Havlicek’s legacy will endure forever

Alan Greenwood

One man’s first thought upon learning that John Havlicek died:

“John Havlicek can’t die.”

This is not the reflexive response to the death of a childhood hero, though Havlicek certainly was a childhood hero. It was more like the same man’s response when he learned that Havlicek would retire from the Celtics in 1979:

“John Havlicek can’t stop playing.”

That is because John Havlicek never seemed to slow down, let alone stop. Legend had it that his heart rate topped out somewhere around 50, or 40 beats per minute, or some absurd reflection of a man unfazed by the most strenuous exertion. He may have lost a bead of sweat during Game 5 of the 1976 Finals, but not until the third overtime.

Havlicek did not succumb to emotional exhaustion any more than he did physical exhaustion. He barked at the occasional bad call, but otherwise betrayed the look of a basketball technician. He saw, he thought, he did what he had to do.

Asked about the signature moment of his career (“Greer will put the ball into play … And Havlicek steals it! Havlicek stole the ball!”) he explained it as calmly as an IT manager explaining a minor glitch.

With a smile, he also suggested that Johnny Most, the Celtics radio legend, may have gone a little over the top in the greatest play-by-play call in basketball history.

“I never thought it’d be remembered this long,” Havlicek said a few years back.

That’s like suggesting that the man himself would somehow be lost in history’s dustbin. The Celtics certainly have ample historical fodder to make one trinket easy to misplace.

But for fans of certain vintage – let’s say, in the neighborhood of 60 – Havlicek was the touchstone of our fandom. The great teams of the 1960s had a link with the resurgent teams of the 1970s because Havlicek spanned the eras.

He can take a good deal of credit for making quasi-fans realize how special the Celtics had been during the dynasty and appreciate their mind-boggling 11 championships in 13 seasons. Larry Bird sealed the deal on that, but Havlicek began the process during the 1974 and 1976 title runs.

Nothing came easy for those Celtics. They had a shot at the 1973 NBA Finals until Havlicek suffered a dislocated right shoulder in the Eastern Conference finals against the Knicks. He played on, essentially left-handed, but the Celtics lost in seven.

Let it be remembered today, as the Celtics open a playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, that in May, 1974, they won a seventh game in Milwaukee to clinch their 12th championship.

Havlicek was the 1974 NBA Finals MVP.

Alan Greenwood can be reached at 594-1248, agreenwood @nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_ AlanG.