The images linger, freeze-frames from a grainy newsreel. There are the crew cut and the big ears and the goofy half-moon smile in the team picture. There are the amazing last-second shots which seemed at the time to have been launched in panic but which New Englanders have come to identify as merely "runnahs." There is the dramatic steal in 1965 against Philadelphia that won a playoff series and set off a mob scene and the unbelievable basket against Phoenix that saved a championship and provoked another riotous celebration fully 11 years later. Always there has been the running from baseline to baseline...click...the running...click, click. Now, at the end, still the running...click. This Sunday afternoon—for the first and last time—John Havlicek will stop running. After more than 30,000 points and 9,000 rebounds and nearly 7,000 assists, not to mention eight championships and two months of farewell festivities throughout the land, Havlicek will show up for his final game down there on the shining parquet floor of the Boston Garden. If he doesn't slip while wading through the tears, he may even get to play in it. That accomplished, it would be Havlicek's 1,441st game (including playoffs, for those without a program), which in turn would be more games in the NBA than anybody else, flesh and blood or bionic, ever played.
Because of this, Buffalo at Boston April 9 will be a media event: old Celtics, political personages, presidential messages, Jimmy the Greek and the like. But one hopes John Havlicek's last game will be much more than that, too.
For those who may have nodded off through much of the past two decades and missed Vietnam, Watergate and Mary Tyler Moore, not to mention the changing face of U.S. sport, John Havlicek survives as one of the few remaining links to American pop culture past. Not only for the way he played the games—flat out, at both ends, in two different positions, his versatility making him perhaps the finest player in the history of the NBA—but also for the type of man he is, Havlicek's retirement is a watershed on our domestic sports calendar.
Recently certain critics have rudely knifed through Havlicek's career-long diplomatic immunity to question the propriety of his personally orchestrated final trek through the league wherein at every stop he has been accorded hosannas and rewarded with enough appliances to fill backstage at The Price Is Right. One man went so far as to remark that attracting a full house by the presentation of an oversized soft pretzel trophy, Tastykakes and a 10-pound salami—a few of the 76ers' chosen gifts—was not exactly a fitting monument to Havlicek.
April 10, 1978
Even Celtic Center Dave Cowens had to laugh at his teammate's shrewdness. "The man mentions he likes motorboating and immediately a motor is produced in Seattle," Cowens said. "Chicago will probably come up with the boat."
And yet, how is a legend supposed to pass from the scene? Obviously Havlicek wished to avoid copying the tardy, tawdry leave-takings of some of the other heroes of his era: Elgin Baylor benched, Oscar Robertson unwanted. Even Jerry West, who, unlike the above, recognized full well when his time was up, marked the occasion by abruptly walking out of a Laker preseason camp, leaving his team high and dry and, maybe even more unforgivable, denying his legion of admirers one final look, one clap, one tear.
And yet, perhaps more than any of the stars, more than anybody, period, Havlicek has always related to the masses, and they to him.
In the enigmatic social strata of the NBA, Havlicek's race certainly is a factor. But so is his unique game—a relentless all-court activity based on intellect and hustle and execution. Clichè though it may be, Havlicek is the quintessential throwback to the old days, to the pre-trillionaire days, to the days when players cared about such trivial items as pride, teamwork and the difference between winning and losing.
Though he vehemently denies that the radical change in Celtic personnel over the past year and a half and the subsequent collapse of the once prideful team has anything to do with his decision to quit, one wonders. How really invigorating could it have been for Havlicek to continue playing alongside the likes of Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, who once emerged from the shower after a humiliating 30-point defeat to announce, "What's everybody upset about? The W's and L's don't show up on the paychecks."
No, whatever he says, there was no way Havlicek could have risked his soul any longer in such an environment.
Another Celtic teammate, Kermit Washington, says this: "A lot of people have trouble identifying with the great talents like Dr. J and Kareem and the rest. But they know and love Havlicek because John wasn't born the best. He had to depend on hustle and determination and guts to get through all those years and win all those games. Fans relate to that."
Bob Cousy, risking sacrilege, remembers Havlicek when he came out of Ohio State and joined the Celtics for the 1962-63 season as a "non-shooter who would probably burn himself out." But Havlicek taught himself to shoot the next summer. Of course, this week, just like the Cooz said, Havlicek will burn himself out. Specifically, along about Saturday—when he becomes 38 years old.
Ironically, it was also Cousy who inspired Havlicek's cross-country retirement proceedings. No. 17's first season back there in the '60s was No. 14's last, and Havlicek always was to remember the road trips during which Cousy was honored on his final tour around what was then a nine-team NBA. "I was impressed with the positivity of the end," Havlicek said last week. "I wanted something like that. Of course it is a gate hype. But the NBA has been great to me. It set me up for life. The fans are responsible, and the franchises, too. If I can help out and get some more people in the buildings, I'm happy to do it."
Just a sampling of the encomiums that keep pouring in from his peers manifests how special an athlete Havlicek is (this confounded machine refuses to print "was").
Phoenix' Paul Westphal: "John is the one guy in the NBA who has never made a mistake."
Golden State's Rick Barry: "Havlicek is the only true superstar."
Detroit's Bob Lanier: "He's apple pie, hot dogs and all that stuff. His greatest contribution is as a model for our kids."
Los Angeles' Jerry West: "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. He is simply the ideal everybody expects an athlete to be."
