The sound of John Havlicek’s steal still reverberates
“Greer is putting the ball into play. He gets it out deep. And Havlicek steals it! Over to Sam Jones! Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans!”
– Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most’s radio call of Havlicek’s game-clinching steal in the final seconds of Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Conference finals.
I know, it is hardly necessary to write out Most’s call. Havlicek, the Celtics’ classy legend and all-time leading scorer who passed away Thursday at age 79, is already in our consciousness in these somber and sentimental hours.
That moment never needed any identifying markers anyway, any presumptuously helpful reminders of what it meant. We always knew and never forgot.
Four words would have sufficed to summon all of the nostalgic details from perhaps the most memorable play – and certainly the most memorable call – in the Celtics’ unparalleled basketball history.
Havlicek stole the ball!
But reading it makes you hear it in full, and who doesn’t want to hear it again?
The steal was one of many vignettes that made up Havlicek’s legacy as a basketball player and a human being.
(How fortunate we have been to have him and Bobby Orr, superstars whose talent may have been surpassed by their generosity, in our midst through the generations.)
But the steal endures to the degree that it does in part because of the call that accompanied it. It is probably the most recognizable and enduring call in basketball history, and, without a doubt, in Celtics history.
“There was a purity to it and a joy to it,’’ said Sean Grande, who has been the Celtics’ radio voice since the 2001-02 season. “It was a different time. There was no sense that this was going to be heard on ‘SportsCenter’ or last forever or anything like that. It was just the authentic happiness and feeling of the moment.
“When the description of what’s happening gives way to ‘Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! It’s all over!’ or Russ Hodges’s legendary call, ‘The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!’ [on Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run in 1951], telling you what’s happening on the field in detail. The emotion of the moment takes over for the broadcaster, and when it happens, it builds that bond with the fans that lasts. In this case, forever.”
Most’s call is a treasured artifact, and one that would not be possible nowadays, said Grande.
“In the history of famous calls, the kind that played over and over again, there’s pre-Lake Placid and post-Lake Placid,’’ he said, referencing Al Michaels’s “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!’’ call of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team’s stunning victory over the Soviet Union. “Nobody in 1958 or 1963 or 1972 was thinking, ‘Wow, whatever I say is going to be played until the dawn of time.’ You couldn’t possibly be thinking that. Al Michaels wasn’t, I’m sure.
“Everything before Lake Placid, I think there’s more of a purity to the calls we still know from then. It’s so natural and organic, and there has never been an announcer who called games more with his heart on his sleeve and less concerned with what anybody thought than Johnny Most.”
The call was accessible to fans who desired to hear it again and again, but in a much different way than it would be today.
“I mean, people bought record albums of that call, because there was no YouTube, there’s no VCR, nothing like that,’’ said Grande, who is 47.
“It was all they had. All we had growing up, until Lake Placid, was the agony-of-defeat ski jump guy taking a fall on ‘Wide World of Sports’.
“You think of nostalgia and kids now. My son is 7. What’s nostalgic to him? He can watch video of Little League games he just played whenever he wants.”
Grande has delivered plenty of memorable calls of his own during his nearly two decades with the franchise. Many of them can be heard in snippets, juxtaposed with memorable calls from previous Celtics eras, during the introduction on the team’s radio broadcasts.
Grande remembers one in particular during the Celtics’ run to the NBA title in 2008 that he subconsciously connected to the past – and to Most’s most famous four words.
“Game 7 of the [Eastern Conference semifinal] series with the Cavaliers in 2008 was the Bird-Dominique showdown of this era,’’ said Grande. “The final play comes down, and there’s a cross-court pass, and [the Celtics’] Eddie House jumps the passing lane. In the moment, for whatever reason, my next sentence was, ‘Eddie House stole the ball,’ emphasizing Eddie’s name rather than the one everyone is used to hearing with those words.
“I did not mean to use those words, and I don’t know if Johnny Most took over my body that day. But anyone connected with the Celtics has that ingrained. I suppose it’s never far from your mind. Especially now.”