Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Green Running Machine

When John Havlicek was a rookie Boston Celtic, one of the most important second-string players on the Boston team was Jim Loscutoff, the National Basketball Association equivalent of a middle linebacker. Loscutoff was sometimes called "The Enforcer." In the first scrimmage of that 1962 training camp at Babson Institute in Wellesley, Loscutoff introduced Havlicek to the realities of a noncontact sport. The more noncontact Havlicek had with Loscutoff, the closer he figured he was coming to the emergency ward at Massachusetts General. Loscutoff outweighed him by 25 pounds, and was not disposed to coddle. The shoe rubber, Havlicek recalls, was screeching on every play.

Rookie Havlicek responded to this intimidation by running. He ran veteran Loscutoff into the floor, as surely as if he were a 10-penny nail. It is a style peculiar to Havlicek and, since it requires the physiology of an Arabian saddle horse, impossible to imitate. Havlicek runs and runs (scoring, rebounding, defending tenaciously, making key passes, setting up plays), and when his opponent begins to go under, he runs some more.

"Hey, you're crazy," panted Loscutoff as they lined up during a free-throw lull. "Nobody runs like that. Slow down."

Havlicek explained that he was not an unreasonable man, and that if he was making Loscutoff look bad, he had a solution.

"Quit pushing me around," he said, "and I'll quit running so hard." The compromise at least saved Loscutoff from an early swoon, but it has not saved the rest of the NBA from Havlicek in these intervening 12 years. Red Auerbach, then the Boston coach and now its president and general manager, remembers that first scrimmage, and having thought, "Oh, have I got something here. Are they going to think I'm smart!"

Smart Red had drafted Havlicek off the Ohio State campus at a time when his Celtic team was a philharmonic of Cousys, Heinsohns, Russells and Joneses. Eventually Red relinquished the baton to Russell, and the blend was altered to include Sanders, Nelson and Howell. Then Russell, too, turned it over, this time to Heinsohn, and the empty chairs were filled by a brassier medley of Cowens, Chaney and Jo Jo White. And always the insatiable Celtics won—well, seven out of 12 NBA championships is almost always—and always there was Havlicek.

Then at an age (34) when he was at last showing some faint signs of breaking into a sweat, Havlicek emerged last winter into total light as the physical, spiritual and appointed leader of the Celtics in their seven-game championship decision over the Milwaukee Bucks. Havlicek was named Most Valuable Player in the series.

The vote was academic. A case could have been made that Havlicek was more like Most Valuable in the Game Today. Or the Best Athlete the NBA has ever had—which would rank him right up there universally because few other sports demand anywhere near as much of an athlete as pro basketball.

Pshaw, you say. How can that be? How can such things be said of a guy who doesn't shoot as well as the best, isn't strong enough to smother a backboard, doesn't have breathtaking speed, can't dribble behind his back and isn't 7 feet tall? How can that be as long as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is alive and living on the basket rim?

There is no arguing Abdul-Jabbar's preeminence. Basketball is a game divided between centers and other fellows, and the best big man will get the franchise owner's vote. The best centers are called "dominant forces." Abdul-Jabbar, as the reigning dominant force, follows the skyline of George Mikan, Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. But inevitably he will make way for another. Already there are pretenders: a redhead named Walton in Portland and an adolescent named Moses in Utah. It is only a matter of time.

But it is altogether unlikely that you will ever see another Havlicek. The dimension John Havlicek has brought to basketball is entirely and uniquely his own, and it will probably go with him once he finally winds down. At that time Geoff Petrie of the Portland Trail Blazers would like to have them "take his body apart and see what's in it."

The record books are not conclusive on the subject of Havlicek: 20,814 career points represent an alltime Celtic high, but a lot of guys can put a ball in a basket. Furthermore, Havlicek does not fit any of the grooves: he plays two positions—forward and guard—not just one. Sometimes he plays them alternately during a game, sometimes interchangeably as a fill-in, though it has been a while since he was known as the Celtics' "sixth man."

The 6'5" Havlicek is what is known in the NBA as a "tweener," an in-between-size player, usually too slow for guard and too small for forward, ff you have basketball in mind, a tweener is not what you want to grow up to be. Havlicek has managed to breach the definition. His play is fast enough for the guards, big enough for the forwards.

