The ultimate complete player
John Havlicek combined the endurance of Lance Armstrong with the rebounding skills of a forward, the playmaking abilities of a guard and tremendous defensive tenacity. His Ohio State Buckeyes won the 1960 NCAA title and reached the championship game the next two seasons. In 1962, he was drafted by two storied franchises: the NBA’s Boston Celtics and the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. He played in several preseason games for the Browns before the team cut him in favor of future All-Pro Gary Collins.
When Havlicek joined the Celtics, the team already had seven future Hall of Famers – including three who would be named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List in 1996 (Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and Sam Jones). Some teams that have a lot of talented players experience chemistry problems but this was not the case in Boston. In fact, the veteran Celtics voluntarily shared the tricks of the trade with younger players, providing on the job training to their eventual replacements. The Celtics were not just a team; they were a family and each member cared about the welfare of the others.
“When I played there, we went seven years without making a trade because the only thing that we wanted to do was win championships,” Havlicek says. “To do that, you had to cultivate the next No. 1 draft choice that came into the fold. Frank Ramsey said to me, ‘I’m glad you’re here because you are going to prolong my career two years.’ I don’t think that you’d find that attitude today because everyone is looking out for themselves more or less. Since we didn’t make that much money then, a $2,400 playoff check meant a lot.”
Ramsey groomed Havlicek for the important sixth man role and Havlicek made an immediate impact, averaging 14.3 ppg and 6.7 rpg to earn a place on the 1962-63 All-Rookie Team. The Celtics posted an NBA-best 58-22 record and won their fifth straight championship.
Havlicek led the team in scoring (19.9 ppg) in his second season and ranked second in minutes played despite coming off of the bench. Havlicek was not selected to the Eastern Conference All-Star team but the swingman was voted to the All-NBA 2nd Team as a guard. Boston again had the best record in the league (59-21) and won the title.
In 1964-65, Havlicek ranked second to Sam Jones on the team in scoring (18.3 ppg). The Celtics had the league’s best record (62-18) and won the championship but not without some drama. Boston was clinging to a one-point lead over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals when Bill Russell’s inbound pass hit a guide wire over the basket, turning the ball over. Sixers guard Hal Greer attempted to pass the ball to Chet Walker, resulting in probably the most famous call in NBA history, Johnny Most’s tone transforming from matter of fact to exultant as he described the action: “Greer is putting the ball in play. He gets it out deep and Havlicek steals it! Over to Sam Jones…Havlicek stole the ball! It's all over… It's all over!”
Havlicek made the first of his 13 straight All-Star Game appearances in 1966. For the first time in Havlicek’s career, Boston did not have the league’s best record but the Celtics won the title anyway. After the season, Red Auerbach handed over the coaching reins to Russell and focused exclusively on front-office duties.
In 1967, Philadelphia ended Boston’s run of eight straight championships. The Sixers had the league’s best record for the second straight year in 1968 but Boston eked out a 100-96 victory over the 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals en route to another championship. Havlicek finished second on the team in scoring average (20.7 ppg). He also ranked in the top ten in the NBA in assists for the first time, finishing eighth (384; 4.7 apg).
Playing alongside Hall of Famers helped Havlicek to hone his court vision.
“I developed it because Bob Cousy was such a visionary on the floor,” Havlicek says, “and I think that you pick up a lot from your teammates. I was never a ballhandler or anything like that but I never lost sight of the ball at any one moment while I was on the basketball floor. The other thing is that I had a lot of movement to my game. I was never standing around. That creates a lot of opportunities. Those are some of the things that probably made me a better passer.”
Russell capped off his career in 1969 by leading the Celtics to their 11th title in his 13 season career. Havlicek spearheaded a balanced scoring attack with a then career-high 21.6 ppg and ranked ninth in the NBA in assists (441; 5.4 apg). He made the All-NBA 2nd Team and was selected to the All-Defensive 2nd Team in the first year of that squad’s existence.
In 1969-70, Havlicek completed his gradual transformation from being Boston’s sixth man to being the team’s best player. He had his best all-around season yet – ranking eighth in scoring (24.2 ppg) and seventh in assists (6.8 apg) – but the team struggled to a 34-48 record and did not qualify for the playoffs.
Havlicek earned the first of four straight All-NBA 1st Team selections with a remarkable 1970-71 season (28.9 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 7.5 apg), placing second in scoring and fourth in assists, but Boston (44-38) still missed the playoffs. Help had already arrived, though, in the form of co-Rookie of the Year Dave Cowens and in 1971-72 the Celtics went 56-26 to win their first division title of the post-Bill Russell era. Havlicek ranked third in scoring (27.5 ppg) and fifth in assists (7.5 apg).
