Michael Arace: John Havlicek exuded class on and off the court
BOSTON — John Havlicek was as close to a perpetual-motion machine as can be designed by physics, or a greater power.
Havlicek was born in Martins Ferry and grew up in tiny Lansing in Belmont County in Eastern Ohio. As a kid, his feet were a primary means of transportation, and he ran the hills. When he got to Ohio State in 1958, he was an outlet pass made flesh and blood — Jerry Lucas would rebound, fire the ball downcourt to Havlicek, and then there was a layup. Through his years as a Hall of Famer with the Boston Celtics, he was something of an iron lung — sturdy, reliable, indefatigable.
It is a bitter irony, then, that the last in the last three years of Havlicek’s life he was increasingly incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease, which claimed him Friday at the age of 79. It is as if a Timex watch — an iconic American symbol of durability and reliability — has stopped ticking.
Here in the Hub of the Universe, word of Havlicek’s death came like a tidal surge. Friday morning’s newspapers were filled with tributes from the “Celtics family.” Bob Cousy, who played with Havlicek for just one year but drew close to the man over the decades, relayed some beautiful stories. He had this to say about Havlicek’s end:
“It was sad what happened,” Cousy told the Boston Globe. “In three years John went from looking like an Olympic athlete to a tired old guy.”
Havlicek spent four years, 1958-62, at Ohio State. He and his brothers on those Fred Taylor-coached teams won a national title in 1960 and played in the championship game in 1961 and ’62. These Buckeyes are at a point where they get together for funerals, as they did in honor of Larry Siegfried in Shelby in 2010, and 80th-birthday parties, as they did in honor of Dick Furry in Cleveland last fall.
Most of them last saw Havlicek in the summer of 2015, when a gym in Zanesville was named in Taylor’s honor. Four of the five starters — including center Jerry Lucas of Middletown, power forward Joe Roberts of East High and point guard Mel Nowell of East — attended. So did the 1960 captain, Furry, and another senior on the ’60 team, Dave Barker.
They noticed that Havlicek was beginning to feel the effect of Parkinson’s, in his speech and his muscle control. Havlicek mentioned nothing. As the disease took its full grip, he and his family put a tight lid on his medical condition — and the old Buckeyes respected their wishes.
Hondo was a quiet leader to the end.
Nowell said he gave Havlicek that nickname. Nowell’s family liked movies and when he first met Havlicek — as a teammate among a group of Ohio high-school all-stars — the joke was no one knew how to pronounce “Havlicek.” Nowell looked at Havlicek’s face, took note of the way he carried himself and thought, “That’s John Wayne. That’s Hondo.”
(For the younger among us: John Wayne was an actor who often portrayed tall, handsome cowboys who spoke with action more than words. “Hondo” is a 1953 Western in which Wayne is in classic form. The movie is based on a book by Louis L’Amour.)
Oh, how the nickname stuck. If you grew up in New England in the 1960s or ’70s (as I did, in the ’70s), Hondo was not John Wayne. Hondo was Havlicek and he was Hondo.
“Professional,” was the first description of Havlicek that Dave Cowens — whose jersey number also hangs in the new Garden rafters — gave to the Boston Herald.
Cowens, 70, grew up in Newport, Kentucky, and a Celtics teammate of Havlicek’s over the last five years of Havlicek’s playing career, which ended in 1976. He is, like Havlicek, a Hall-of-Famer.
“The one thing I tell people all the time is, ‘All you guys talk about Larry Bird and all these other (great Celtics players), but I’m going to tell you: If I had to pick, I’d pick John Havlicek,” Cowens said.
“That’s just me, because I played with him so many years and I saw what he did. He was clutch. He could defend, and he could play the 1, the 2 and the 3. He just knew how to play. He was the best player I ever played with.”
The Celtics have retired 23 numbers. Among them, No. 17 remains the team’s all-time leader in points, games played and minutes. Hondo won eight rings.
It was an evolution. At Ohio State, Havlicek wasn’t even the best player on his team. That would have been Lucas — but that is not the point. The 1960 Buckeyes had five future pros in the starting lineup. In the last flower of their youth, they were yet a tight team of cerebral ballplayers.
Havlicek — alert, smart, incredibly athletic and always moving — weaponized their fast break. Remember, that was a team that averaged 85.1 points and regularly scored more than 100.
“I always remember how fully aware he was of what was going on,” Nowell said. “We used to practice this trap, and we were pretty good at it. And if we knocked the ball loose, we didn’t even have to look where John was. He just read the trap and went. He was wherever we needed him to be — and then he was gone, and fantastically so. It was extraordinary.”
Nowell echoed Bob Cousy: Havlicek might’ve been the best thing that ever happened to an assist.
We could go on here about Havlicek, the player. But what the old Buckeyes talk about when they talk about Havlicek is the man they knew for all or parts of seven decades. More than one of the best athletes any of them had ever seen, Hondo was humble, quiet and quick to smile. He was a loyal friend and a solid family man and he never changed.
“In stature, he was a real good person, in and out, forever,” Barker said. “If you tried to mold a person or an image of the life of someone, you don’t have to go far: Just take John’s life and set it up there and that is the epitome of a human being.”
It is a sad day when such a man set in such glorious motion comes to a stop on this earth. Rest easy now, John.
Editor's note: This story has been edited to reflect that Havlicek was born in Martins Ferry, but grew up in Lansing, Ohio.