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May 9th, 1966

v.s. Los Angeles Lakers: Some Old Pros Refuse To Die

...and, sparked by a fiery, versatile young pro, the Boston Celtics came back from their poorest season and near defeat in the early playoffs to beat Los Angeles and retain the world championship

Frank Deford

 

Three hundred and seventy-two professional basketball games and four years ago, the Boston Celtics dynasty was crumbling. The team had won four championships in a row, but had been forced to seven games to beat Los Angeles, and the players were old and worn out. Sharman was gone, Cousy was going, Ramsey and Loscutoff were looking for a graceful way to call it quits.

 

On a sunny summer day of that year Red Auerbach met his first draft choice of the season, John Havlicek of Ohio State, at Red's camp in Marshfield, Mass. Auerbach remembers it well. Havlicek ran up and down the court without taking a deep breath. He cut and jumped and shot among the other Celtics, and Auerbach watched with awe. "I remember I was stunned," Auerbach says. "All I could think of was, 'Ooh, have I got something here! Are they going to think I'm smart!' " Red Auerbach had never seen Havlicek play before.

 

It is 1966 now, and once again there were seven games with Los Angeles in the title round. But, as always, the Celtics won, and Red Auerbach left coaching with his eighth straight world championship. The man who succeeds him, William F. Russell?f the writing and rebounding Russells?as been the most important player through all of these championship years and, as such, must depend mostly on himself if the dynasty is to continue. Still, growing more and more significant to the Celtics' success with each season is 26-year-old John Havlicek (see cover), who has achieved a supporting role that no Celtic has risen to fill since Bob Cousy was at his peak

 

From the time in the recent Cincinnati playoff series when Auerbach was down 2-1 and could no longer afford the luxury of keeping him as a sixth man, Havlicek has almost doubled his average for rebounds, and he led the Boston scoring in the series with the Lakers. And Auerbach has kept him on the floor, at both forward and guard, nearly as much as he has played Russell. In the seventh game last Thursday, Auerbach had Havlicek go the whole 48 minutes with Russell, as Boston held off a late Los Angeles rally to win 95-93.

 

In addition to those accomplishments that can be tallied, Havlicek, like Russell, is one of those rare players who force rivals to alter their regular methods in deference to him. Havlicek is 6 feet 5?and weighs 205 pounds, and he has unusual speed, strength and agility for a man that size. He is too fast for most forwards and too big for most guards to cope with. "No one in the league his size is even close to Havlicek in quickness." Los Angeles Coach Fred Schaus says. "He is entirely responsible for the trend to small, quick forwards."

 

Havlicek's speed in the corner forced Schaus to abandon his regular lineup, to bench 6-foot-7 All-Star Forward Rudy La Russo for 6-foot-1 Gail Goodrich. Goodrich went to the backcourt with Jim King, while Jerry West (6 feet 3) moved to a corner to battle Havlicek. It became, essentially, a three-guard Los Angeles lineup, making the Lakers extremely vulnerable on the boards. But because of the Celtics' mobility, Schaus figured this was his only chance to win. Elgin Baylor, obliged to concentrate on rebounding, was battered and weakened, yet despite a couple of inept losses, Schaus refused to switch back to his regular lineup. What he did do was start bringing in his rebounding strength (namely La Russo) more often, and the Lakers began to recover. Though they lost the fourth game, too, to fall behind 3-1, they played well and then came back with two straight to tie the series. The little lineup?uerrilla warriors?ould match the Boston speed and tire the Boston veterans, and then West would move back to guard and he and Baylor would let loose the big guns.

 

Suddenly it was Auerbach who was struggling. His bench had never been weaker, his starters never in worse shape. Russell had a broken bone in his foot that he kept quiet. Sanders had a secret chest injury, the five starters wore a total of eight leg bandages?ncluding K. C. Jones's full-length wraparound. On top of all this, in mid-series, 32-year-old Sam Jones started playing up to his age.

 

Los Angeles does not. however, have a center to handle Russell?ho does besides Philadelphia??nd depends too much on West and Baylor for scoring. In the seventh game, when these two turned up unbelievably cold (3 for 18 in the first half), Boston was able to take a big lead and stagger home with it. The final margin of only two points is misleading, however, for the Lakers cut it down from double figures only in the last 30 seconds, when the Boston police lost their annual playoff with the Boston fans.

 

Each time Auerbach lights his last victory cigar of the season the fans charge the court like Attila's Huns, and there are never enough of Boston's finest on hand. The mob practically kills Auerbach and the players. Russell got knocked down this year, and Sanders lost his shirt in the melee. The Celtics were lucky they did not lose the title. Trying to get the ball in bounds, the Celtics had to out-maneuver the crowd and then work their way upcourt on a surface sticky with spilled orange juice. The Lakers actually had three seconds in which they could have achieved a tie, but K. C. got the ball to Havlicek and the game ended that way, Havlicek hugging the ball and the fans tumbling all over the court.

 

It was a disgraceful episode, and Havlicek could not excuse it even in the first flush of victory. "Fans expect athletes to keep their poise, never to choke under pressure," he said. "Is it too much for athletes to expect fans to keep their poise, too?"

