Tommy Heinsohn: Havlicek often overlooked among Celtics legends


Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn spent time as both a teammate and coach of John Havlicek and believes Havlicek ought to be remembered fonder for all of his accomplishments on the court.

Havlicek, the Celtics’ all-time leading scorer, passed away Thursday at the age of 79. He won eight championships with the Celtics, earning MVP honors in the 1974 Finals, and was a 13-time All-Star. And yet his accomplishments are sometimes overshadowed by the eras around him.

"Well, he’s still the all-time leading scorer, isn’t he, with the Celtics?” asked Heinsohn, while reflecting on Havlicek’s legacy. "And justifiably so. And, yeah, he gets lost in the brouhaha over the [other Celtics championship eras]. He was a sixth man [on the 1960s teams but] he really became a star when I was coaching. You know, a total star. He was all-pro and all-defense or whatever he was all the time. He was that exceptional a player. 

"And, for him to be not recognized for that — I mean, everybody is still going gaga about Larry Bird, who was a great great player, but John Havlicek, you’d have a tough time beating him.”

Dubbed one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players, Havlicek’s No. 17 jersey hangs in the rafters at TD Garden. He’s remembered as one of the game’s best sixth men but Heinsohn is adamant that Havlicek’s greatest legacy is putting the team ahead of himself even when he was the star.

And nowhere was that exemplified more than the 1974 Finals, when Havlicek embraced being a decoy in a pivotal Game 7.

"Well, you always look to Havlicek stole the ball as a big moment. But let’s go back … winning against Milwaukee, where he was a decoy,” said Heinsohn. "Now, here’s the star of the team and we were asking him to be a decoy. I mean, most guys wouldn’t want to do that. But that was the type of person that he was, that he would give it a try because you asked him to it. He’d never fight you on anything, he’d talk to you about it, he might not like what you were doing, he’d talk to you about it, but you could convince him to give it a go. 

"And so, in the seventh game of the playoffs, on the road, I’m asking him to be a decoy and he accepts that. OK? That’s a big-time player with a big-time pro attitude.”

Heinsohn’s Celtics, who had always played man-to-man defense against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, elected to double- and triple-team the big man in Game 7 of the 1974 Finals. And Havlicek took a back seat on offense, allowing Cowens to step forward as  Boston won its first title in the post-Bill Russell era.

“When we got to the final game, after losing at the Garden in an overtime game, everybody was kinda discouraged,” said Heinsohn. "I went to the office with my assistant coach and Bob Cousy and we’re talking about the game and Cousy said to me, ‘I don’t know why you don’t double-team them.’ And I said, ‘Well, Cooz, No. 1, nobody else plays him like we have, and here we are in the seventh game. I think it's working fairly well.’ But the coaching, the changes that the other team made, everything that you did was countered the next game you played. I determined after many years as a player, to try and find a way to take the crowd out of the game. 

“We lost on a Friday, had practice on Saturday, a drill session, then we played on Sunday. And Saturday I changed the defense and doubled Kareem Abdul-Jabar. And the reason I doubled him is not because I believed the strategy was the way to beat him. But I recognized, potentially, we could get off to a good start because they’d be totally confused at what we were doing. And it worked out that we got 17 points up and the defense was the aspect that won. Havlicek, who had been our big scorer, I don’t remember exactly who ended up the big scorer, but we got 17 points up and we virtually cruised to the seventh-game win on the road. But Havlicek was asked to stand down, in essence.”

Both the Celtics and the NFL’s Cleveland Browns drafted Havlicek out of Ohio State in 1962. After trying to latch on with the Browns as a wide receiver, Havlicek joined the Celtics and quickly endeared himself to Red Auerbach with his boundless energy.

“We were the best up-tempo team, fast-break team in the league. Of course, we had Russell rebounding and me rebounding and Cousy making the passes. Cousy had this hook pass, three-quarter length hook pass on the go and Havlicek was the perfect guy to play on a fastbreak team and he was one of Cousy’s favorite targets,” said Heinsohn. "I think his rookie year he averaged 14 points per game and I don’t think he took a shot from more than 10 feet. …

"But the second year, [Havlicek] showed up, he had an outside shot, he learned to dribble, and he became an effective -- he was always a very good defensive player. That’s one of the reasons that Red drafted him, he had seen him on the Ohio State team and he was an unheralded player on the Ohio State team. You could see he was a great athlete when he came to the Celtics, [but] he was green as grass. He was my roommate. They designated me to be his roommate. He was a real guy from the Midwest. That’s all I can tell you. He had Midwest values and I had to liven him up a little bit.”

Heinsohn jokes that he introduced Havlicek to Lancers wine but that Havlicek was always focused on basketball and being the best he could be on the court, which endeared him to Auerbach.

"The first year, as a player, if you’re going to play in a lineup, Red would never yell at you. He’d barely talk to you, just go out and do it,” said Heinsohn. "And John, who had a great rookie year, nobody ever said boo to him, Red in particular. First game of his second season, at halftime, come into the locker room and Red Auerbach is all over his case. I mean, Havlicek didn’t do anything right, according to Red Auerbach. 

"Havlicek was such a sincere person, he took it to heart. All of a sudden, his bubble burst and Red burst it. We’re walking out to the floor and John’s head is down and the whole bit. I grabbed him and I said, ‘John relax, relax. All he’s doing is yelling at you, all he’s doing is what you know. You’re not a rookie anymore. You’ve got to shape up. Go play the game.’ And he did. But that’s how Red did things. And, John, nobody ever yelled at Havlicek because he was such a focused person at what he did. When he played for me, when I was coaching, he was so focused, I don’t think he knew the Vietnam War was going on. Basketball was everything to him. And winning was a big deal.”

Heinsohn remembers Harvard Medical School conducting tests on Havlicek, who had boundless energy and a remarkably low heart rate. Said Heinsohn, “They never saw anything like it.” Heinsohn said Havlicek needed no motivation when it came to upholding the Celtics’ legacy of winning.

"John Havlicek, you knew he was focused. You didn’t have to go and give him the Knute Rockne story,” said Heinsohn. "Havlicek relished winning. He was the star of the team that I coached, him and Dave Cowens. Both of them were unusual players. Havlicek carried the team offensively. He was the backbone of the offense. He virtually made all of the big plays. Defensively, I can remember the first time we played a preseason game against the New York Nets with [Julius Erving], and the first four times Dr. J tried to drive on him, Havlicek stole on the ball off him. We were raving about Dr. J and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, Havlicek's got his number.’”

Havlicek’s most memorable moment, of course, might have been the 1965 Eastern Conference finals and the much-revered, “Havlicek Stole the Ball” sequence.

"Bill Russell made a boo-boo,” said Heinsohn. "He hit the guide-wire while he was trying to inbound the ball and, if he gets the ball inbounds, more than likely we got a win. But he turned the ball over, so Philadelphia, with Wilt Chamberlain, has a chance to beat us. It was a one-point game at that juncture and they called a timeout. 

"Russell got in the huddle and said, ‘Boy, did I screw up. Somebody get me off the hook.’ We broke, went out there, and Havlicek -- a smart a defender as he was -- he said to me, and said to everybody afterward, he was counting, ‘One, two, three, four,’ and, on four, he went to look for the ball and it was there. That’s how precise he was in defending, he made this great play, tipped it over to Sam Jones, and we beat Wilt.”

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