Boston dominated the NBA in 1972-73, finishing 68-14, just one win shy of the best record ever at that time. The Celtics split the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the New York Knicks before disaster struck.
“I thought all year long that we would win the championship,” Havlicek recalls. “Unfortunately, I separated a shoulder and it became an issue. I was unable to play in a game that the team lost in double overtime. I thought that that was our year, but it ended up with an injury that just devastated the whole thing. Injuries are an important factor in any championship run and you have to be fortunate not to have people laid up, because if you do then it is going to take something away from the team.”
The Knicks won in seven games before claiming their second championship in four years.
The Celtics raced to a 30-7 start in 1973-74 before coasting to a 56-26 record. Boston crushed the Knicks 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals, setting up an interesting matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals. The Bucks were led by young superstar center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and veteran point guard Oscar Robertson. Their halfcourt offense was almost unstoppable. Boston countered this by pushing the ball on offense and pressing on defense, winning game one to wrest home court advantage from the Bucks.
After a 96-77 Game 5 victory in Milwaukee, Boston had a chance to clinch the title at home. Havlicek made several big plays, hitting a long jump shot near the end of regulation to force overtime and then converting his own miss into a basket that sent the game to double overtime. In the second overtime, Havlicek scored nine of Boston's 11 points, setting a Finals record for most points in an overtime period (a mark since tied by Bill Laimbeer and Danny Ainge). He shot a rainbow over Abdul-Jabbar with just seven seconds left to give Boston a 101-100 lead – but Abdul-Jabbar sent the series back to Milwaukee for Game 7 by calmly nailing a sky-hook from the right baseline as time ran out.
For the first six games of the series, Cowens single-covered Abdul-Jabbar while the Celtics guards pressed and trapped in an effort to force turnovers and increase the tempo. In Game 7, the Celtics switched tactics, swarming Abdul-Jabbar with double- and triple-teams. Boston won 102-87, claiming the Celtics’ first championship without Bill Russell. Havlicek received the Finals MVP Award.
Boston and Washington tied for the best record in the NBA in 1975, but the Bullets defeated the Celtics 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals. By 1976, the 36-year-old Havlicek’s career had come full circle and the elder statesman was now the fourth leading scorer on the team. The Cleveland Cavaliers upset Washington and Boston beat Cleveland to return to the NBA Finals. This time the Celtics faced the young Phoenix Suns, who only had a 42-40 record but defeated the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
Boston won the first two games at home fairly easily but the Suns proved that they were not just happy to be in the Finals by taking two straight in Phoenix. Game 5 figured to be a pivotal match but no one could have imagined that 30 years later it would still be called by many “The Greatest Game Ever Played” and become a staple on ESPN Classic and NBA TV.
The Celtics burst out to a 22-point lead and it looked like just another easy home win for Boston. But Paul Westphal, Phoenix’ star guard who had ironically been acquired from the Celtics in the offseason, led a remarkable comeback. Boston trailed 95-94 when the Suns’ Rookie of the Year center Alvan Adams fouled out with 19 seconds to go, giving Havlicek a chance to potentially win the game with two free throws. Havlicek sank the first but missed the second and the game went to overtime. Boston led for most of the overtime but the Suns made back to back baskets, Havlicek missed a corner jumper and the game went into double overtime. Boston again seemed to be in control but Phoenix scored, got a steal and scored again to go ahead 110-109, just the Suns’ second lead of the entire game. Havlicek made a running 15-foot bank shot as time expired and the Celtics ran off of the court, sure that they had won the game. They were shocked when referee Richie Powers put one second back on the clock.
Phoenix had no timeouts left, but Westphal called one anyway. Under the rules of that time, Boston shot one free throw and Phoenix was allowed to advance the ball to halfcourt (that rule was changed before the next season). Gar Heard hit a rainbow jumper as time expired to send the game into triple overtime. By then, it was past midnight literally and figuratively and Boston turned Cinderella into a pumpkin, winning 128-126. The Celtics clinched the title in Phoenix two days later.
The Celtics fell to 44-38 in 1976-77 and 32-50 in 1977-78, Havlicek’s last season. He was still an All-Star and a solid 16-18 ppg scorer, but the team was no longer a championship contender. The Celtics drafted Larry Bird as a junior eligible in 1978 but he returned to Indiana State for his senior year and did not play for Boston until 1979-80. Havlicek, who started his career by playing alongside Hall of Famers who began their careers in the 1950s, just missed playing with one of the signature players of the 1980s.
Havlicek is the first player to score 1,000-plus points in 16 straight seasons. He earned 11 All-NBA selections (four 1st Team and seven 2nd Team), made the All-Defensive Team eight straight times (1969-76), won eight championships, was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1984 and is on the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List. Havlicek still ranks 13th in NBA/ABA history with 26,395 career points and his 6,114 career assists place him 25th.
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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