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Ohio State legend John Havlicek enjoying life away from spotlight

Courtesy of Ohio State Athletics

If he walked around campus today, how many students would recognize him? If students walking down High Street were asked to name the most accomplished basketball player in Ohio State history, would they know how to pronounce his last name?

The likely answer to both questions is no. The truth is, time passed John Havlicek long ago. He was underappreciated during his career, and his name has fallen through the cracks of history, eventually finding a home in the world of forgotten yesterdays.

Perhaps it was meant to be this way. With a tireless work ethic that reflected the blue-collar town he’s from, Havlicek was an unassuming star who put on his hard hat and quietly went to work, day in and day out.

In 1978, he retired from the NBA third in career scoring, second in career minutes and first in games played.

“When John Havlicek retired, I thought he was the greatest all-around player I had ever seen,” said Bob Ryan, former Celtics beat reporter for The Boston Globe and co-author of “Hondo: Celtic Man in Motion.” “There’s nobody today, no style that reminds me of John Havlicek.”

Thirty-two years later, Havlicek’s name rarely escapes the mouths of OSU students.

His hometown, Lansing, Ohio, has a population of about 500 people. His entire life was contained within a six-block radius. Though this eventually would work to Havlicek’s advantage, it bothered him that as a kid, his parents wouldn’t buy him a bicycle.

“As a young boy, I never had a bicycle,” Havlicek said. “It was because we lived on a busy street, but all of my friends had one. So, when they would go from place to place, they’d ride their bikes and I would run.”

That busy street was U.S. Route 40, and the Havliceks’ front door was about 12 feet from the highway. His elementary school was a block away from his house, and the church was across the street from the school. So, he ran. Everywhere.

“Where I grew up, you played football, basketball and baseball,” Havlicek said. “Those were the three major sports that everyone played regardless.”

That trend continued into high school, when Havlicek earned all-state honors in all three sports at Bridgeport High School. He visited OSU four times during his senior year, and three of those recruiting trips were football-related. Then-coach Woody Hayes wanted Havlicek to play for his football team.

“I was from a small school, and I knew I wanted to play basketball. That was my preference,” Havlicek said. “I was tempted to try football, but I think things turned out best for me by just sticking with basketball.”

For four years, Hayes kept an open locker and a clean jersey ready for Havlicek in case he changed his mind. Hayes also promised not to hassle Havlicek about his decision to play basketball and baseball at OSU instead of football, but that didn’t stop Hayes from ribbing him on occasion.

“He once introduced me as ‘the best quarterback in the Big Ten, only he’s not playing,'” Havlicek said.

OSU wanted Havlicek, but he wasn’t sure whether he belonged in the Big Ten. Lee Caryer, an OSU basketball historian and author of the book “Golden Age of Ohio State Basketball,” said Havlicek lacked self-confidence.

“He didn’t think he was good enough. He was so impressed with (Jerry) Lucas, and he felt like he wasn’t as good as Lucas,” Caryer said. “That’s the kind of person he is. He was the last person to think he was something special.”

Lucas was Ohio’s prodigal son at the time. A superstar at Middletown High School, he had no idea who Havlicek was when they met during their senior years.

“I had never heard of him, really. He was in a different part of the state,” Lucas said. “The first time I met him was at the North-South All-Star Game for Ohio high school basketball players. John and I were on the same team.

“We won that game pretty handedly,” he added, laughing.

Lucas and Buckeye recruit Mel Nowell convinced Havlicek to follow them and play for OSU. Havlicek accepted and helped to form a recruiting class that would rival any OSU class.

In 1959, the Buckeye basketball program had a freshman team, but the team could only practice against the varsity and play against the junior varsity squad before varsity games. The team didn’t travel or play a game against any other college. However, largely because of Lucas’ star power, fans packed St. John Arena for the freshmen scrimmages and left before the varsity games began.

“We regularly beat the varsity in practice, and there were actually more fans that came to the freshman games than they did to the varsity games, unfortunately,” Lucas said. “There was a tremendous amount of interest in our team throughout the state.”

The OSU basketball program was loaded with offensive firepower.

“I would argue to this day that Lucas was one of the top five college players of all time,” Ryan said. “And Havlicek was Robin to his Batman at OSU.”

Lucas, Nowell, Larry Siegfried, Joe Roberts and Bobby Knight could score in a variety of ways. Havlicek determined it would be in his best interest to make an impact on the other end of the floor.

“I figured if everyone gets their (high school) average, we’re going to score 150 points a game, which wasn’t going to happen,” Havlicek said. “The best way for me to get into the lineup was to excel on defense. That’s what I dedicated myself to, and that’s what I was known as when I was a collegiate player.”

Havlicek’s scoring increased in each subsequent season he donned scarlet and gray, but his defensive efforts were becoming the stuff of urban legend. It wasn’t uncommon for players from other schools to brag to the media when they scored in the double digits on a night when Havlicek was guarding them. It didn’t happen often.

“He was the first man down the court on offense, but he was always the last player to leave on defense,” Caryer said. “He just got there faster.”

The Buckeyes only lost six games over the course of three seasons at the varsity level. They are also responsible for the only National Championship win in OSU basketball history, which they earned in 1960. The late Fred Taylor coached the team to a near-perfect first half of basketball against California. It made 15 of its first 16 shots en route to a lopsided 75-55 victory.

When his collegiate basketball career came to an end, Havlicek was selected in the 1962 draft in both the NBA and the NFL. Despite Havlicek not having played football for more than four years, iconic Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown drafted him in the seventh round. Havlicek wasn’t sure if he wanted to play professional football, but he reported to camp anyway.

