John Havlicek was a complete basketball player known for his stamina and clutch play.
As one of the NBA’s most storied franchises, the Boston Celtics has an abundance of great players scattered throughout its history. I mean, who could forget Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, the Jones boys, or Larry Bird?
But despite the accolades and championships under his belt, John Havlicek rarely gets a mention among current fans. Perhaps his excellence is overlooked because he was so consistent in so many categories of play.
Who is John Havlicek? What are his legacy and contributions to basketball? Let’s take a deep dive.
Havlicek’s Illustrious Career
Havlicek was part of the Celtics dynasty in the 60s. He led youthful Boston teams to win two championships in 1974 and 1976. He won eight titles all in all. Hondo became one of only three players in history to go at least 8-0 in NBA Finals stints.
“Hondo” was as decorated as anyone in the NBA throughout his 16-year Celtic career. (His friends back in Ohio called him Hondo from the 1953 movie of the same name because they thought he looked like John Wayne and had the same quiet demeanor.)
Aside from being an eight-time champion, he was selected as an All-Star 13 consecutive times. He made 11 All-NBA teams and eight All-Defense teams. On top of that, he is the Celtics’ all-time leader in points scored (26,395).
Judging from his career stats alone and the teams he’s been on, you’d probably think he played like a typical superstar that takes plays off. The truth is, he probably never saw himself as one and so never played like one. “Hondo” was described as a “perpetual motion machine” that nobody could keep up and habitually sacrificed his body to secure possessions.
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Stamina and Dirty Work
Havlicek made a name for himself by his willingness to do the dirty work. He would just wear opponents down with his effort, which often worked.
“On stamina alone, he’d be among the top players who ever played the game,” longtime New York Knicks coach Red Holzman, via NBA.com, 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 the quickness of mind, hands, and feet.”
What Made Hondo Special
Havlicek’s endurance was a thing of legend that his peers swear it was almost inhuman. It allows him to play baseline-to-baseline, harass opponents into turnovers, and go the other way to drop 20 or more. I mean, if you look the word “dynamic” up in the dictionary, you’d probably see a picture of Havlicek on the page.
Apparently, Hondo’s extraordinary stamina caught the eye of experts outside of basketball. Researchers from Harvard University took notice and made him their scientific subject. They found out that Havlicek’s lungs and heart are remarkably large, and his resting heart rate is in the low 40s, which is impressive, even for an athlete! (Hondo said it would take two X-rays to get all of his lungs.)
As a child, Havlicek recalled sprinting to and from school, going from one-mile marker to another. And it’s not just for fun, either. A son of poor Czechoslovakian immigrants, John had to run just to keep in step with his pedal-pushing friend. His parents wouldn’t buy him a bicycle. Whether that’s by choice or because of economic reasons, it helped him shape himself to be the athlete that he was.
Havlicek’s Unusual Snack
Some nutritionists might disagree, but a possible explanation for why Hondo could run all day was that he had a knack for an unusual snack. According to True Hoops Leigh Montville, Havlicek’s own mom, revealed his affinity for a high-fat dairy product.
“I remember that she said the family owned a grocery store and lived on the second floor when John was young. I remember she said she was amazed he was always running everywhere as a kid, running, running, always involved in games of some kind, always running. I remember she said when he stopped running for a break, he would come into the store, go to the big commercial refrigerator, take out a quarter-pound stick of butter, and eat it like a popsicle. He would do this all the time.”
“A stick of butter?” I asked in a tone of disbelief.
“A stick of butter,” she replied in the same tone.
A Private Person off the Court
As conspicuous as he is on the court because of his endless motor, he chose to be private off of it. Despite the rumors of his indifference and frugality, Havlicek anonymously donated money to charities and to his alma mater’s basketball program.
Perhaps the only time he was in the public eye was during his annual charity fishing tournament. But other than that, Havlicek remained a private person, known only to his closest friends and family.
The word “revolutionized” is thrown around a little bit when it comes to basketball greats, but that’s an exception in the case of Havlicek. Hondo achieved all of those things mentioned, all while coming almost exclusively off the bench. For what it’s worth, he made the sixth-man role cool.
Without a doubt, the Celtics had a hand in creating the concept of a weaponized sub; they did it before with Frank Ramsey. Havlicek, who already had an outstanding collegiate career, wouldn’t have accepted being a backup if not for Ramsey’s success in that role. But while Ramsey was a bonafide winner and a terrific player in his own right, Havlicek took the super-sub role a couple of levels higher.
First Non-Starter to Make an All-NBA Team
He averaged just a shade under 20 points in his first seven seasons as a reserve in Boston. He led the Celtics in scoring en route to becoming the first and only non-starter to make an All-NBA team during that span. Hondo was since joined by Manu Ginobili four decades later. Ginobili made two All-NBA third teams as a reserve in 2008 and 2011.
Even in the modern game, there is no one quite like Havlicek. The sixth-man role is often performed by guys who are one-trick ponies– some can just score, some only play defense, and some are solely energizer bunnies. But Havlicek had those characteristics and more. If there’s someone we can single out who made backup duties look upscale, Hondo is that guy.
‘Havlicek Stole the Ball’
Havlicek was a part of the most memorable calls in NBA history. It happened in the final seconds of Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals vs. the Sixers and the great Wilt Chamberlain.
The play was just before Bill Russell made a crucial inbounding turnover, the Celtics up 110-109. As the Sixers inbounded the ball, Havlicek picked the pass in mid-air and knocked it over to teammate Sam Jones. Celtics play-by-play announcer Johnny Most’s voice was yelling, “Havlicek stole the ball! Over to Sam Jones! Havlicek stole the ball! It’s over!” That play booked another Finals trip for the Celtics, which they won for the seventh consecutive time.
In the Eyes of Contemporaries: Quotes about Havlicek
To have a better grasp of how good Havlicek really was, let’s pay attention to the words of his former teammates and other contemporaries:
Teammate Bill Russell (Learn more about Bill Russell’s Winning Approach): “He’s the best all-around player I ever saw.” “He worked so hard every second that he’s on the floor that he wore you down.”
Coach Red Auerbach, on the first time he saw Havlicek play in practice: “My God, Havlicek does everything!”
Teammate Sam Jones: “When he came in, we saw that he had the speed, he had the hands, and he had the desire to want to win. But the one thing that got to me he never got tired.”
Sixer Billy Cunnigham: “It was like tag team wrestling playing against Havlicek. One would be exhausted and say your turn. You have to go out there and chase after John.”
Lakers great 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.”
More Insights on Hondo
Teammate Dave Cowens: “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.”
More from Red Auerbach: “He epitomizes everything good. If I had a son like John, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”
New York Knick (and senator) Bill Bradley: “For ten years, John Havlicek was my toughest opponent in the biggest rivalry in the league. Night after night, he was the epitome of constant motion. He only needed half a step to beat me, which he usually did. He was the quintessential Celtic—unselfish and loyal—and through the players’ union, he helped make the game more just by ending the reserve clause. The only thing he loved more than the game was his family. He’ll always be with them.”
An End of an Era
John Havlicek died on April 25, 2019, at the age of 79 due to Parkinson’s disease. His body of work on the basketball court will keep him in our memories for a long time.
By Jan Rey
Jan loves all things basketball and still yells, “Kobe!” every time he tosses a crumpled paper into a trash bin.
You are on our John Havlicek: Remembering the Celtics’ Great page.
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