One of the main reasons I set out to do this list was to honour and acknowledge the greats of this sport. To recognize and understand the series of accomplishments they achieved in order to be remembered as some of the greatest to ever play this game.
If there’s one person above all else who that definition fits to a tee, it’s John Havlicek.
Many who read this or watch the video I made to go with it on his career may have never heard of John ‘Hondo’ Havlicek but that’s why you take the time to do this. Basketball has an incredible history and those who helped carve their name into it like Havlicek deserve to have the stories of their careers told.
Havlicek is one of those players that exist in every era that people who were there will die on the hill of professing their greatness but in a lot of ways, the statistical achievements don’t necessarily equate. Sure, he racked up a series of incredible counting stats at the end that help him but, his greatness was often in the undefinable.
Think of more recent stars like Klay Thompson and Manu Ginobili. If you look at their career numbers, they’re impressive absolutely. In remembering them properly amongst their peers though, they lack full context.
Take Klay Thompson who is routinely overshadowed by legends on his own team like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant much like Havlicek was early on in Boston with Bill Russell. What has separated Klay though is his ability to stand out when his team needs him most.
The most memorable individual playoff performance from the pre-Durant Warriors wasn’t from Curry. It was in fact Thompson who against Durant in Oklahoma City, dropped 41 points and 11 three pointers on the Thunder to force a game seven in the 2016 Western Conference Finals.
Season saving moments like this were a routine occurrence for Havlicek. Whenever the Celtics needed a great game, a great play, something to save their season, they knew who would step up.
In Boston, the playoffs most integral moments came to be known as “Havlicek time.”
On April 15, 1965, Havlicek’s Celtics were hanging on by a thread against Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers in game seven of the Eastern Conference finals. Following a Chamberlain dunk to cut the Celtic lead to one with just five seconds left, Russell went to inbound the ball for Boston.
Normally you’d assume arguably the greatest clutch performer in NBA History, Bill Russell, could inbound the ball. This wasn’t a normal situation though. Russell’s inbound pass deflected off a guy wire hanging off the basket to hold it in place, improbably giving the 76ers the ball and a chance to win the game.
Guarding 76er star Chet Walker, Havlicek knew that Hal Greer had five seconds to inbound the ball. At the count of four in his head, Havlicek glanced back and in one swift motion, saw the ball flying in his direction and reached out and deflected it away from Walker.
Celtics guard Sam Jones pounced on the ball and the rest is history. Boston won the title and Havlicek was immortalized in basketball history for a defensive play that would’ve made Bill Belichick proud.
Famously, as the play happened, Celtics legendary radio announcer, Johnny Most, exclaimed “Havlicek stole the ball!” over and over. This call would go on to be one of the most famous in league history, further cementing Havlicek as one of the great clutch players the game had ever seen.
The ’65 title would be the third of the six Havlicek would win as a sixth man for the Celtics. Yes, you read that right, the number 20 player all-time according to me was not even a starter for a majority of his career.
This is where the Manu comparison comes into play.
Celtics coach and executive Red Auerbach was always looking for an extra edge. Mostly legally, sometimes though, let’s just say Auerbach lived in the moral gray area (a Boston sports ‘tradition’).
One of the greatest edges he ever found was in the incredible endurance and work ethic of Havlicek. After being selected out of Ohio State, Havlicek was far from a finished product skill wise but his incredible motor enticed the Celtics.
Obviously as we now know, the skill came quickly as he became one of the better scorers, passers and ball handlers in the NBA. What never left though was his incredible ability to never stop running. He was in many ways the original change of pace, can play either wing position player.
He’s a top 20 player ever so the skill was undeniable, especially as I said after a few years developing and working the league so, why accept the bench role? I mean let’s be honest, he was making All-NBA teams and not starting for his own team, who accepts that role?
For Havlicek it was all about winning and as Auerbach always explained to him, it’s not about who starts but rather who finishes the game.
This ability to be the consummate team player, in a sport that in a lot of ways rewards selfishness, can’t be understated. Without him, Boston doesn’t win the six championships they did with him coming off the bench.
Havlicek would in many ways embody the Celtic way. If one of the best players in the league accepts his role then everyone else on the team better be able to.
A great example of Havlicek’s brilliance is the way his greatest teammate thinks of him. Russell is quoted as saying “the best all-around player I ever saw” when speaking on Havlicek.
It’s hard to disagree with Russell as Havlicek was an eleven-time All-NBA performer and, an eight-time All-Defensive team member to go with his eight championships.
Yeah that’s right, you read EIGHT championships.
What separates Havlicek as Russell’s greatest teammate is the final two, the two he won without Russell on the team. Unlike Bob Cousy or Sam Jones, number seventeen brought a title to Boston with six not on the court.
For his troubles in that first title team without Russell, he was awarded the Finals MVP as he cemented himself as the second best Celtic ever. Some other white forward passed him since, but we’ll get to that hick later.
What’s important now is that John Havlicek is remembered as the all-time great he was.
For his career he averaged 20.8 points, is the green and white’s all-time leader in points, games played and minutes and is second in assists and fifth in rebounds. With numbers like that for the sport’s most successful franchise, he should be remembered and talked about amongst the greatest to ever play.
Instead, he’s often forgotten.
John Havlicek may be the greatest NBA player that most NBA fans couldn’t tell you anything about and that’s why lists like this are important. They honour the men who built the sport we love today into what it is and remember them for their greatest moments.
As someone who unfortunately wasn’t alive for Hondo’s career it doesn’t seem fair, I summarize it, so I leave you with maybe the greatest executive in the sports’ history.
“He epitomizes everything good,” said Red Auerbach in The New York Times. “If I had a son like John, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”
Rest in peace Hondo, your career won’t ever be forgotten.