Only for a franchise as decorated as the Celtics, in a city where winning has become as common a habit as Boston, could a player of John Havlicek’s caliber go overlooked.
If you mentioned “Hondo” around Celtics fans in the last decade or so, they were likely to think you were cracking a joke at Tom Menino’s expense rather than referencing Havlicek’s nickname. His most iconic moment — “Havlicek stole the ball!” — is confused with the legendary Larry-Bird-passes-underneath-to-D.J. moment as often as it is recalled correctly.
All of which is incredible, because nearly anywhere else, Havlicek, who died Thursday at age 79, wouldn’t merely be on the city’s Mount Rushmore. He would be its Colossus of Rhodes.
An eight-time NBA champion, a 13-time All-Star and an eight-time defensive team pick, Havlicek scored the most career points for a franchise that boasts Bird and Paul Pierce in its roll call. He not only took the reins from Frank Ramsey, the league’s first vaunted “sixth man,” but somehow improved on the concept.
For as much as Red Auerbach lauded Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and others later, the workmanlike Havlicek might have fit the Hall of Fame coach and executive’s mold better than any other player.
“(Havlicek) exemplified (Auerbach’s) ideal,” author Aram Goudsouzian wrote in “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.” “A three-sport star from small-town Ohio, Havlicek won an NCAA championship and reached two other title games at Ohio State. Yet he operated in the shadow of teammate Jerry Lucas. Havlicek had a tiny ego and a huge work ethic. He possessed incredible stamina, scored on rebounds and fast breaks, and excelled at defense. The Cleveland Browns drafted him as a wide receiver, and he almost made the NFL despite never playing college football.”
How many guys can say they bailed out Russell, the greatest winner in American professional sports, for crying out loud?
But if Havlicek left Boston’s sports psyche in memory, he never left in spirit. He was a common, if unassuming, presence at fundraising events and in local documentary pieces about his more revered teammates. I met him once and got his autograph at the Boston Home Show. No big deal, just the leading scorer in Celtics history chilling by a display for pool supplies.
It’s likely Havlicek was a victim of the historic success he helped the Celtics achieve. For a franchise that has retired the numbers of Jim Loscutoff and Don Nelson, some fans probably assumed Havlicek was just another Very Good Celtic who was honored with a place on the banners.
But Havlicek wasn’t just another Celtic. He was a legend in his own right who measured up to and in most cases beyond every one of his peers in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Still, the way he left us was fitting. He was most famous for one classic steal and being overshadowed, and as his last act he stole off into the night while the attention of Boston sports fans was focused on a Bruins playoff game and the glorified list show known as the NFL draft. Almost as if he didn’t want us to make a fuss.
A fuss is what he deserves, though. In the story of how Boston built its reputation as a city of winners, Havlicek’s contributions are not just a footnote. They are a lead chapter, on a tier that few athletes — even in Boston — can match.