THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - April 27, 2019 - 12:00am

We rarely pay tribute to foreign athletes. After all, they aren’t our countrymen, and often don’t share our culture and values. But when someone like John Havlicek dies, basketball fans take notice, and it isn’t because of anything he said. He wasn’t a flamboyant player, after all. It was his level of quiet, cool excellence. Younger fans may not know the name in an era of highlights. But when you say “Havlicek stole the ball!” most people know what you’re talking about. Yet, that moment is an inadequate distillation of his work ethic and preparation for the big moment.

We are usually obligated to look at the numbers in assessing a player’s value. Hondo (his nickname from the 1953 John Wayne movie) spent the vast majority of his career coming off the bench, a testament to his humility. He has eight NBA championships from 16 seasons with the Boston Celtics, third only behind immortals Bill Russell and Sam Jones. He still leads the franchise in games played, points and field goals made, and was an NBA All Star 13 straight times. And overall, he has scored the fourth-most number of points among all players who played for only one team. But Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan were all starters, and played more minutes in more seasons. Think about that. 

Havlicek’s hustle was key to the second half of the Celtics’ eight straight championships. He never seemed to tire, and ran defenders through so many screens, they felt like they were being pulverized in the crowded train station underneath the old Boston Garden. It was later discovered that his heart was so strong, his resting heart rate was only 48 beats per minute. Very few athletes, among them the cold, expressionless tennis legend Bjorn Borg, boasted a similar physiological strength. Small wonder his energy seemed boundless. The average human resting heart is 60 to 100 beats per minute.

On April 15, 1965, the Celtics were inbounding and trailing the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Bill Russell’s inbound pass hit a guy wire attached to the corner of the backboard, and Sixers got the ball back and a chance to clinch the series. Russell’s error could have cost them a title. But Havlicek was quietly counting the five seconds for the inbound, saw Hal Greer toss it to his man Chet Walker, and anticipated the pass, deflecting the ball to Sam Jones, who dribbled out the clock. And Johnny Most’s passionate call of the moment cemented it in sports history.

Havlicek was also an important bridge for generations of Celtics. He was a rookie in Bob Cousy’s last season, saw Bill Russell retire, and saw the arrival of Larry Bird. Those are but three names in the constellation of the most storied franchise in the NBA. Havlicek’s career is a testament to the continuity of the franchise, and the willingness of players to submit to the team’s goals. Havlicek was the main continuity in those glorious years. He was, in many ways, the symbol of the team, more than anyone else. 

Even when Boston was winning constantly, Havlicek was still reluctant to shoot. He felt his teammates could do better. It took a lot of convincing from his teammates to take the big shots. They ended up unleashing one of the greatest shooters in the history of the game. When he accepted the responsibility, he poured himself into making sure he would not let his teammates down.

What endeared John Havlicek to millions was his quiet selflessness. You would rarely find quotes from him in the paper, and he always deferred to someone else, turning the spotlight on them. He personified the ideal teammate, in an era when Boston pioneered in breaking through the racial barrier. Havlicek would stand with his teammates, no matter what. He and Russell fought for equality, because it was the right thing to do, in the toughest era to do it.

Actions speak louder than words, and number 17’s actions were deafening. For generations of Celtics fans, John Havlicek’s career and life proved him the perfect ally, even more so off the basketball court.

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