When Havlicek Stole The Ball

Print this entry

Growing up in the1960s in New Hampshire, I avidly followed three professional sports teams: the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics — all of whose names back then were preceded by “Boston.” They remain today my favorite teams in those sports. If prodded, I would add hockey’s Bruins to the list, but I never was much of a hockey fan.

At the time, the Red Sox hovered in or near the cellar each season, back when the American and National leagues each had 10 teams, and there were no divisions. So the cellar meant finishing 10th. The Patriots fared somewhat better in the American Football League, before the AFL and NFL combined and the Super Bowl was born. But it was the Celtics that dominated their sport. From 1957 to 1969, the team won 11 NBA championships. Only those hated (by me) New York Yankees could claim similar success in a professional sport.

John Havlicek, who died April 25 at 79, was a key reason for the Celtics’ success. He gained fame as the team’s “sixth man.” In other words, he was the first player off the bench when one of the starting guards or forwards needed a break. He

could play either position. As a result, even though he wasn’t a starter he ended up with the third-highest playing time on a stellar squad — Bill Russell at center, Bob Cousy at point guard, Tommy Heinsohn at forward and Sam Jones and K.C. Jones (no relation) as the starting guards. All of these guys are in the Hall of Fame. I don’t know of another team where the entire starting squad — plus Havlicek — made it to the hall.

I listened to most games on the radio then, with a tinny and tiny transistor radio given by my parents as a Christmas gift. Until the playoffs, few games were televised then, and we only pulled in three snowy channels on our black-and-white set. Still, I was happy to curl up on the bottom bunk bed and listen to the gravelly voice of Johnny Most.

In 1965, when I was nine, the Celtics were playing the Philadelphia 76ers in game seven of the Eastern Division playoffs. Wilt Chamberlain, the first seven-footer in the NBA, had returned to the 76ers, who were heavily favored to win the series. With five seconds left, the Celtics led by one, but Philly had the ball. Five seconds is plenty of time to score, especially with Wilt Chamberlain on the floor. Then came one of the most famous moments in sports history. John Havlicek, in his second season, tipped the incoming pass to his teammate, Sam Jones. The game was over.

Johnny Most began shouting. “Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball!” His voice rose into a frenzy. This became the iconic broadcasting moment for Most, who was the Celtics’ broadcaster from 1953 to 1990. You can watch it here on YouTube:  https://tinyurl.com/y3462jon

Memory is a tricky thing. I think I listened to the broadcast live, as it occurred. The game was played in Boston Garden on Wednesday, April 15, 1965, at night. But I can’t be sure because I have heard the recording countless times over the years. I like to think I did hear it, curled up in the bed on a school night, snow still blanketing our yard even as baseball season had begun. But I’ll never know for sure.

Havlicek had a stellar career and was my favorite Celtic after that steal. The Celtics won the NBA championship each of his first four seasons. When Coach Red Auerbach fired up his cigar, you knew the game was in the bag. And Johnny Most would tell us about it, that gravelly voice coming through the tiny speaker of a transistor radio held by a kid.

I don’t follow basketball very closely now, though my interest perks up during the playoffs, if the Celtics are in it. And they are, right now. I hope they can win a championship ring to honor Havlicek, who played for 16 seasons on eight championship teams. As the late Auerbach said, “John Havlicek is what I always thought a Celtic should be.”

Same here.

Print this entry

Leave a reply

Fields marked with * are required