Note: The NBA celebrates NBA75 roster players almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is John Havlicek of the Celtics. This column on Havliceck originally appeared in the April 15, 1978, issue of The Sporting News under the title “Hondo leans over with all cylinders on.”
PHILADELPHIA – The hardest part of all is quitting smoking.
In a sense, it is like dying. And very few professional athletes have been able to handle it.
John Havlicek is one. He’s coming out with style, class, dignity, and grace.
Most of them agonize over it, fear it as it overshadows them throughout their career, and then ends up ruining it. Either they play too much and become an embarrassment or they sulk and brood and pout and eventually stomp on the bitter taste of ashes.
It is an art to know when it is time to go. “
“THOSE who have been able to deal with this successfully can count on one hand,” agreed Pat Williams, 76ers general manager.
“Most of them kick out and scream, or sneak into the undergrowth. But John, he did exactly what you expected. He made it easy for all of us.
“And he is playing better now than he was three years ago. This is not some haggard old man limping from one side of the court to the other, saying goodbye. He can still play. In fact, I would love to have him.” with us for the playoffs.
“All right, playing in the right kind of team, I could probably play another three, four, even five years.”
The man they call “Hondo” retires at the age of 38. In most lines of work, he would be entering his prime. In sports, that age qualifies you for the nursing home.
“I KNOW,” Williams said, “it’s not uncommon to find a 38-year-old baseball player. And there are some hockey players who are that age. But a professional basketball player?”
“Johnny Green is the only one I can remember, and in the end he was only playing five to seven minutes a game.”
The consensus is that Havlicek is still better than 80 percent of NBA players. He came out still playing 30 to 40 minutes per game, still able to swing between guard and forward, still able to jump shot, still able to crash the boards, still able to fill the passing lanes and steal the ball. , still able to be the cheater in the counterattack.
This wasn’t Willie Mays, old and past his prime, stumbling under pop-up windows. It wasn’t about Arnold Palmer failing to make the cut, about Muhammad Ali losing his title to a young man while it became painfully obvious to all that age had drained all the magic in his body.
THIS IS AN athlete who played in more games than anyone in professional basketball history and, in the end, was still more than capable.
And that’s precisely what must have made his departure so frustrating, what must have made it so tempting to think twice. Or maybe some regrets?
“Absolutely not,” Havlicek said firmly. “No sad songs, please. No regrets. I made my decision.
“I don’t want to stay and end up being an old man who has 15-18 minutes of play and most of it is charity. That would be depressing.
“If I can’t play 30 to 35 minutes a game, every game, and contribute, then it’s time to go.
“I thought about this a lot. I’d rather go out a year earlier than a year late.”
THOSE who broke in with him, or were his contemporaries, hanged him long ago. Some of them are coaches. Like Billy Cunningham of the 76ers, whose own decision to retire was made by him when he fell, screaming in pain, with a broken knee.
“People use words like ‘professional’ or ‘superstar’ very loosely,” said Billy C. “But John personifies all of those …
“I’m four years younger than John and I can remember what it was like to play against him. It was a marathon. The Boston team doctor said John had a 41-year-old pulse. Most professional players are in their upper 50s to under 50s. 60. The average man would be around 72. John was blessed with a very strong body, and he has taken extremely good care of it.
“What every athlete admires about John is that he leads with actions. He gets 150 percent out of every game, and he inspires you when you go against him because if you don’t do the same, it makes you stick out like a sore thumb.
“He is an incredible athlete. As Red Auerbach once said, the man does not sweat. He is one of a kind and there will never be another. Perhaps what we remember most is the way he left. Standard for retirement that every athlete should follow. “.
THERE IS ANOTHER coach in the NBA who entered as a rookie the same season (1962-63) as Havlicek: Kevin Loughery of the New Jersey Nets.
“I think John is a freak of nature,” Loughery said. “He’s not ready to retire yet. He’s older, but his style hasn’t changed. He’s constantly on the move; you still have to chase him until you trip over your tongue.”
“But it sure gave us all a lesson in how to retire.”
Havlicek announced his retirement in January. It was carefully, deliberately timed so that fans in the other 21 cities could see it one last time. If someone else had made such a gesture, it would have been considered offensive and interpreted as the act of an unbridled ego. But it is a tribute to Havlicek that his gesture was taken exactly as he meant it, genuine affection and appreciation from the public.
So in the end, before the houses sold out, with the giveaways from each team on him, he was like a man hearing his own praise while still alive.
PERHAPS IT IS appropriate for a player who broke records to start out providing a model to finish.
“I don’t want my retirement to be one of tears and sadness,” he said, “for myself or for anyone. My career has been positive and I want my retirement to be positive.”
The ultimate compliment came from Willis “Reed, who fought Hondo as a player and saw him finish as the Knicks coach.
“John,” Reed said, “is the type of player that all players wish they were.”