If you or anybody in your neighborhood has ever heard or read anything bad about Havlicek, you are urged to report whoever is spreading the infamy to police headquarters immediately. Aside from some major philosophical differences with his former teammate and coach, Tom Heinsohn—stemming from Heinsohn's letting Havlicek's close friend and Ohio State teammate, Larry Siegfried, go in the expansion draft of 1970—there is no record of Havlicek uttering a harsh word on any subject.
"The man has lived an extremely clean life," says his onetime roommate and present coach, Satch Sanders. "He has remained untouched by the broadening experiences of the world."
Havlicek's famous public moniker, "Hondo," was inspired by the John Wayne movie, but for years his teammates have called him Czech after the last syllable of his name. And when they make fun of him, it is usually about his fastidiousness in the locker room, where Czech places each piece of clothing on a separate hook, lines up his toiletries on the shelf according to height and folds his uniform square to the corners. "Czech's the only man in the NBA who keeps his socks on a hanger," says Celtic Trainer Frank Challant.
"That's not so funny," says Havlicek. "I'm a man of routine and discipline. My socks have to dry out. My whole life has been thought out."
And so, then, the end of his basketball career.
Havlicek wanted to reveal his intentions during the first week of the season, but when the Celtics got off to their horrid start General Manager Red Auerbach persuaded him to hold off.
Slowed by a preseason appendectomy and playing less than usual, Havlicek averaged only 12 points in his first 20 games. As the season disintegrated, with Jo Jo White being shelved with injuries, Charlie Scott being traded and Heinsohn being replaced by Sanders, Havlicek began to be counted on more and more, as in bygone times. He responded by averaging 16 points and 34 minutes a game, second only to Cowens on the club. In March, during one stretch of four games in consecutive days, Havlicek scored 20, 32, 25 and 27 points. Performances like that silenced doubts about his future usefulness, but Havlicek never looked back.
When he announced his retirement on Jan. 29, Havlicek mentioned that as he traveled the league for the last time he wanted to take "a little piece of every building and capture the memories." But in the first couple of cities he tried out his Sarah Bernhardt tour he was nervous and uneasy during the ceremonies, halting in the midst of his valedictory speeches. "I don't take compliments well," he said.
By last week, however, Havlicek had heard and said the same things so many times that the act had become studied. The Celtics were even dozing through it.
Before Boston defeated the crippled Portland Trail Blazers 104-92 on Tuesday in his final appearance in the Northwest, Havlicek was given a prolonged standing ovation during which even the champion Blazers stood up and applauded and saluted him as he turned round and round, waving to the crowd. Still, he was apparently unmoved. Moreover, in Denver the next night, though the sellout crowd was again loud and effusive, the honored guest's remarks were dull, flat, strained—even as wife Beth showed up glowing in a blue suit and enormous corsage.
"The captain's going stale with this thing," said Cowens.
"John's never been emotional," said Beth. "I say, 'Wow, look at that sunset,' and if he says, 'Yes, it's nice,' that means it's a fabulous sunset. He's not one to get lumps in the throat. He's not one to cry."
Somebody should have cried about the way the Celtics blew a five-point lead in the last 59 seconds to lose to the Nuggets 109-106. Havlicek was stripped of the ball by David Thompson and had an Alley Oop pass to Cowens deflected by Dan Issel, both in the last minute.
The fact that the once proud and machinelike Celtics had to resort to such a gimmick maneuver in a crisis was evidence enough how far the-team has fallen, but that was just a synopsis of the entire season. The Boston T party (T for Treason) continued unabated Friday night back home when San Antonio wiped out a 17-point deficit to beat the Celtics 120-117 after George Gervin blocked Havlicek's game-tying attempt with 31 seconds left. And then on Sunday, the final ignominy: Boston lost to Indiana 123-120, and was thereby eliminated from the playoffs for the first time since 1971.
Maybe it was just as well that the locals were now relieved of worrying about such mundane matters as the playoffs and could gird themselves for "John Havlicek Weekend."
Cowens was asked if he felt sentimental. "I don't think it's sentiment," he said. "The way I figure, John's never had a definite profile like Bill Russell or Cousy. He's played all these games without being recognized, and now everybody is apologizing for it. 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."
Havlicek had two away games left—a quickie trip to Chicago and one to Providence—before coming home to close out the season. He had received his praise and prizes everywhere else with casual grace and practiced coolness. Surely. Boston would be different: three games of celebration, two nights and a final afternoon of melancholy and Auld Lang Syne. How could even this bravest of runners outrun his feelings?
"I'm not thinking about it," Havlicek said. "I want this thing to be upbeat, positive, unemotional. I have soft spots, but I don't think they'll come out on Sunday."
Nonetheless, a precedent had been set. Several weeks ago the Havlicek family sat at home watching a TV special in which the man of the house was all over the screen doing wonderful things with the basketball, the song Nobody Does It Better was on the soundtrack and a voice was saying that all of this would come to an end on April 9.
Beth Havlicek had already started to shake when 7-year-old Chris could take it no longer and ran upstairs weeping. When John reached the boy, Chris had all the pictures of his old man and himself in their Celtic uniforms spread out on the bedroom floor. "Chris just cried and cried," said his father. "I was really touched."
This weekend in Boston there will be a few more tears, and No. 17 will be touched again. What that means, John Havlicek, is that you have had a fabulous sunset.