Editor’s Note: This was a piece I wrote upon learning of John Havlicek’s death in 2019. I added it here because I wanted to get it on my site from Facebook for easy reference.
When I was 15 years old, my dad promised to take me to see an NBA game in Atlanta during Christmas break. The Hawks were having a great run and I was thrilled we were going see them play the All-Star laden…LA Lakers. Alas, after driving almost two hours to Georgia Tech’s Alexander Coliseum, we discovered the game was sold out. So we stood at the gates begging for tickets in bitter January cold but finally gave up after about an hour. It was a long drive home, but Dad promised we’d come back. (By the way, the Hawks lost that night.)
Of course, I could not imagine we’d see a better opponent or game, until a month later when my father walked in and announced that the Boston Celtics were playing on Friday night and we were going to get in this time. In terms of star players, the Hawks had Lou Hudson, Jumpin’ Joe Caldwell, Walt Hazzard and Zelmo Beaty. The Celtics had Sam Jones, Don Nelson, Bill Russell and a guy named John Havlicek.
Well, I had never seen a professional basketball game in my life and was beyond amazed at the sheer athleticism, speed and skills of these guys. The points poured in during a furious competition. Players effortlessly drained long shots and…the dunks!
Dunking was not allowed then in the high school or college ranks, but the NBA knew it was a ticket seller. Plus, the pros had a shot clock. Zelmo Beaty played the game of his life against the legendary Bill Russell that night. And Lou Hudson was about as smooth of a shooter as I have ever seen. But the player I remembered the most was Havlicek.
Havlicek was nicknamed “Hondo” after an old John Wayne movie….and was a consummate, professional basketball player who literally did everything the game demands exceptionally well. There’s a reason he holds so many records and his teams won 8 NBA championships. The other thing…he always hustled. It was incredibly inspiring to see someone so talented perform with such constant excellence, hustle and determination. I have read he was also just a good guy…kind and generous.
Well… the Hawks triumphed that night in a raucous barn burner, 104-101. Ironically, Hondo missed a couple of potential, clinching free throws at the very end. Ever unfazed, he kept hustling and went on to help lead the Celtics to the NBA championship later that year…over the Lakers.