Legends profile: John Havlicek
“On stamina alone, he’d be among the top players who ever played the game,” longtime New York Knicks coach Red Holzman once said of John “Hondo” Havlicek. “It would’ve been fair to those who had to play him or those who had to coach against him if he had been blessed only with his inhuman endurance. God had to compound it by making him a good scorer, smart ballhandler and intelligent defensive player with quickness of mind, hands and feet.”
The 6-foot-5 Boston Celtics star was a perpetual-motion machine, a human dynamo who was legendary for wearing out opponents with his relentless baseline-to-baseline efforts. A star at both forward and guard, Havlicek’s versatility made him perhaps the finest all-around player in the history of the NBA, according to Sports Illustrated.
A key member of two generations of Celtics, Havlicek provided the spark off the bench during the Celtics’ dynasty years of the 1960s. During the 1970s, he was the trusted veteran who captained youthful teams to championships in 1974 and ’76.
Known for clutch performances in big games, Havlicek posted impressive numbers during his illustrious 16-year career. In 1,270 regular-season games, he scored 26,395 points and averaged 20.8 points to rank as the Celtics’ all-time leading scorer. He also grabbed 8,007 rebounds, recorded 6,114 assists, and played on eight Boston championship teams. He appeared in 13 consecutive NBA All-Star Games, earned 11 selections to the All-NBA First or Second Team and was named to the NBA All-Defensive First or Second Team eight times.
The child of Czechoslovakian immigrants, Havlicek was born in the small town of Martins Ferry, Ohio, home to coal miners and steel workers. As a boy he loved to run, sprinting to and from school or from one mile marker to another on a local highway. He once said that he was forced to keep up with his bike-riding pals on foot because his parents refused to let him have a bicycle.
At Bridgeport High School, Havlicek starred in basketball, baseball and football. An All-State selection in all three sports, he was a highly recruited quarterback who could throw the ball 80 yards. He chose Ohio State but did not play football. Although he did play baseball and batted over .400 in his freshman year, he focused on basketball. A collegiate All-American, Havlicek scored 14.6 points in three seasons, playing on Buckeyes teams with Jerry Lucas, Bobby Knight and future Celtics teammate Larry Siegfried. Havlicek’s Ohio State teams compiled a 78-6 record and won an NCAA championship in 1960.
After his senior season, Havlicek was drafted into two professional sports leagues. The NFL’s Cleveland Browns selected him in the seventh round of the 1962 NFL Draft, and the NBA’s Boston Celtics nabbed him in the first round of the NBA Draft. The Browns, impressed with Havlicek’s athletic ability and his 6-foot-5, 205-pound frame, tried him at wide receiver. He played in several exhibition games that summer before being released by the team in favor of future All-Pro Gary Collins.
Havlicek turned his attention to the Celtics, who had taken him with the last pick of the first round. Boston already had Bill Russell manning the post, and Celtics coach Red Auerbach later said that his expectations of Havlicek had been modest; he had simply wanted a player to eventually fill the sixth-man role held by veteran Frank Ramsey.
When Havlicek joined the Celtics in 1962, they had won four consecutive NBA titles. Boston was loaded with talent, but star players such as Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Ramsey, and Jim Loscutoff were in the final stages of their careers. Havlicek’s youthful physical intensity was like a shot of adrenaline for the aging team. Coming off the bench mostly as a forward, he averaged 14.3 points during his rookie year, many of them coming at the receiving end of Cousy’s famous passes on the fast break. “I made a living off Bob Cousy,” Havlicek often said.
An NBA All-Rookie Team selection for 1962-63, Havlicek displayed great hustle and tenacious defense, but he didn’t impress everyone in his first season. According to Sports Illustrated, Cousy assessed him as a “non-shooter who would probably burn himself out.” But Havlicek possessed awesome physical skills. Among the first of the great swingmen, he combined brute force with quickness. At 6-foot-5, he could overpower most guards, yet he was quicker than most forwards.
He also had the inner drive that characterized “Celtics pride.” After his first year, Havlicek went home and worked hard to improve both his outside shooting and his dribbling. The next season he led the team in scoring, averaging 19.9 and he showed that he was ready to assume Ramsey’s position as the Celtics’ all-important sixth man. Despite Cousy’s retirement, Boston won 59 games in 1963-64 and vanquished the San Francisco Warriors in five games for the NBA crown. Havlicek made the All-NBA Second Team.
For the next five seasons, Havlicek was the best reserve in basketball. As Boston’s “supersub,” he came in at either guard or forward and was usually on the court at the end of a game. Along with Russell, Havlicek routinely played the most minutes.
Havlicek didn’t mind the sixth-man role. “It never bothered me,” he once said, “because I think that role is very important to a club. One thing I learned from Red Auerbach was that it’s not who starts the game, but who finishes it, and I generally was around at the finish.”
During the 1960s, Havlicek proved that Cousy had misjudged him. The “nonshooter” had blossomed into an offensive force who could be counted on to score 18-21 points. Havlicek could hit from anywhere and excelled at shooting on the run. He showcased his talents at the 1968 NBA All-Star Game, in which he racked up 26 points in 22 minutes. In addition, his improved ballhandling made him just as effective at guard as at forward.