“He went to the Browns, which was one of the NFL powers at that time,” Caryer said. “They ran the 40-yard dash, and Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell were the only guys in camp that were faster than Havlicek.” The Browns wanted him to play wide receiver. Havlicek had great hands, but he struggled with blocking. He was the last player cut. In his autobiography, Havlicek said the Browns contacted him for the next five years, gauging his interest in a return to the NFL.

Havlicek had a back-up plan. He was drafted No. 7 overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1962 NBA draft.

“I was going to try and play both. But the intuition of the good Lord had me in his good standing by cutting me and saying that, ‘I think you belong in basketball not football,'” Havlicek said.

The Celtics had just won their fifth championship when Havlicek arrived at training camp. Their roster was a checklist of legends, including coach Red Auerbach and center Bill Russell.

Despite a solid collegiate career in which Havlicek averaged 14.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game for the Buckeyes, a familiar trend was occurring. Some doubted he could play professional basketball, and others still had no idea who he was.

“When he was drafted first by the Boston Celtics, I had sports writers, even some from Columbus, saying, &lsquo
;Do you think he can make it?'” Lucas said. “And I said, ‘What have you been watching for the last three years? I mean, if he can’t make it, nobody can.'”

Tommy Heinsohn, who was Havlicek’s teammate on the Celtics for four years before eventually taking over as coach, said the Celtics were completely unaware of what he could accomplish on the court.

“We didn’t know anything about him, other than he was on a very good Ohio State team,” Heinsohn said. “And we very quickly found out that he was a terrific athlete.”

Because of his unrelenting cardio, Havlicek would run his defender into the ground. He never stopped running. Thanks to an abnormally large set of lungs and a childhood devoted to running, nobody could keep up with him for an entire game.

“When I coached him, I noticed that his endurance and style of play was something that nobody else had been able to do,” Heinsohn said. “His energy, endurance and athleticism helped us win a lot of games.”

The role of the sixth man on an NBA team is a thankless one. These players are generally regarded as individuals who can light it up on offense, but lack the defensive chops to be a starter. Havlicek wore the sixth man tag like a badge of honor, never once letting it bother him that he wasn’t a starter.

“I prided myself on my ability to come off of the bench and change the tempo of the game, both offensively and defensively,” Havlicek said. “I figured that nobody could name all of the players who started in the NBA at that time. But if I could become the best sixth man in the league, everyone would know who I was.”

In a professional career spanning 16 seasons, Havlicek won eight NBA championships, the third-most in league history. His first and eighth championships were won with a completely different roster.

“There is no argument that he wasn’t the greatest sixth man in NBA history,” Ryan said. “He was an absolutely amazing, astonishing player.”

Havlicek played in the shadow of Russell in Boston, much like he had in the shadow of Lucas at OSU. But his numbers don’t lie.

Havlicek is the Celtics’ all-time leading scorer and ranks 12th overall in points scored, with 26,395. He rarely got hurt, playing 46,471 total minutes, good for eighth of all time. He appeared in 13 All-Star games, and was a constant fixture on both the All-NBA teams and All-Defensive teams.

“He got to the point where he loved to shoot,” Lucas said. “He told me later in his professional career that he never saw a shot he didn’t like.”

While transforming into an offensive dynamo, Havlicek developed an affinity for crunch-time situations. When the Celtics needed a clutch play, they turned to Hondo.

The most famous play in Celtics history, and most famous radio call in NBA history, took place during the 1965 NBA Finals. The Celtics had a one-point lead in the seventh and final game of the series. Their opponents, the Philadelphia 76ers, were inbounding the ball under their own basket with four seconds remaining.

Philadelphia’s Hal Greer tried to pass the ball in to one of his teammates, but Havlicek deflected the ball, sealing the victory and an NBA championship. Johnny Most, calling the game on a Boston radio station, screamed, “Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over!”

Because of Most’s broadcast, the final play became the stuff of legends in Boston. Most’s entire victory call lasted just more than a minute, and was distributed as a record in Boston by Fleetwood Records. It’s still played today during sports broadcasts and countdown shows.

“(Havlicek) was a tremendous leader and a go-to guy at the end of ball games,” Heinsohn said, “and it’s hard to find guys that are willing to accept that responsibility.”

In his final professional contest, Havlicek scored 29 points. Before the game began, a sold-out crowd in the Boston Garden stood up and applauded Havlicek for a remarkable career. The ovation lasted eight and a half minutes.

Brent Musburger, who was calling the broadcast with Keith Erickson, said, “It’s possible that we won’t be able to play this game the way (the fans are) going in the Boston Garden. But why not? How often does an institution retire?”

The fans refused to take a seat, showering Havlicek with the respect and admiration he’d been so deserving of throughout his career. It had only taken 38 years to get it.

Ryan said Havlicek “absolutely, positively could have kept playing.”

“He was running all over the floor for layups,” Ryan said. “It was an incredible, symbolic, full-circle ending to his career.”

Thirty-two years later, Havlicek shuttles between homes in Weston, Mass., Cape Cod, Mass., and Florida. Short of an occasional visit to a Celtics’ practice session, he has distanced himself from the game of basketball. He occupies his time by hunting, fishing and playing golf.

That, above all else, likely is the reason why few at OSU ever speak of Havlicek.

Still, those individuals fortunate enough to see him play never will forget about him. One of his most glowing reviews came from a longtime rival, both in college and at the professional level: Jerry West.

“Superstar is a bad word,” West told Sports Illustrated. “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.”

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