John Havlicek, 1940–2019
The NBA iron man who anchored the Celtics
When John Havlicek was drafted by the most dominant team in basketball history, Red Auerbach’s Boston Celtics, he decided hustle was the only way to stand out. “Look what the hell we got here,” coach Auerbach marveled during Havlicek’s first practice in 1962, as the inexhaustible 6-foot-5 guard raced around legends like Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, who were coming off their fourth-straight championship. Havlicek became the quintessential “sixth man”—the first reserve off the bench. “People emphasize too much who’s starting,” he said. “Emphasis should be on minutes played.” By that measure, the high-energy Havlicek had one of the great NBA careers: He averaged nearly 37 minutes a game during his 16 seasons with Boston and missed only 33 of 1,303 games. “I’m ready to go 48 [minutes] all the time,” he said. “I get to rest on free throws and timeouts.”
Havlicek was born in the coal-mining town of Martins Ferry, Ohio, to parents who ran a general store, said The New York Times. “Fearing traffic on the busy roadway,” his parents refused to buy their son a bicycle, so Havlicek sprinted everywhere. “Maybe that’s where I developed my stamina,” he said. In high school, Havlicek was an all-star athlete in football, baseball, and basketball, and earned the nickname Hondo—a friend thought his “strong, silent demeanor was reminiscent of John Wayne in the 1953 movie of the same name.” Havlicek went on to have “a stellar college career at Ohio State,” said The Washington Post, where his “relentless, unselfish style of play” caught the eye of the Celtics.
“Their crew-cut rookie immediately was cast as a substitute,” said The Boston Globe. Yet Havlicek was a key contributor in the deciding game of the 1965 NBA Finals against Philadelphia. On defense with five seconds left and the Celtics up 110-109, he leaped to deflect an inbounds pass and clinch victory; Johnny Most’s radio call “Havlicek stole the ball!” remains iconic. In the 1976 finals, Havlicek played 58 of 63 minutes in Boston’s triple-overtime win against Phoenix—despite having torn a muscle in his left foot. He retired two years later, scoring 29 points in his final Celtics game. At a postgame press conference, Havlicek said, “When the adrenaline is going…you want to play forever.” To which Celtics PR man Howie McHugh added, “We can arrange that, John.” ■