The images linger, freeze-frames from a grainy newsreel. There are the crew cut and the big ears and the goofy half-moon smile in the team picture. There are the amazing last-second shots which seemed at the time to have been launched in panic but which New Englanders have come to identify as merely "runnahs." There is the dramatic steal in 1965 against Philadelphia that won a playoff series and set off a mob scene and the unbelievable basket against Phoenix that saved a championship and provoked another riotous celebration fully 11 years later. Always there has been the running from baseline to baseline...click...the running...click, click. Now, at the end, still the running...click. This Sunday afternoon—for the first and last time—John Havlicek will stop running. After more than 30,000 points and 9,000 rebounds and nearly 7,000 assists, not to mention eight championships and two months of farewell festivities throughout the land, Havlicek will show up for his final game down there on the shining parquet floor of the Boston Garden. If he doesn't slip while wading through the tears, he may even get to play in it. That accomplished, it would be Havlicek's 1,441st game (including playoffs, for those without a program), which in turn would be more games in the NBA than anybody else, flesh and blood or bionic, ever played.
Because of this, Buffalo at Boston April 9 will be a media event: old Celtics, political personages, presidential messages, Jimmy the Greek and the like. But one hopes John Havlicek's last game will be much more than that, too.
For those who may have nodded off through much of the past two decades and missed Vietnam, Watergate and Mary Tyler Moore, not to mention the changing face of U.S. sport, John Havlicek survives as one of the few remaining links to American pop culture past. Not only for the way he played the games—flat out, at both ends, in two different positions, his versatility making him perhaps the finest player in the history of the NBA—but also for the type of man he is, Havlicek's retirement is a watershed on our domestic sports calendar.
Recently certain critics have rudely knifed through Havlicek's career-long diplomatic immunity to question the propriety of his personally orchestrated final trek through the league wherein at every stop he has been accorded hosannas and rewarded with enough appliances to fill backstage at
The Price Is Right
. One man went so far as to remark that attracting a full house by the presentation of an oversized soft pretzel trophy, Tastykakes and a 10-pound salami—a few of the 76ers' chosen gifts—was not exactly a fitting monument to Havlicek.
Even Celtic Center Dave Cowens had to laugh at his teammate's shrewdness. "The man mentions he likes motorboating and immediately a motor is produced in Seattle," Cowens said. " Chicago will probably come up with the boat."
And yet, how is a legend supposed to pass from the scene? Obviously Havlicek wished to avoid copying the tardy, tawdry leave-takings of some of the other heroes of his era: Elgin Baylor benched, Oscar Robertson unwanted. Even Jerry West, who, unlike the above, recognized full well when his time was up, marked the occasion by abruptly walking out of a Laker preseason camp, leaving his team high and dry and, maybe even more unforgivable, denying his legion of admirers one final look, one clap, one tear.
And yet, perhaps more than any of the stars, more than anybody, period, Havlicek has always related to the masses, and they to him.
In the enigmatic social strata of the NBA, Havlicek's race certainly is a factor. But so is his unique game—a relentless all-court activity based on intellect and hustle and execution. Clich� though it may be, Havlicek is the quintessential throwback to the old days, to the pre-trillionaire days, to the days when players cared about such trivial items as pride, teamwork and the difference between winning and losing.
Though he vehemently denies that the radical change in Celtic personnel over the past year and a half and the subsequent collapse of the once prideful team has anything to do with his decision to quit, one wonders. How really invigorating could it have been for Havlicek to continue playing alongside the likes of Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, who once emerged from the shower after a humiliating 30-point defeat to announce, "What's everybody upset about? The W's and L's don't show up on the paychecks."
No, whatever he says, there was no way Havlicek could have risked his soul any longer in such an environment.