 

Havlicek is always, above all, an athlete, perhaps the best ever to come out of Ohio State—or all of Ohio, for that matter. He has been proficient in every sport he has tried, succeeding with grace and without apparent effort. Auerbach recalls: "We were sitting around a pool one day, and I asked him how far he could swim. He said he didn't know. I said, 'All right, a mile?' 'Sure.' 'O.K., two miles?' 'Sure.' 'Well then, how far?' 'I don't know,' he said. 'You know, I can swim just like I can walk.' "

 

The reply was honest and natural, not a reflection of cockiness. "It's not just his remarkable abilities, but his disposition," says Fred Taylor, who was Havlicek's coach at Ohio State. "I've never seen an athlete with a better temperament." Larry Siegfried, his teammate at OSU and on the Celtics, says he possesses "absolute security."

 

Havlicek still believes he could play pro football, and several Boston sportswriters are equally certain that he could pitch for the Red Sox. He was all-Ohio in high school in both football and baseball as well as basketball, and most famous as a quarterback on a small team: Big John and the Seven Dwarfs. "We did have a wrestling champion at fullback," Havlicek says, "but he was in the 120-pound class." Woody Hayes never gave up hope that Havlicek would play football at Ohio State. The plan was to move Havlicek in at quarterback and shift Tom Matte to halfback. Havlicek, however, was determined to play basketball. He eventually was elected team captain, but always it was Jerry Lucas who got all the attention. Typically, Havlicek accepted the fact quietly, made himself the Big Ten's best defensive player and settled for most of his baskets by scrounging for loose balls, balls the opposition was trying to hold on to, and grabbing offensive rebounds. He still possesses an almost uncanny ability to be in the right spot for rebounds, but it is not altogether an instinctive response. "I can remember about that even back in high school," he says. "I started to shoot once against a very tall guy, and suddenly I knew I couldn't make the shot over him. So I just aimed for the backboard, rushed in, got the rebound and put it in. I took two shots to make one."

 

Such quickness of body and mind helped make Havlicek the superb substitute, the much-decorated best sixth man in pro basketball, even though he had come off the bench in only one game in college. He knew what Auerbach wanted: "My job was to come in there and get the team moving—play defense and move them." He has been a key man in the fast break, as Siegfried points out, since most breaks require three offensive men. The two guards usually start the break, so the trick is to come up with the third man "to fill the lanes." Few cornermen can thunder out from underneath and catch up with their breaking teammates. Havlicek beats everybody downcourt.

 

When he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, despite the fact that he had not played football since high school, part of his tryout was a 40-yard dash. Havlicek was timed in 4.6, faster than anyone on the team except Bobby Mitchell. Paul Brown refused to believe it, and made him do it again. He did: 4.6. It was about then they decided he could play end. "Also I honestly believe I can catch a pass as well as anyone," Havlicek says. Unfortunately, the Browns were stocked with pass-catchers who also had played football and who knew a few things like blocking and jitterbugging and keying, so in the last cut Havlicek was let go instead of his roommate, Gary Collins.

 

Havlicek is one of sport's premier trenchermen. He actually puts on weight when he is most active—during the season—presumably because he devours more food. Siegfried, whose own bachelor apartment is next to Havlicek's, says, "The other night he told me he woke up at one o'clock—yeah, in the middle of the night—and he was hungry, so he got up and fixed a whole spaghetti dinner, ate it and then went back to sleep. If you ask him to go out he will. If not, he's happy just to sit around. I don't know why—I have no reason—but I don't think he'll always be this way."

 

Havlicek is already vastly different from the small-town kid from eastern Ohio—he was born in Martins Ferry, lived in Lansing, went to Bridgeport High School, picked up his mail in Adena and hung around the family store in Dillonvale, eating sticks of butter the way most kids eat candy bars. All those towns claim him now. The area was dependent on steel manufacturing and bituminous-coal mining; the people were Eastern Europeans—Poles, Croats (like his mother), Czechs (like his father, who came to the U.S. when he was 11). "Before the synthetic products came in, it was O.K.," Havlicek says, "but sometimes we had to carry people at the store. I guess my father is out three to five thousand from the hard times, and you never get that back. We always ate, though. Everybody was the same. Nobody was rich, nobody was poor, so it never mattered what you were."

 

The first time it mattered in the world outside was when he went to the all-state basketball game and no one could pronounce his name (properly, it is Havleecheck). Another player, Mel Nowell, who subsequently joined him at Ohio State, had just seen John Wayne in the movie Hondo. He said Havlicek looked like John Wayne "from the side," so "Hondo" it became. Few of his friends still call him that.

 

The next year Havlicek headed for Columbus with one suit. Luckily, his roommate—Bobby Knight, now the young coach of Army—also had one suit and was the same size. Today, in the expert opinion of Russell, another stylish dresser, Havlicek is one of the Beau Brummels of the NBA. Havlicek designed his own golf shoes recently, and the company that made them was so impressed it may bring out a regular model in the same style.

 

During his first two years in college Havlicek had one blind date, and admits that "in my freshman year I guess I said about six words." The first thing he did was demand a tutor, and then spent most of his time studying and playing ball. He graduated with a respectable 2.9 average, is now a manufacturer's representative for a Columbus firm and spent much of the afternoon before the seventh game of the playoffs buying stocks from Frank Ramsey's broker. "Boy, he's come a long way," Bobby Knight says. "Every time I see him now he has a different suit on."

 

But every year Havlicek still wears the same old championship ring.

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