As great as John Havlicek was, he was even greater than that
After I heard about the death of John Havlicek Thursday night, a couple of things came to mind: He was Larry Bird before Larry Bird, and he created turmoil inside of my stomach throughout the 1974 NBA Finals between his Boston Celtics and my Milwaukee Bucks.
I just tried to watch YouTube highlights of that championship round for the ages, but I still got sick watching the exploits of Larry Havlicek or John Bird, if you prefer.
The man could make shots from everywhere.
I’m talking about jumpers from the far side of the earth, faders, driving layups in the middle of arms and legs.
That’s one thing, but here’s the biggest thing: If he ever missed in the clutch, I never saw it, and neither did anybody else.
There were differences between John Joseph Havlicek and Larry Joe Bird, though. Havlicek was 6-foot-5 and 203 pounds to Bird’s 6-9 and 220 pounds. While the former operated more as a shooting guard from the early 1960s through the late 1970s, the latter was mostly a small forward during his 16 NBA seasons through 1992.
Consider, too, that Havlicek played when the NBA didn’t have the three-point line, and many of his makes happened beyond what would rank as something like a five-point line someday.
Bird averaged 24 points per game to Havlicek’s 21, because Bird was assisted by the NBA rules of his day.
Other than that, they both were from the Midwest (Bird from French Lick, Indiana, and Havlicek from Bridgeport, Ohio), and they both played for the Boston Celtics. In fact, Bird took his first NBA dribble in 1979, the year after Havlicek retired, and they both were white superstars during an NBA dominated by black icons.
It’s just that, with much help from Bird and his African-American sidekick for the Los Angeles Lakers named Magic Johnson, the NBA for Bird was HUGE nationally compared to the strikingly low-key one of Havlicek, who nevertheless joined a slew of future James Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers on those Celtics teams.
Still, those Celtics couldn’t reverse the NBA’s dropping popularity. Near the close of Havlicek’s career, the league had so many issues (drugs, fights, race) that its finals during the late 1970s were broadcast only on tape delay after the 11 p.m. news on the East Coast.
The whole scenario removed a significant chunk of the spotlight from Havlicek that he deserved.
Even so, there was Havlicek and that NBA Finals for the ages in 1974, when his Celtics of heavyweights Jo Jo White, Dave Cowens and Paul Silas alternated victories all the way down to a Game 7 against my Bucks of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.
We lived in Milwaukee at the time, and we had partial season tickets to see what threatened to become a mini-Bucks dynasty, especially if they could handle Havlicek and the real dynasty of the Celtics. G Game 6 was a classic at old Boston Garden.
With the Bucks heading to tie the series at 3-3 down the stretch, well, Havlick went nuts as I went from sick to sicker.
First, the man called Hondo sank the longest non-desperation shot I’d ever seen to push the game into overtime. Then, with the Bucks on the verge of victory again, he grabbed the rebound after he missed a little jumper and scored to force double overtime.
Havlicek scored nine of the Celtics’ 11 points during that double-overtime period, and most of his shots were impossible.
The Bucks only were saved from Havlicek at the end of Game 6 by one of Abdul-Jabbar’s famous sky-hook shots. But then along came Game 7 in Milwaukee, where Havlicek sealed another world championship for the Celtics, grabbed the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award with ease and sprinted deeper into legend.
Like Larry Legend . . . .
You know, before Larry Legend.