Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy was on the phone in January with some good news about my request to let Fox Nation be a fly on the wall for one of his weekly dinners with some pals at an Italian pizza and spaghetti joint in West Palm Beach, Fla.
For over 20 years, Cousy and Richie Guerin, late of the New York Knicks, have been getting together with some of their old golfing buddies at De Pietros, near their retirement homes. But Cousy called to inform me that a third NBA Hall of Famer would be joining us for their regular Thursday night dinner club.
“John is coming,” Cousy said happily but slowly, a touch of hesitation in his voice as he added that could change at the last moment.
“John” was the one and only John Havlicek, also a legendary member of the Boston Celtics. The famous 1965 game where “Havlicek stole the ball!” — to quote the heart-stopping call by broadcaster Johnny Most — preserved a big Celtics playoff win and still echoes decades later.
That play is getting special attention this week because Havlickek suddenly died Thursday at age 79 in Jupiter, Fla.
The meeting Cousy set up for Fox Nation in February, which became one of the first episodes of “Ed Henry’s Front Row Seat,” was one of Havlicek’s very last interviews.
Cousy was halting a bit on the phone about whether his friend would make an appearance because Havlicek was dealing with Parkinson’s disease recently. He was not always feeling up to joining the weekly boys’ club to reminisce about the glory days.
That’s why I was elated when Havlicek’s wife Beth drove him to the restaurant. While the man who was once known for his stamina on the court could no longer drive himself around, I remember my first glimpse of John showing off a broad smile from the passenger seat as one of his buddies helped him out of the car gingerly.
While his step had slowed, John was delighted he was getting a chance to have a slice of pizza with a group of his pals plus a reporter lucky enough to tag along.
He laughed heartily as he recalled Guerin, a former Marine, warning two guys to stop messing with him at a bar after an exhibition game.
“I remember going into the restroom and there were a couple of guys laying on the floor and I said, ‘What happened?’” Havlicek recalled. “They said, “(Guerin) came in here and knocked the hell out of us.’”
'Bunch of old jocks'
All three former players tried to downplay their considerable skills on the actual basketball court, with Cousy joking they were just a “bunch of old jocks” munching on a casual Italian meal in a nondescript West Palm Beach shopping center.
They are a whole lot more than just some retired athletes. For all of the acclaim Michael Jordan gets for having six championship rings from his days with the Chicago Bulls, and deservedly so, Cousy matched him by winning six rings in the 1950s and 1960s. Havlicek actually got eight rings in the 1960s and 1970s, two more than the mighty Jordan.
Yet Cousy’s first annual paycheck was just $9,000, while Havlicek landed $15,000 as a rookie. He expressed no bitterness to me, despite today’s players landing millions of dollars a season and flying between different cities in private jets rather than heading to games by bus, train, or commercial plane.
“One year I think I averaged 46 minutes (per game) and thought nothing of it,” Havlicek said matter-of-factly of the 48-minute games. “But today they get their rest. And they travel very well.”
Cousy was known as a wizard of a ball handler with epic passing abilities. He is well into his 90’s now, so he only overlapped with Havlicek for one season in the 1960s, though that one year together left a deep impression with Cousy.
“John was the best finisher I played with in 13 years,” Cousy told me. “When you finished the way John did, give him the ball at the right time, the ball is in the damn hole.”
“John was the best finisher I played with in 13 years. When you finished the way John did, give him the ball at the right time, the ball is in the damn hole.”
Havlicek was so good that another Celtics legend who secured a record 11 championship rings, Bill Russell, called Havlicek the “best all-around player I ever saw.”
That grit was solidified in one of the most iconic plays in sports history, when Most — the Celtics' grizzled play-by-play man — literally screeched into his microphone: “Havlicek steals it! Over to Sam Jones. Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over. Johnny Havlicek stole the ball!”
“Best all-around player I ever saw.”
It happened April 15, 1965, when the Celtics were locked in a tight, decisive seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals. Russell made a rare mistake, when his inbounds pass hit a guide wire near the basket. That gave the ball back to Philadelphia, down by just one point, and a few seconds left on the clock to score the winning basket.
Philadelphia’s Hal Greer tried to inbound the ball to star teammate Chet Walker. Walker was guarded by Havlicek, who told me that under pressure he just kept thinking about advice the famed Celtics coach Red Auerbach had preached.
“Red always said, ‘Try to find an edge, whatever you’re doing,’” Havlicek told me. “And I’m thinking, 'What can I do to get an edge in this situation?' So I said the only thing I can do is, when they give Hal Greer the ball to inbound it, I’m going to count to five: ‘One-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three ... ’”
"Red always said, ‘Try to find an edge, whatever you’re doing.’ And I’m thinking, 'What can I do to get an edge in this situation?'"
Havlicek knew that by the rules, Greer had only five seconds to get the ball safely inbounds or the Celtics would regain possession, so he pounced after counting one-thousand three.
“The ball had still not broken the plane to play,” said Havlicek. “So on one-thousand four I had my eye on the ball and on Hal Greer. But at one-thousand four I took a bigger peek and it was coming through the air, and I knew I could get a hand on it.”
He got a hand on it, and stole the ball. It was an intangible that could not be taught -- and never showed up in the statistics.
“He did a lot of things that were not totally appreciated,” Guerin told me. “Like something like that. The thought process that went into putting himself into position to make the play.”
“He did a lot of things that were not totally appreciated. Like something like that. The thought process that went into putting himself into position to make the play.”
Havlicek cherished other memories with Auerbach and Russell, who had a ritual of vomiting in the locker room before a big playoff game, perhaps releasing nervous energy while simultaneously psyching himself up for the battle.
When Russell was ready
Havlicek recalled one big game where the Celtics were already out of the locker room and now on the floor taking practice shots right before the opening tipoff. All of a sudden, Auerbach ordered the players off the floor and back to the locker room.
“Now the fans are wondering — this is a different procedure,” said Havlicek. “He must be going to give them one of the greatest pep talks of all time. So we get in there and everybody sits down and we’re looking at each other to think — what’s he going to come up with now?”
Auerbach barked at Russell, demanding to know if he had puked yet. The star center said no.
“He said, ‘We’re not going out until you throw up,’” Havlicek quoted Auerbach.
Cousy interjected: “We knew Russ was ready when we’d hear the dry heaves. And you could hear 'em because the locker rooms were the size of this table in these days. ... so yeah when Russ threw up we used to say, ‘Oh wow, he’s come to play.’”
Then Cousy grew more serious as he recalled wishing he had been more welcoming of Russell, an African-American player, in their early days together. He talked of writing Russell a heartfelt letter about this after some soul searching, Cousy joking that every old man should work on a “to-do list before that big basketball court in the sky” comes calling.
Little did we know that it was within a couple of months that the call would be coming for Havlicek, who was typically modest as he recalled that famous theft of the basketball.
“It’s one of the ones that sort of still lives on, even 52 years later,” Havlicek said, the strain of Parkinson’s noticeable in his soft voice and hunched figure at the table.
Except there is no “sort of” when it comes to that play — or the man himself. John Havlicek’s legacy of hustle and determination will live on another 52 years and beyond.
This New York guy is glad to have shared a pepperoni pizza — and a few stories — with one of Boston’s finest.