John Havlicek, who won eight championships in 16 seasons with the Boston Celtics, has died at the age of 79. The team confirmed the news Thursday evening, saying in a statement that he was “one of the most accomplished players” in the franchise’s decorated history.
A 6-foot-5 Ohio native nicknamed “Hondo” for a resemblance to John Wayne, Havlicek played from 1962 to 1978, earning 1974 Finals MVP honors along the way. The Celtics’ all-time leader in games, points and field goals, he revolutionized the role of “sixth man” as a high-energy and -impact reserve on the stacked Boston teams of the 1960s.
Havlicek’s nonstop motor amazed his contemporaries, including New York Knicks head coach Red Holzman, who once said (via NBA.com), “On stamina alone, he’d be among the top players who ever played the game."
“It would’ve been fair to those who had to play him or those who had to coach against him if he had been blessed only with his inhuman endurance,” Holzman added. “God had to compound it by making him a good scorer, smart ballhandler and intelligent defensive player with quickness of mind, hands and feet.”
After helping Ohio State win the 1960 NCAA national championship on a team that included two other future inductees into the Basketball Hall of Fame — forward/center Jerry Lucas and coach-to-be Bobby Knight — Havlicek was selected seventh overall by the Celtics in the 1962 draft. His hard-charging style was a welcome addition to the team, which had won four straight NBA titles and five in six years but had some aging stars in Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Frank Ramsey.
Havlicek soon took over Ramsey’s role as Boston’s first man off the bench and he helped the team to championships from 1963 through 1966 and again in 1968, 1969, 1974 and 1976. In the 1965 Eastern Conference finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, Havlicek authored one of the most indelible moments in Boston sports history when he tipped a Sixers pass to Celtics teammate Sam Jones in the closing seconds, sealing a one-point win.
“His defining traits as a player were his relentless hustle and wholehearted commitment to team over self,” the Celtics said of Havlicek in their statement. “He was extraordinarily thoughtful and generous, both on a personal level and for those in need, as illustrated by his commitment to raising money for The Genesis Foundation for Children for over three decades through his fishing tournament. John was kind and considerate, humble and gracious. He was a champion in every sense, and as we join his family, friends, and fans in mourning his loss, we are thankful for all the joy and inspiration he brought to us.”
The team said Havlicek died Thursday in Jupiter, Fla. The cause of death wasn’t immediately available.
Of biding his time before cracking the Celtics’ starting lineup, Havlicek said after his playing days ended, “It never bothered me, because I think that role is very important to a club. One thing I learned from [legendary Boston coach and general manager] Red Auerbach was that it’s not who starts the game, but who finishes it, and I generally was around at the finish.”
Havlicek eventually became not only a starter but a veteran leader for the Celtics. He again came through in a clutch moment during the 1976 NBA Finals, when he hit a basket near the end of the second overtime of Game 5, which Boston would go on to win against the Phoenix Suns in three overtimes. He ended his career with 13 all-star nods and the enduring admiration of teammates, opponents and NBA fans.
“He epitomizes everything good,” Auerbach once said of Havlicek. “If I had a son like John I’d be the happiest man in the world.”