The John Havlicek Interview
Michael D. McClellan
Thursday, October 18th,
He was born to run, and for sixteen seasons John Havlicek was an unyielding force of perpetual motion for the Boston Celtics, breaking down defenders and NBA records alike, winning eight NBA championships first as Sixth Man extraordinaire, then as an All-Star standout in the waning years of the Russell Dynasty, and finally as an All-NBA First Team selection, NBA Finals Most Valuable Player and key protagonist in the NBA's Greatest Game Ever Played. Havlicek, or 'Hondo' to legions of adoring fans, will be forever immortalized by the most famous radio call in basketball history, but his most lasting mark is that of the indefatigable forward and undisputed leader of the NBA's signature franchise, the quintessential running man blessed with sure hands, a quick mind and the heart of a champion.
Havlicek's story begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio, a small river town on the West Virginia border, where the son of Czechoslovakian immigrants yearned to ride a bicycle but wasn't allowed, in large part because the family house was situated on a dangerous curve in the road. Undeterred, the 5 year-old Havlicek kept up with his friends by running alongside them, content without wheels and surprised by how much he liked the feeling of his feet churning eagerly beneath him. As he grew older, Havlicek would often run to school and back, a routine that helped lay the foundation for his near mythical endurance.
By the time Havlicek enrolled at Bridgeport High School it was clear that he was a natural athlete, and he quickly excelled as a three sport star, earning All-State honors in football, baseball and basketball. A quarterback, he could throw a football 80 yards, and was so skilled at faking handoffs that a referee once whistled a play dead thinking the running back at the bottom of the pile had the ball, when, in fact, Havlicek still had possession and was looking downfield to connect with an open receiver. As a baseball player Havlicek could hit with power and for average, and on the basketball court he was such a dogged runner and scorer that opposing teams tried to stop him by setting up a two man zone under the basket and triple-teaming him man-to-man.
While Havlicek received 35 scholarship offers to play football and basketball in college, he chose Ohio State and focused his energy on hoops, where he would play for the legendary Fred Taylor and team with collegiate stars Jerry Lucas and Larry Siegfried, as well as with future coaching legend Bobby Knight. Havlicek's time in Columbus would prove to be a Camelot existence for Buckeye fans, as the team would roll to a 78-6 record over a three season span and win the 1960 national championship. His only collegiate disappointment came in 1960, when Havlicek was named as an alternate to the US Olympic team. To this day it remains a sore spot.
"I felt that I played well enough during the trials to make the team," Havlicek recalls. "Unfortunately, the coaches and selection committee didn't see it the same way. I know it sounds cliché, but playing for my country would have been the highlight of my career and that's why it bothered my so much."
Despite not having played football at Ohio State, Havlicek's athleticism, size and physical conditioning piqued the interest of the Cleveland Browns, who drafted him in the seventh round of the 1962 NFL Draft. Intrigued, Havlicek decided to give the National Football League a shot. He showed up at training camp that summer and was good enough to play wide receiver in several preseason games, but was eventually beat out by future All-Pro Gary Collins.
The failed pro football experiment was hardly the end of Havlicek's athletic career. He was born to play basketball, and his exploits on the hardwood guaranteed him a shot at the NBA. The Celtics wasted little time selecting the Ohio State star with the final pick in the first round, but the choice by head coach Red Auerbach didn't generate the buzz one might expect. Hondo, according to conventional wisdom at the time, was going to become a complimentary piece to the Celtics' title juggernaut, a player who would provide spot duty for aging players such as Frank Ramsey and "Jungle" Jim Loscutoff. It was Ramsey, in fact, who had emerged as the NBA's first great sixth man, coming off the bench early in his career to provide Auerbach's Celtics with scoring punch. Havlicek fit in immediately. As a rookie he averaged 14.3 points, an excellent offensive number off the bench during this era. He ran tirelessly in practices and during games, much to the delight of his coach, as Auerbach quickly realized that he had a player ideally suited for his turbo-charged, fast break offense. And with Bob Cousy still leading the attack during the 1962-63 season, many of Havlicek's points came on the receiving end of Cousy's creativity in transition.
"Cooz was a special basketball player," Havlicek says with a smile. "I learned quickly that he would reward you for attacking on the fast break. I made a living off of Bob Cousy early in my career."
The Celtics would capture their sixth NBA Championship during Havlicek's rookie season, and the team's fifth in a row. For Havlicek, an All-Rookie Team selection capped his dream season, but, like all great players, it wasn't success that fueled his desire to be the best. He understood that while many of his points came off fast break opportunities, it was going to take much more than that if he wanted to become an elite player in the NBA. Still, there were skeptics; many of these so-called experts at the time questioned Havlicek's shooting and ball handling, speculating that the Ohio State product couldn't expand his game, but Havlicek proved to be his own harshest critic. He took thousands of shots and worked hard on his dribbling during the off-season.
"I knew what I needed to work on," he says, "and I had the inner drive to push myself. I wanted to improve. I wanted to come back prepared to help the Celtics win another championship."
Havlicek, in many ways, was the precursor to modern day Celtic great Ray Allen in the way that he meticulously prepared his mind and body for basketball. Unlike the vast majority of his peers, Havlicek watched his diet and stayed active in basketball year round, and when he arrived at the '63 training camp he was a different player. He was a better ball handler with a more consistent shooting touch from the field. He led the team in scoring with a 19.9 ppg average, and the sixth man mantle was officially passed from Ramsey to Havlicek.