"He is the best all-around player I ever saw," says Bill Russell simply. As a forward "he may be the best in the league right now," says Bill Sharman, the Lakers' coach. "The toughest in the league to cover," says Bullet Forward Mike Riordan. As a guard, says Jon McGlocklin of the Bucks, "he's right on your shirt whether you're five feet from the basket or 20. He's harder to get shots on than anybody." "He plays bigger than 6'5"," says Jerry West, late of the Lakers. ("Right," says Havlicek. "I'm actually 6'5½". I think I'm still growing.") "A road runner," says Laker General Manager Pete Newell, "taking you through every ditch, every irrigation canal, barbed-wire fence and cattle guard. You've had a trip over the plains when you've played him for a night."

There are a lot of fine shooters I around," says Al Attles, the Warriors' coach, "but when it gets right down to taking that big shot, the one that really means something, they're off in a corner somewhere." "He'll not only take it," says Sam Lacey of the Kings, "he wants it."

If you gauged worth by pure skill, a veteran basketball observer believes, "Havlicek would not rate in the top five. But if you were playing for a million bucks, he'd be in the top two." Jerry West, a less practical jurist, says: "Superstar is a bad word. In our league people look at players, watch them dribble between their legs, watch them make spectacular plays, and they say, 'There's a superstar.' Well, John Havlicek is a superstar, and most of the others are figments of writers' imaginations."

It would be reassuring for those who become melted butter in his wake to believe that Havlicek is some kind of genetic fluke who grew into a large pair of lungs connected to a long pair of legbones, the whole held together by wire, rubber and whipcord. But in Havlicek's case his particular style was charted by him as surely as if it were a sea voyage. The pivotal moment occurred during his sophomore year at Ohio State, when he was growing in the shadow of Jerry Lucas, just as he would later live in Bill Russell's more encompassing one in Boston.

For the record, Havlicek was born in Martins Ferry in the athlete-rich Ohio Valley, raised on the West Virginia line in rural Lansing, Ohio (pop. 1,000) and schooled in nearby Bridgeport. He was the second son of an immigrant Czechoslovakian butcher, Frank Havlicek, who, until he died last year, never lost his accent and believed soccer was the only sport. While mother and father tended the Havlicek stores John became a prime item at Bridgeport High, his names—Yunch, Boola, Big John, Mr. Clean—on everyone's lips. He never met a sport he didn't like. In baseball he hit .440, and teammate Phil Niekro, now with the Atlanta Braves, says he would have been a cinch big-leaguer.

As a 6'3", 180-pound quarterback, Havlicek was not only the class of the Bridgeport football team but also most of its size. He could throw a football 80 yards, but never had time to because his guards and tackles weighed 130 pounds. To compensate he got to be so good running the split-T option that twice in one game officials blew the ball dead because they couldn't find it.

Of such stuff legends are made, of course, and responsible people enjoy nurturing them. Red Auerbach says he once asked John how far he could swim, having seen him knifing through a motel pool. Red says John replied, "I don't know, it's just like walking to me." There are similar stories about Havlicek hefting a tennis racket for the first time and winning a class tournament at Ohio State, and about his picking up a foil and performing like Douglas Fairbanks. Havlicek laughs them off. Basketball was his best and true love, and he had no illusions about how he had to play it, even as a high-schooler. "It's true I'm not a shooter," he says, "not the way Sam Jones was or Jon McGlocklin. I never had their touch. I learned to score by taking advantage of every opening." He found early on that when confronted with taller players he could "lean back and throw it up, then run get the rebound and put it in." Sooner or later he always put it in. After Havlicek scored 28 of his team's 31 points in one game, the rival coach told the Bridgeport coach he knew how to stop Havlicek. "Put three men on him man-to-man, and play the other two in a zone under the basket," he said. "And every time he gets near the ball complain to the referees that they're favoring him."

Old-worlder Frank Havlicek rarely saw John play anything, never having gotten over soccer, but Mrs. Havlicek became a devotee. She harbored a mother's qualms about John playing football, though the football scouts came after him in droves. She found a sympathetic ear in Fred Taylor, the Ohio State basketball coach. Taylor has never been overly fond of what he still calls "oblong ball." "Mrs. Havlicek," he told her, "if you don't want John to play football, then he'll play it over my dead body."

