Friends remember hustling Havlicek

Bill Rabinowitz

His Ohio State teammates knew that John Havlicek was quite ill.

Yet when he died Thursday at age 79, it was still a shock.

“Somebody texted me the other day that John is not doing well and they put him in hospice,” Joe Roberts said Friday from his home in Oakland, California. “Next thing I knew, they said John had passed. It’s hit everybody hard — really hard.

“You expect it, but when it happens, you say, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”

Roberts and Havlicek were teammates on Ohio State’s only national championship basketball team. Jerry Lucas was the biggest star on that 1959-60 team, but Havlicek was its untiring heart.

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Roberts told of a day when Havlicek returned after spending a month in Canada fishing. Everyone else had stayed in Columbus working out. Yet in his first workout after returning, Havlicek outran them all.

“I said, ‘John, you’re not human. When you retire, I’m going to become a surgeon and I’m going to take your heart out and see if it’s a motor,’ ” Roberts said. “He never sweated, never got tired. Just always moving.”

The bond forged by that national championship has remained ironclad in the six decades since then. Players are in regular communication. Lucas texts them every weekend, Roberts said. Most of them reunited in Columbus for a pizza party a couple of weeks ago.

Roberts said he last spoke with Havlicek, who had Parkinson’s disease, around Christmas.

“Like most guys, they’re not going to tell you they’re sick,” Roberts said. “They’ll tell you they’re doing OK.”

Havlicek was born in Martins Ferry and grew up in tiny Lansing in Belmont County in Eastern Ohio. He arrived at Ohio State unsure how he’d fit on a team loaded with players who’d averaged 30 points or more in high school. Lucas, at Middletown, was LeBron James before LeBron James.

“I knew the offense would be centered around Jerry Lucas,” Havlicek told The Dispatch in a 2010 story on the 50th anniversary of the championship. “I said to myself, if I become the best defensive player on the team, that might give me a chance to play a lot more minutes than if I had to rely on my offense, because we had plenty of offense.”

>> Michael Arace: John Havlicek exuded class on and off the court

And so he did, though he averaged 14.6 points per game in his OSU career anyway while endearing himself to his teammates for his selflessness on and off the court.

“John was the most friendly, most humble, most dedicated, most athletic guy I’ve ever met,” Roberts said. “He didn’t have any ego. He just came out and played. He never worried about scoring. He just wanted to win.”

His offensive game blossomed in the NBA with the Celtics as he helped them win eight championships. He averaged 20.8 points in a 16-year career, never averaging less than 16 after his rookie season.

“I was two years ahead of him and played one year against him in Boston,” Roberts said. “I said, ‘John, why do you shoot so much?’ He said, ‘They told me to put it up,’ and he just smiled.”

In Boston, Havlicek’s death hit home. Danny Ainge, a former Celtics player who is now the team's general manager and president of basketball operations, recalled Havlicek offering help when Ainge was struggling as a rookie.

"I wasn’t getting that many opportunities to play, and he invited me to dinner, invited me to lunch, invited me to play golf and just gave great advice and counsel," Ainge said. "Just a guy that really cared."

Ainge said that he of course admired Havlicek as a player and remembered big plays that he made.

“But when I think of John I don’t think of a highlight. I just think of this player that just never stopped playing," he said. "He played so hard. And the goodness of the person. His whole life was a highlight.”

Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann also paid tribute.

“All of us associated with the men’s basketball program are saddened to learn of the passing of Ohio State legend John Havlicek,” he said in a news release. “Anyone who grew up around the game of basketball like I did marvels at what John accomplished throughout his career.He led an Ohio State team recognized as one of the most accomplished in the history of the collegiate game before beginning his legendary career with the Boston Celtics. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and teammates.”

The players on that 1960 team were all three of those to each other.

The players on that 1960 team weren't just teammates, they were friends and a family.

“It’s a big loss,” Roberts said. “It’s a big, big loss for his family and as well as for our basketball family.”

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to say that Havlicek was born in Martins Ferry, but up in Lansing, Ohio.

Dispatch reporter Adam Jardy contributed to this story.