John Havlicek, the great Boston Celtic from the ’60s and ’70s, recently passed away. He was one of my first sports related heroes. Many are remembering him for his eight championship rings. Others recall his “Havlicek Stole the Ball” moment against Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers. Those who watched him play will also recall his tireless and unselfish efforts. Bill Russell, one of the greatest winners, leaders, and defensive players in NBA history, once claimed that Havlicek was the best all-around player he’d seen. While going on to be the team’s all-time leading scorer, John Havlicek was also willing to play the role of “Sixth Man.” He was an unassuming class act.
The game of basketball is forever evolving. Eras change, as do styles of play. While it can be argued that today’s players are more athletic and their acumen at shooting 3’s is something players from the past could not comprehend, there are basic core attributes that are interchangeable, despite time.
John Havlicek was not the smoothest player of all time. He also was not one to soar over opponents or use dazzling ball-handling skills to achieve success. No, ‘Hondo’ hustled, played great defense, accepted his role and showed up on a ‘boringly’ consistent basis. He was certainly a great athlete, having also been drafted by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, but his athleticism includes subtleties that are not always rewarded these days. While sports are certainly part of the entertainment world–they also represent excellence in athletic skill, stamina, strategy and success. Style is another important component of athletics for it brings people to the arena. Unfortunately, sometimes style supersedes the other components previously listed. When this occurs the posing after a dunk becomes more valuable than the team’s winning.
Yes, I am old school. With this being said, I still love watching LeBron James, Kevin Durant and many of today’s stars. The game has evolved and it is amazing watching 7-foot tall athletes make shots from well beyond the arc. But, in my opinion, there is still room for boring “team play.” In fact, the San Antonio Spurs, under Greg Popovich, exemplify this dynamic (the great Tim Duncan was right up there with Havlicek in terms of understated excellence). Childhood heroes often leave indelible marks. Havlicek left one that reinforces the importance of teamwork, effort and class. He and Tim Duncan are of the same mold–quiet, yet great.
I often think of the young people watching sporting events these days. For certain, there are many athletes whose feats are worthy of praise. Also, for certain they could benefit from recognizing that old school and boring traits like hustle, team play, patience, tenacity and sportsmanship have a place. Plato once asserted that “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” John Havlicek will be remembered for his hours of play. See you soon. P.S. A few years back my friend, Brian Shea, took me to a Boston Celtics game at the TD Garden. It just so happened that this evening would be an anniversary celebration of the famous ‘Havlicek Stole the Ball’ game of 50 years ago. I was grateful to have seen ‘Hondo’ in person one last time. How lucky can one get?
A frequent contributor to these pages, Bob Houghtaling is the long-time director of the East Greenwich drug program.