Bob Cousy and the Celtics family have lost a great friend in John Havlicek
John Havlicek has died.
And there goes part of your youth if you grew up in New England watching the Celtics in the 1960s and ’70s.
Havlicek scored more points than any other Celtic in history. That’s right. More than Larry Bird or Paul Pierce. He was the connecting tissue between Celtic dynasties. His rookie year was Bob Cousy’s final season (1962-63), and he retired just months before Red Auerbach drafted Bird out of Indiana State (1978).
Havlicek was 79. He split his retirement time between Weston and the east coast of Florida. He hosted an annual Genesis Fund fishing tourney on Cape Cod for 34 summers, but lived his final years full-time in West Palm Beach, then Jupiter, Fla.
Hondo is on the list of every Celtic fan’s all-time starting five, and he never lost touch with his Celtic family.
“John Havlicek is one of the most accomplished players in Boston Celtics history, and the face of many of the franchise’s signature moments,’’ the Celtics said in a statement. “He was a great champion both on the court and in the community, winning 8 NBA championships and an NBA Finals MVP, while holding Celtics career records for points scored and games played. Named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, he is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame and his retired #17 hangs in the Garden rafters. His defining traits as a player were his relentless hustle and wholehearted commitment to team over self. He was extraordinarily thoughtful and generous, both on a personal level and for those in need, as illustrated by his commitment to raising money for The Genesis Foundation for Children for over three decades through his fishing tournament. John was kind and considerate, humble and gracious. He was a champion in every sense, and as we join his family, friends, and fans in mourning his loss, we are thankful for all the joy and inspiration he brought to us.”
Born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, Havlicek was an NCAA basketball champion at Ohio State in 1960, playing with Jerry Lucas, Larry Siegfried, and Bobby Knight.
Wearing No. 17, Havlicek played 16 seasons with the Celtics and was part of eight championship teams. He is also the team’s all-time leader in games and minutes.
Havlicek’s most famous moment came in the closing seconds of the 1965 Eastern Conference championship when he preserved a victory with a dramatic steal of an inbounds pass thrown by the Philadelphia 76ers’ Hal Greer. Johnny Most’s iconic radio call — “Havlicek stole the ball!’’ — became instant folklore throughout New England.
A versatile and tireless athlete, the 6-foot-5-inch Havlicek played guard and forward and averaged a whopping 37 minutes per game during his NBA career. He also played varsity baseball at Ohio State and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns as a wide receiver before reporting to the Celtics in the autumn of 1962.
When I learned last week that he was gravely ill at the Jupiter Medical Center, I reached out to Cousy, who saw Havlicek just a few weeks ago in Florida.
“I’d have led the league in assists for another eight years if I could have kept playing with John,’’ said Cousy, 90. “He was the ideal guy to feed. He took it to the basket and finished more effectively than anyone I played with.
“I don’t think Arnold [Auerbach] knew what he was getting in John. Arnold always took players based on recommendations. There was no money. No one did any scouting. There was no television to speak of. Arnold was wearing seven hats. I doubt whether Red ever saw John play in college.
“John’s game was subtle. He didn’t have the perimeter game when we first got him. That happened over the next few years. The driving game was his strength. In that first year, we didn’t know that he would reach the levels that he did.’’
Where would Cousy place Havlicek in the pantheon of Celtic greats?
“I don’t know,’’ said the Cooz. “Where would I go? You’d certainly like to be in the top five. Would you pick John ahead of Bird? Certainly from ball-stealing and the defensive standpoint, John was so tough. He was so active and athletic. Bird was so skilled and that overcame his not quite having those athletic skills.’’
While Havlicek won eight rings and blossomed into a Hall of Famer, Cousy was coaching Boston College, then the Cincinnati Royals. It was only in late retirement, in Florida, that they became great friends.
“I did John’s Cape charity event for many years,’’ Cousy recalled. “And when Missie [Cousy’s late wife of 63 years] and I decided it was time to go to Florida, we worked out a deal. All jocks like a deal.
“I went to two or three places and finally ended up at Bear Lakes Country Club in West Palm. I said to the guy, ‘Do you have a deal for old jocks?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, we comp everything.’ I said, ‘Ooh, I like that deal.’
“The next year, I was with John at a charity event and this topic came up and John heard me say, ‘We comp everything,’ and his antennas immediately sprung to the air, asking, ‘What’s that all about?’
“So I went to the Bear Lakes guy and asked if he’d like to have John Havlicek, and the guy said he’d love to have him. So Beth and John came and stayed at our place and decided they liked it there, too. So we signed John up on the same deal and the next year I got Richie [Guerin, Hall of Fame guard for the Knicks and Hawks] there, so we became the three musketeers.
“And three weeks ago, we were supposed to have our usual final dinner at the club and John didn’t show up, and that’s when we were told he had been taken into the hospital with pneumonia.’’
The Havliceks left Bear Lakes and settled in nearby Jupiter, where Beth and John Havlicek enjoyed a small circle of friends . . . and golf. Havlicek made annual golf junkets to Scotland and Ireland with basketball friends, including coaches Gary Williams, Jim Boeheim, Bill Raftery, P.J. Carlesimo, and executives Mike Tranghese and Tom Jernstedt.
Jernstedt, a basketball Hall of Famer who built the NCAA Final Four into what it is today, was usually Havlicek’s roommate, and he claimed Hondo was famous for sneaking extra tips to the group’s caddies. Jernstedt and his wife Kris were constant companions of Beth and John Havlicek in the final years of Havlicek’s life.
As was Cousy.
“Bill Belichick was supposed to come down to see us in Jupiter in March, but it didn’t happen,’’ said the Cooz. “John and Tony La Russa and I were going to have lunch or dinner with Belichick. I’ve never met him, but I have great respect for him. So we arranged it, but it didn’t happen. And then, all of a sudden, our John was in serious trouble.
“I had a few friends reporting back to me from the hospital in Jupiter every day and it didn’t sound good.
“John went a year before telling anyone he even had Parkinson’s. Three years ago, John literally looked like an Olympic athlete. He still could have competed. And then it became apparent . . . and all he said to me at the end of the year was that he had A-fib, like me. Within six or eight months, Beth called me and said that John had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s a year earlier.’’
According to Cousy, there will be one last interview with Havlicek airing sometime soon on Fox News.
“Ed Henry [Fox correspondent] visited me this winter,’’ said Cousy. “I told him about how every Thursday night in Florida the old men solve the problems of the world — about seven of us. We meet in the worst, run-down place. Even the homeless turn their nose up at this place. It’s a family from Brooklyn and all they have on the walls of this joint are pictures of the Yankees. John came seven or eight times this year. He wouldn’t lead the conversation, but he would enjoy it.
“Ed came in a month and a half ago with a TV crew and we simulated our Thursday night deal. And he interviewed John, Richie Guerin [who is 86], and I. The old men filled in around the table. It’s going to air pretty soon.
“Unfortunately, this will become John’s last appearance because shortly after that he started having his problems.’’
John Havlicek: Husband. Father. Celtic. Legend. Friend.