Even that might have been arranged at Ohio State, because Woody Hayes himself wanted Havlicek. John told Hayes he didn't think he could hack basketball, baseball, football and the books, too, and he had a mind to play basketball and baseball. "How do you know until you try?" replied Hayes.

But Woody finally relented, and he told Havlicek he was the kind of boy they wanted at Ohio State "even if you don't play football. So come on, and I won't bother you again." And Hayes didn't, says John. His assistant coaches did. For the next four years they scattered hints like rose petals every time John passed by. Hayes himself was just slightly more subtle. He would introduce Havlicek to his football recruits as "the best quarterback in the Big Ten who isn't playing."

The 1960 Ohio State basketball team was the NCAA champion, led primarily by sophomores—Jerry Lucas, Mel Now-ell and John Havlicek. It was just before that season began that Havlicek came unilaterally to the conclusion that very likely made his career.

He walked into Coach Taylor's office, as Taylor recalls, and respectfully informed him there was "only one basketball, and you've got plenty of guys who can shoot it. I'm going to make this team on the other end of the floor."

"At the time," says Taylor, "we were trying to sell our kids on defense. Defense is hard to sell, but here was John literally jumping at the chance. I never saw anything like it. And of course I never saw anything like John. By midseason I was usually assigning him to the opposition's best player automatically, whether it was a frontcourt man or a backcourt man."

In his three years, during which Ohio State won one NCAA championship and lost two in the finals, Havlicek drew them all: Lenny Chappel of Wake Forest, Terry Dischinger of Purdue, Cotton Nash of Kentucky. "We even put him on a couple of centers," says Taylor. "He'd get upset if he didn't think he was guarding the best."

And Havlicek himself made a discovery: "I knew from the first time I played this game that the toughest guy to score on was the guy who kept after me all the time, nose-to-nose, basket-to-basket. The opposite is also true. The toughest guy to defend against is the guy who keeps running. Who never lets up. Never lets you relax. Who sneaks one in on you the first time you drag your feet. I never worried about the physical part, killing myself running or anything like that. I read once where a doctor said you'd pass out before you did any real damage. I never passed out."

Dervishes are an ascetic order, and so are stoics, and Havlicek is one of those, too. Shy, self-disciplining (he punishes himself for athletic failures by running great distances or denying himself Cokes), a noncomplainer. He played hurt, and still does. In a 1973 semifinal series with the Knicks he played three games with a partially separated shoulder, his right arm virtually useless at his side. Against Los Angeles in the 1969 finals he played with an eye swollen shut by an accidental gouging. "I don't think you should mind a little pain if you're paid to play," he says.

In that 1960 NCAA championship he played with a severely cut middle finger on his right (shooting) hand. Taylor remembers a time when John's knee was in such pain from strained ligaments that he finally consented to try an elaborate homemade brace the trainer called an "octopus." When Havlicek appeared on the practice floor his teammates whooped at the contraption, and John retreated to the training room. "I can't wear this thing," he said. "Take it off. It's embarrassing."

Havlicek was also quietly self-effacing about scoring, and Taylor finally suggested that John might want to take a shot himself now and then. He had been averaging no more than six or eight points a game. There followed a game in which Havlicek led the Buckeyes in scoring. When an astonished teammate asked what had gotten into him, Havlicek said, "Coach told me to." In his All-America senior year Havlicek led Ohio State in scoring seven times. He was voted team captain on all ballots but his own, which he cast for Lucas.

Having played no football at Ohio State, Havlicek was nonetheless drafted by Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns in the seventh round of 1962. In all, five NFL clubs sent him feeler letters.

Havlicek was drafted by the Celtics, too, in the NBA's first round, but in those days basketball owners were throwing dollar bills around as if they were hatch-covers. The Celtics' original offer was $9,500, with no bonus—"your bonus will be the playoff money," Havlicek was told. Unbeknownst to Havlicek, Taylor called Celtic Owner Walter Brown to plead for a better deal. "You college coaches are all alike," said Brown, "always thinking your player is worth more." "Mr. Brown," replied Taylor, "the NBA never had a player worth more than this one."

The offer was raised to $15,000, which equaled that from the Browns, except that the Browns agreed to throw in an Impala convertible. Not having satisfied an itch to try football at a level where the tackles weighed more than 130 pounds, Havlicek gathered up the keys to the convertible and reported to the Cleveland camp.