Havlicek also didn’t burn out as Cousy had predicted. The “man in motion,” as he was dubbed in a book title, continued to run defenders into the ground. It was once estimated that he ran 3-5 miles per game.
The quiet, even-tempered Havlicek didn’t cut an imposing figure, but he had the broad-shouldered, sinewy frame of a steelworker. He also brought tremendous self-discipline and a methodical approach to tasks. When a reporter made fun of his habit of keeping his socks on a hanger in the locker room, Havlicek defended his fastidiousness in Sports Illustrated. “I’m a man of routine and discipline,” he explained. “My socks have to dry out. My whole life has been thought out.”
In addition to his impressive statistics, Havlicek showed great poise. At crucial moments when a decisive play had to be made, it was “Havlicek time.” A classic example of his clutch performing occurred in the seventh game of the 1965 Eastern Conference finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. With only five seconds left in the game, he deflected an inbound pass from Hal Greer to save a one-point Celtics victory, prompting broadcaster Johnny Most’s legendary call, “Havlicek steals it. Over to Sam Jones. Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball!”
In 1968, during another seventh game against the Sixers in the conference finals, he scored 40 points at Philadelphia to help Boston to a 100-96 victory. Later, in the pivotal Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals, he sank a miraculous, game-saving basket against Phoenix in the closing seconds of the second overtime to force a third OT. The Celtics outlasted the Suns 128-126 and went on to win the championship.
By the end of the 1968-69 season, it had become clear that the Celtics’ old order was passing. K. C. Jones had already retired, Sam Jones was 36 years old, Russell was 35, and “Satch” Sanders was 30. The team finished in fourth place during the regular season. In need of his firepower, the Celtics looked to Havlicek for scoring, and he responded with 21.6 points. With a strong effort from Havlicek in the playoffs, Boston’s graybeards defeated Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games to capture the NBA title. It was the Celtics’ sixth championship in Havlicek’s seven seasons.
The 1969-70 campaign put an end to the Celtics’ dynasty. With Russell and Jones retired, the team failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. Under new coach Tom Heinsohn, Havlicek became a starter and the hub of Boston’s offense. He had a sensational year, accomplishing the rare feat of leading his team in three categories: scoring (24.2), rebounding (7.8), and assists (6.8). He ranked eighth in the league in scoring and seventh in assists.
Havlicek, whose nickname, Hondo, was inspired by the John Wayne movie of the same name, led a Celtics comeback during the early 1970s. In 1970-71 and 1971-72, he averaged 28.9 and 27.5 points, respectively. Despite turning 30 in 1970, he led the league in minutes played for both of those seasons, averaging more than 45 minutes.
As the one remaining star from the Celtics’ past, Havlicek became captain of a team that now included Jo Jo White, Don Chaney, and newcomer Dave Cowens. Employing a fast break that brought back memories of Cousy’s Celtics, Boston rolled through the 1972-73 season with a 68-14 record.
The Celtics might have won an NBA title that year, but misfortune struck when Havlicek severely injured his shoulder in the third game of the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Knicks. He made a valiant return later in the series, but the Knicks ousted the Celtics in seven games. Prior to the fourth game at Madison Square Garden, the New York fans gave Havlicek a spontaneous standing ovation when he appeared in street clothes.
Five years after Russell’s retirement, the Celtics returned to the top of the NBA by beating the Milwaukee Bucks for the league title in 1974. Voted NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, Havlicek was now recognized as the leader of the new generation of Celtics. Customarily stoic, he became emotional after the triumph, according to The New York Times. “Thanks for doing this for me,” he said, as he hugged and kissed teammates in the Boston dressing room after the final game. “This is the greatest one.”
The following season, Havlicek continued his whirlwind offense and defense. The New York Times reported that after watching him put on a one-man show against the Knicks one evening, Bill Russell was heard to say, “The man is crazy. One of these days, he’ll find he can’t do it anymore.” But Havlicek was able to do it right up until the end. He played in all 82 games and averaged more than 16 points during his final campaign in 1977-78, despite turning 38 in midseason. His last year was a dismal one for the Celtics, however, as they fell to the Atlantic Division basement. But Hondo was treated to a two-month farewell tour in which fans flocked to arenas to pay tribute.
Havlicek retired with a slew of impressive statistics. He was the NBA’s all-time leader in games played at the time. He also ranked in the NBA’s top 10 in minutes played and in total points. At the end of his career, Havlicek had so many championship rings that he could have opened a jewelry store. He had been on eight Boston championship teams. In 1980, he was named to the NBA 35th Anniversary All-Time Team. In 1983, he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and in 1996 he was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Jerry West told Sports Illustrated, “The guy is the ambassador of our sport. John always gave his very best every night and had time for everybody-teammates, fans, the press.” Cowens added, “You tell me how many class guys there are like him anywhere. They ought to retire his number from the whole NBA. Just take 17 and stash it up there in lights.”
But the highest compliment may have come during a halftime salute in his final game at Boston Garden, in which Havlicek, in typical fashion, scored 29 points. “He epitomizes everything good,” said Celtics general manager Red Auerbach in The New York Times. “If I had a son like John I’d be the happiest man in the world.”
Havlicek died at the age of 79 on April 25, 2019.