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Replay

Replay: Ray Fitzgerald on John Havlicek’s final game

John Havlicek played 16 seasons in the NBA, all with the Celtics.Frank O'Brien/Globe Staff

Editor’s note: While the games are on pause, the Globe is reaching into its archives to bring you “Replay,” stories and columns from the past that highlight something interesting, timely, or revealing. This column on the final game for Celtics great John Havlicek, who died a year ago this week, is by the late Ray Fitzgerald. It appeared in the Globe on Monday, April 10, 1978, with the headline, “Memorable finale for Havlicek . . . ”

Let me get the distasteful part out of the way in a hurry.

The commercial aspect of John Havlicek Day yesterday at the Garden bothered me. The big gifts — a motor home half the size of Utah, an exotic trip, a couple of outboard motors, a canoe, all the presents piled at midcourt — somehow seemed crass and out of keeping with the celebration.

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Wouldn’t it have been nicer if a man in John’s financial bracket had said to all those who offered him material goods: “Hey, that’s great, but I’d appreciate any gifts in the form of a John Havlicek Scholarship Fund.” Or, “I’ll be thrilled to take a check, thanks, and make it out to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation or the Heart Fund or whatever.”

Damn. Writing this on a day honoring a man I deeply admire and respect both as a human being and an athlete is depressing. I feel like I'm raining on John Havlicek's parade.

I don't mean to be. It's simply that for me the gifts intruded a little bit on what otherwise was a day those who were there will long remember.

Havlicek's last game wasn't so much a retirement as it was a production, a melodrama that tugged at your heart and played tag with your memories.

From the time he entered the Garden clad in a tuxedo until he turned out the lights in the place seven hours later, it was the John Havlicek Show.

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If the average player’s last game gets a picnic rating, this was a state dinner. If the average player’s retirement rates a rendition of “Chopsticks,” Havlicek’s last game was the Boston Symphony playing Beethoven.

Here are some of the things I remember about John Havlicek Day at the Garden:

Ernie DiGregorio sitting quietly on the floor by the foul line, listening to the before-the-game ceremonies . . . A fan yelling, “Let’s see it over here, John,” and Havlicek acknowledging the request by holding Larry Johnson’s painting of him aloft.

The cry, “Don’t leave us, Hondo,” in the middle of his pregame talk … seven big bruisers wearing white jerseys with a blue “17” on the front, sitting together in the balcony.

John saying, “I’m going to remember most of the people in the stands and the flags hanging above me . . .” Watching Havlicek wipe away some tears, and thinking; The Iceman Melteth . . . the embarrassment of thunderous boos for Sidney Wicks and owner Irv Levin on a day meant only for applause.

Havlicek, won six NBA championships with Red Auerbach and Bill Russell.HF/Associated Press

The Hondo chant from the stands . . . the silence that greeted the start of the game . . . Havlicek uncharacteristically throwing up 25-foot, bad-shot jumpers.

Ernie D. during a timeout: “You know he’s gotta be nervous, but he’ll make some . . . Get me in there and I know he’ll make some.”

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Dave Cowens, orange slices in one hand and a folding chair in the other, sitting at midcourt listening to the halftime show.

Cheers for Red Auerbach as though it was also his last game, which indeed it might be . . . Red hugging John . . . Red saying, “If I had a son, and he was like John, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”

John raising his arms and bowing to the south end of the Garden, something he's seen in Asian and European countries as a gesture of respect and appreciation.

John beginning a sentence, "I’ll miss most . . . ” and a fan yelling, “Tommy Heinsohn” . . . the absence of former Celtics in the ceremony.

The Havlicekian finish, choreographed better than a Broadway musical — 9 points in the last three minutes and then a spine-chilling sayonara with 15 seconds left.

In the postgame interview, Havlicek told a poignant story of his son Chris, 7, in tears last January after watching a television show about his father, entitled: “Nobody Does It Better.”

John went to his son’s room and found him still crying, and looking at pictures of John when he was a kid about Chris’s age.

“You don’t forget things like that about your kids," said Havlicek.

No you don't, and those who saw Havlicek perform his basketball magic for 16 years won't forget him, either.

Will McDonough said yesterday: “He’s the only athlete in this town who’s never been booed.”

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He was never booed because he always played the way each fan visualized himself as playing if he’d ever been gifted enough.

Havlicek, talking about the last three minutes yesterday, said, “When the adrenaline is going and all that emotion is there, you want to play forever."

"We can arrange that, John," said Howie McHugh.

Ah, if they only could.