"On the first day, at the first meal, I loaded up my tray and took a seat by myself," he says. "I wasn't planning on doing much talking anyway, and I'd heard about the things they did to rookies in the NFL. Suddenly I began to hear these barking and growling noises, like they were maybe directed at me. But when I looked up there was this guy with two T-bone steaks on his plate. He was eating them raw. I thought, 'Boy, this football is going to be tough.' "

As a 6'5", 205-pound wide receiver, Havlicek was called "The Spear" by the Browns. He ran the 40-yard sprints in 4.6 seconds and, he says, "caught the ball as well as anyone in camp, but the team was loaded with fine receivers—Gary Collins, Bobby Crespino, Ray Renfro. And there was a lot I didn't know about blocking."

Against the Steelers in the second exhibition, at Municipal Stadium, Brown sent Havlicek in. "The crowd gave me a big hand," he says. "They were curious to see if a basketball player could play football. Somehow I made my block, on the cornerback, I think. A perfect block. Jim Brown ran a sweep 48 yards to the Pittsburgh two.

"Somebody in the huddle said, 'O.K., Spear, do it again.' I was feeling pretty good. This time it was an off-tackle play. I lined up looking into the face of Big Daddy Lipscomb. When they peeled everybody off the pile I was the bottom, my shoulder pads twisted around and the part of my helmet that was supposed to be over my ear was jammed against my nose. I said to myself, 'Boy, this football is tough.' "

Havlicek was the last receiver to be cut by Brown. "I liked Brown," says Havlicek, "the way he ran things, the way everything was so precise. My kind of coach. He was very nice about it when he let me go. He seemed to know I had something to go to."

Red Auerbach once said, "John Havlicek is what I always thought a Celtic should be." A rival player, Jim Washington of the Hawks, perceives a more spiritual relationship. John Havlicek, says Washington, is what the Celtics have become. "They are one and the same," says Washington. "He gives them leadership and inspiration, and their style of play is his style. It is a rare, beautiful thing."

Late this summer, before the Celtics opened their training camp, Havlicek was back in Ohio. Early one sunny afternoon, he turned his Jeep Wagoneer out of the drive of the four-bedroom maple-shaded brick house in Wellington Woods, a suburb of Columbus, and headed out for some errand-hopping prior to an afternoon golfing date and an evening banquet to be held in his honor in downtown Columbus. "Actually," he said, "it's for the Children's Hospital. I'm just a reason to get people there." The Jeep had been the automobile of his choice for winning the MVP award. Its mates in the Havlicek garage were a bottle-green Cadillac convertible, an Audi and a Honda Trail 70 that had only 29 miles on it because all he uses it for is to take mini-rides around the neighborhood with his 4-year-old son Chris snuggled against his chest.

"I identify with the Jeep," said Havlicek, turning into Olentangy Road. "You know, I could do this every day the rest of my life—play golf, fish, play tennis. Loaf around in these." He pulled at the striped beach shirt he was wearing with the faded jeans and a scuffed pair of Adidas sneakers without socks. His hair was longer than it used to be, a concession to style, he said, and to his wife's wishes.

He said it had not been that difficult to adjust his son-of-a-butcher's tastes to his conspicuous success (his salary alone, as the highest-paid Celtic, is $200,000-plus). "We do not try to run up a lot of material things," he said. The Havlicek homes in Ohio and in suburban Melrose outside Boston are tidy and attractive, but not pretentious; no swimming pools, no fancy rec rooms. Beth Havlicek, his college sweetheart, is a pretty girl with cornsilk hair and startling blue eyes. She has kept her cheerleader's figure through two pregnancies (they have Chris and a daughter, Jill, who is one year old) by engaging John in a continuous round of shared activities. Beth took up tennis and golf for him, John took up skiing and horseback riding for her.

Havlicek made a grocery stop, then drove past the International Manufacturing and Marketing Corporation, a small but growing ($1 million assets) manufacturer's rep of which John is vice-president. Under its aegis there is an expanding Havlicek line of sporting goods—five signatured items to date and, coming soon, a John Havlicek basketball game that is played like darts and will retail for $15. The president of IMM wants John to quit playing basketball and run the business full time. John said he told him that as long as he was in the shape he's in he'd forgo the opportunity for a full-time desk job.

