John Havlicek tribute celebrates a champion of sport and of life
Bill Russell was there. Red Auerbach’s daughter was there, seated side by side with 90-year-old Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, Satch Sanders, Dave Cowens, and other gods of Boston Celtics lore.
Four weeks after Celtics legend John Havlicek died in Jupiter, Fla., the vast and vaunted Celtic family gathered Thursday afternoon at Trinity Church in Copley Square for a 90-minute tribute to the man who scored more points than any other player in franchise history.
Less than 2 miles from the sacred Causeway Street space where he played 16 seasons and won eight NBA championships, Havlicek was honored in a celebration of life.
Along with her two adult children and seven grandchildren, Beth Havlicek, Hondo’s wife of 51 years, greeted more than 200 guests, including former Sen. Bill Bradley, Bobby Orr, Jim Lonborg, Mike Eruzione, baseball Hall of Famer Phil Niekro (Havlicek’s childhood pal and high school teammate), and a raft of Boston celebrities and family friends from the last half-century.
Chris and Jill Havlicek, the son and daughter of the Celtic great, delivered remarks, as did family friends David Kriegel, Dr. Robert Leach, Niekro, and Cousy, who ended his Hall of Fame career when Havlicek was a rookie in 1962-63.
Also in attendance were Celtics coach Brad Stevens and team basketball boss Danny Ainge, making his first public appearance since suffering a heart attack when the Celtics were in Milwaukee during the second round of the NBA playoffs.
“My dad taught me to be consistent, do the right things, forgive others,’’ Chris Havlicek said. “He won the championship of life.’’
“John was the best friend I ever had in my life,’’ said Niekro, who grew up with Havlicek and teamed with him in multiple sports at Bridgeport High School in Ohio.
Walking with the aid of a cane, Cousy approached the altar and spoke after the reading of the gospel.
“At 90, you have difficulty remembering what you’d like to say,’’ started Cousy. “And even when you type larger, you have trouble reading at times . . . John was a complex man in some ways and in other ways a simple and transparent one . . . I could be wrong, but I think John was not completely comfortable with his celebrity status.
“However, I think he utilized that celebrity very well. He used it to reach out and help others.
“My old Jesuit mentor at Holy Cross many years ago, when asked the eternal question — ‘What’s it all about? Why are we here?’ — would reply that basically what God requires of you is that you maximize whatever God-given talents you are blessed with to reach out to your communities and help in any way you are able those who are less fortunate, who need a boost.
“John personified this attitude. And along with that, he was a loving, responsible husband and father.’’
Cousy then spoke of Havlicek’s 34-year Cape Cod charity fishing weekend for the benefit of the Genesis Fund, and teased, “I used to tell John, ‘You know, this would be a great, great weekend if you just got rid of the fishing.’
“In an effort to make this a celebratory moment, let me remind you that John was a world-class athlete who played 16 years — half of those championship years. He was part of an era that started in 1957 and continued until 1969 in which 11 championships were won in a 13-year period.
“That had never been done before and it will never be replicated. Truly unbelievable. And it gives New England sports fans something forever.
“John embedded himself into the New England sports world and into the hearts of every sports fan when he stole the ball.’’
Auerbach would have been pleased by the turnout of so many of “his guys.” It did not go unnoticed that the rarely seen, 85-year-old Russell made the trip from Seattle for Havlicek’s tribute.
And there were so many more. Chris Ford. Judge Mal Graham. Rick Weitzman. Steve Kuberski. Glenn McDonald. Kevin Stacom. Jan Volk. On and on.
In the mid 1960s, when Havlicek was a young Celtic and the team was in the middle of its historic championship run, Red Sox general manager Dick O’Connell spoke to a Boston brotherhood breakfast group and said, “Gentlemen, here we are in a sports environment talking about brotherhood. On the great battlefields of war, kids fought side by side with no regard for the other fellow’s race or religion.
“That’s fine, but may I suggest that the best example of what we’re talking about can be found right down the street. There you’ll find a team of black and whites, Catholics and Protestants, who are coached by a Jew, and they’ve been champions for a long time now.
“Everyone’s running around looking for theories, looking for things that happened in the past which might shed light on problems we face today. But the best illustration of all is right in front of our eyes. Just look at the Boston Celtics.’’
It all came home Thursday at Trinity Church.
A somber Cousy concluded his remarks with a reference to his own retirement ceremony in 1963 when an MDC water division worker named Joe Dillon broke the teary silence at the sold-out Garden, bellowing, “We love ya, Cooz!’’ from the balcony.
“Today I’m pleased to close the circle and use a quote from my own memory book,’’ Cousy said, choking back tears.
“We love you, Hondo. Rest in peace.’’