceaseless probing and running, which usually resulted in a quick backcut and un-flashy layin. John almost scored without the ball, a very rare skill, especially in the instant gratification, look at me, over-dribbling world of big-time hoops today.

“I learned to score by taking advantage of every opening,” he explained in the Underwood article. “I never had the shooting touch of a Sam Jones or Jon McGlocklin.”

Always running. One wonders if he still runs in his 70’s. Probably.

His Ohio State head coach Fred Taylor said that for many years high school coaches often encouraged him to recruit this or that guy, claiming he was the next John Havlicek. But as Taylor knew well, his ilk could not be duplicated, and never has been. They pretty much broke the mold that created the hard-driven Havlicek. “There is only one John Havlicek,” said Taylor.

Perhaps what Bill Russell offered in that 1974 Sports Illustrated article by Underwood says it best. “John is the best all-around player I ever saw,” said Russell, simply.

High praise indeed, even if people today have forgotten how great and unique a player John “Hondo” Havlicek was.

***

John Havlicek Pinterest Pictures

https://sk.pinterest.com/search/pins/?q=john%20havlicek&rs=typed&term_meta%5B%5D=havlicek%7Ctyped