He patted his unabundant stomach. "I'm down to 193 now, but it's not unusual," he said. "I always lose in the off-season. I don't go for sweets, and I don't drink much, and in the off-season I run around so much that I don't pay much attention to eating. Once we go to camp I'll go to four meals a day, meat and potatoes, and be up to 205 in no time."

He said he could remember that first Celtic camp as if it were yesterday. "I was absorbed right away. There was no trial period, no feeling out. Red never took a lot of guys to camp, and the old Celtics knew what to expect. All Red did was motivate 'em. They'd all been champions either in college or as pros, and they never thought they should ever lose a game.

"The first year, Frank Ramsey and I divided playing time. Ramsey was near retirement, but he was still great. We were close. That's when I first got to be called the 'sixth man,' Red said, 'It doesn't matter who starts, it's who finishes.' I wanted to finish. I've always taken pride in the ability to play guard and forward. No one else has really done it. Ordinarily a sixth man can handle the offense at either position, but the defense gets him. A guard can't always pin a good forward in the corner, a forward can't stay with a guard up and down court. My defensive background made it easier.

"To Red the idea of a team having character was as important as anything else. He was gruff and tough, but he transmitted something. The Celtics have always had a unity, a feeling for each other. On my first day in Boston, Bill Russell took me all over town to help me find a stereo. The biggest name in basketball. And I was a rookie. There were no factions, no personality conflicts that lasted very long, no black and white problems. There was no scuttlebutt, no rumors. It must have been rough on the Boston writers.

When Russell left as coach, I went from being the youth of the Celtics to the old man. K.C. Jones was gone...Sam...the next year, Bailey Howell. Nelson, Satch Sanders and I were the only vets left. People said, 'Are these the Celtics?' For a long while I didn't think so. A lot of young players today don't want to learn fundamentals, they don't want to feed, block out, learn the plays. They have so much physical ability they try to take shortcuts. Well, I don't want to be on a team that is fundamentally unsound. And that's the way we seemed to be heading.

"In one game we set up two out-of-bound plays, actually called time-out to set them up. On the first one, the in-bounds pass was thrown to the wrong man. On the second the center lined up wrong. I couldn't believe it. I doubt I'd done it before, but I came back to the bench screaming, and I had more to say in the locker room. Afterward I told a writer it was the dumbest team I'd ever been associated with. I said we had seven simple plays, and if a guy comes into this league making $20,000 and can't learn seven simple plays, then he doesn't deserve to be paid. The funny thing about it was we won the game."

Heinsohn, his old roommate in the '60s, gave Havlicek carte blanche to do and say what he pleased but Havlicek said he'd already figured it out. "I had a responsibility to pass on the Celtic tradition, to instill it if I could. I didn't have to be told.

"The difference on the floor, compared with the old Celtics, is that we've shifted the emphasis from defense to offense. Russell was the greatest defensive center the game has ever known. Dave Cowens can't be a Russell, but he's a better shooter. K.C. was a great defensive player. Jo Jo's a better shooter. I'm counted on now more for scoring than I was. Sure, I want the ball in a tight situation. I feel I know more what I can do, and I'm not bothered if I miss. As long as you know it's the best you could have done, you should not second-guess a shot.

"The maturity we reached last year was remarkable considering how short a time we had had to rebuild. I could see it in the playoff series with Milwaukee, the very first game. We knew what we had to do, we did it. We played tough defense, made Oscar [Robertson] keep the ball as long as possible, get the time down to 18 seconds or so before he could get the ball to Jabbar. Let Jabbar have his 50 points. One guy won't beat us."

Havlicek steered the Jeep back into his driveway, turned off the key and settled back in the seat. "I've got two years on my contract," he said. "You never know how you're going to feel, so I'm not ruling out anything. This is a good business and I like it, but I'm going to play as long as I can play well. I'll know. I'm not as fast as I was. I'm not as reckless on defense, partly because I'm smarter, partly because I'm called on more offensively. Partly because I'm older."

That afternoon Havlicek drove his Jeep to play golf with his old Ohio State teammates Bobby Knight, now head coach at Indiana, and Gary Gearhart, who sells class rings in Columbus. Since Havlicek has not yet taken golf seriously, he suffered what would have been damage to his ego had he not been having so much fun. Only Knight really suffered. On the 12th hole he hit nine consecutive balls into the water. Havlicek and Gearhart tried to stifle their giggles.

"No wonder you can't do anything," said Havlicek, hefting a club from Knight's bag. "These look like the covers of Mason jars."

"My salary," said Knight acidly, "is not dependent on my purring this hole."

Their carts side by side on the next fairway, Knight looked over at the grinning Havlicek and shook his head.

"Greatest guy in the world. And he's always been the same, from the beginning. Except now he's rich."

"You'd be surprised how naive we were," said Gearhart. "John especially. Didn't smoke, barely drank, probably never cut a class."

"I had to study," said Havlicek. "There were so many of you smart guys around I sure didn't want to be the dumb one."

"The wildest thing we did was go to the movies on Saturday night and throw peanuts around," said Gearhart. "Lucas wouldn't go with us. Havlicek would, but once inside he'd move away."

"It would be embarrassing to get arrested for throwing peanuts," said Havlicek.

"The fact is you were too cheap to buy them," said Knight.

"Thrifty," said Havlicek.

Havlicek's next tee shot, a resounding whack, split the fairway and was past them all.

"Watch how I did that," he said. "I never hit it the same way twice."

Clank. Havlicek's second shot, like a stricken toy plane, dived erratically into the left rough. John waved at it.

"In my opinion," said Knight, "John Havlicek is the greatest basketball player who ever lived, bar none. I'm not saying he has more ability, I'm saying he's the greatest player, because he can beat you so many ways, and nobody, nobody goes as hard for as long as he does."

Bonk. Havlicek's third shot, struggling to get airborne and out of the rough, hit a tree and caromed off into a sand trap. "My game," said Havlicek, "has gotten itself together."

"How can the world's greatest athlete be so bad at golf?" asked Gearhart.

Schlump. Kerplop. Havlicek's sand shot took off nicely but landed in a pond by the green. Havlicek raised his club into the air as if it were a standard.

"I'll tell you a story," said Knight. "At Indiana we were playing Providence after we'd lost in the NCAA semifinals. Playing for third place. John suddenly appeared at our team meal. He went around introducing himself, as if my players did not know who he was. Then he told them, 'You have to play for third place tonight. It's the best you can do. So you should do your best.' Later, after we won easily, a writer asked me how I got 'em so keyed up for a third-place game. I said I hadn't."

At the Havlicek banquet that night the menu included Boston Celtic parfait, and a group of ladies in green and white uniforms who called themselves the "Havlicettes" sang a medley of Havlicek, Super Celtic Handy and Give John's Regards to the Buckeyes. There were film clips of key games and TV commercials John had made—Diet Rite among them—and a nostalgic reel or two of his wedding. Perhaps accidentally, the pictures of his high school football games came on the screen upside down.

People influential in Havlicek's life got up to pay him tribute. His old high school coach told the audience that whenever he sees John on TV "I tell my son, "That's John Havlicek. I coached him.' It's the greatest honor I could have." Fred Taylor said that Havlicek was probably the only man in Ohio who could bring such a crowd together "on the eve of oblong ball season." Bobby Knight said he wished he had Havlicek's money. When John's mother was called on to be recognized from the floor, John, on the podium, stood up and the audience followed. Mrs. Havlicek's blush could be seen across the room.

Then the occasion himself came to the microphone. He said in his familiar, pleasing baritone that it was "hard for me to accept compliments very well," and that the only reason he was there was that there were children who needed help. After that he and Beth passed out the door prizes—balls, posters, etc.—that John himself had donated.

When it was over and the dance band was whipping up a rock tune, Knight and a small knot of old Ohio State players and friends gathered around Fred Taylor near the podium. Taylor said he had called Havlicek after the final NBA championship game with Milwaukee. "I got him out of the shower. He said, 'Fred, it's the only time I ever won anything by myself,' meaning without a Lucas or a Russell to take the spotlight. I said, "John, you've been winning all your life."

"You know, I had a call just the other day, one that I seem to get all the time. The guy said, 'Fred, I have a prospect for you. He's another John Havlicek.' I stopped him right there. I said, 'Don't ever tell me that. There's no such thing. There's only one.' "