Note: The NBA is celebrating players from the NBA75 list almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is the Celtics’ John Havlicek. This story about Havliceck originally appeared in the Dec. 7, 1963, issue of The Sporting News under the headline, “Havlicek Gains Front Rank in Celt Galaxy”.
BOSTON, Mass — Teams in the National Basketball Association draft in the reverse order of their won-lost records at the end of each season. It is a gimmick designed to produce a leveling-off process whereby the weaker clubs get first shot at the top college players and the stronger teams take what is left.
But it isn’t an infallible system because the human element is involved. Coaches and general managers still have to guess who the best players are. And while everybody can spot an Elgin Baylor, not everybody can properly appraise a John Havlicek.
Back in 1962, every team in the NBA had a chance to draft Havlicek ahead of the defending champion Boston Celtics, who picked ninth. The question is: Who goofed? And why?
“Nobody really goofed,” said Red Auerbach, coach of the Boston Celtics. “Havlicek was well-regarded, a nationally scouted star at Ohio State. But most teams that year were looking for the big man. John isn’t quite 6-5 and there had to be a question as to whether he could play the corner.
“Of the eight players taken ahead of Havlicek (Bill McGill, Zelmo Beaty, Paul Hogue, Len Chappell, Jerry Lucas, Dave DeBusschere, Wayne Hightower and Leroy Ellis), not one was smaller than 6-7. Several were 6-9 or better and McGill, for example, had averaged 38 points a game at Utah.
“The reason the Celtics took John was because of his ability to run and play defense. We figured we could teach him the rest. We didn’t realize it at the time, but what we got was a young Frank Ramsey.
“John has great tenacity of purpose. He isn’t quite as ‘cute’ as Ramsey, who gives rivals that baby-face look and then holds on to their pants when they try to shoot. But he can come off the bench cold and get you a lot of quick points.
“He’s easy to coach because his attitude is perfect. The best way to get along with me is to do what I say and John understands me pretty good. I like players who hate to lose and Havlicek is the type who gets disturbed when things aren’t going right.
“On another team, John would play more, probably be a regular. But I doubt if he’ll ever be a starter for the Celtics. He’s too valuable doing Ramsey’s old job.
“Actually, it isn’t important which five players open your ball game. It’s the guys who are on the floor at the end who really count.
“Havlicek has played mostly in the backcourt this year. With the addition of Willie Naulls, plus Ramsey, I haven’t needed him up front. But even though he’s taller than most guards, he has all the quick reactions and moves of a little man.
“Basketball is a game of touch and playing in the pros, plus a lot of hard work, has sharpened John’s game. People often ask me if he’ll get any better. Holy smoke, I think the guy is pretty good right now.”
One of the things the Celtics missed when Bill Sharman quit was a fellow who could do a defensive job on people like Hal Greer of Philadelphia and Jerry West of Los Angeles.
Havlicek can make that kind of contribution without getting into foul trouble. His flair for coming up with loose balls has also helped the Celtics’ fast break
“I used to think this was coincidence,” Auerbach volunteered, “but I know better now. John was simply making his own breaks.”
A 14-point-per-game scorer as a rookie, Havlicek has been hovering near the 20 mark this year — with an early season high of 28 against Cincinnati.
Asked for an explanation, John traced his improvement to a large helping of confidence. “Last year, I was afraid to take a shot. This year, I’m not.
“You know, when you join a team like the Celtics, you can’t help but wonder how you’re going to fit in. Prior to coming to Boston, I had a tryout as a flanker back with the Cleveland Browns’ pro football team.
“I have no complaints about the treatment I got, but the Browns’ veteran players hardly spoke to the rookies.
“It was almost like there was a line. They stayed on their side and we stayed on ours.
“I thought it might be like that with the Celtics. It wasn’t. Not only was I warmly received, but several players actually went out of their way to help me. I also liked Auerbach’s direct approach.
“He told me if I could run, block out and play defense, I could have a job. Red is tough, but he’s also fair.
“Bob Cousy was also a great help to me. At first I couldn’t believe he was real. I knew Cousy was good, but I never realized how good until I began to play with him.
“Cousy took me aside one day and told me that I was overprotecting the ball — that if I didn’t stop turning sideways to the man who was covering me that I’d never get a pass off.
“Bob told me to practice using my left hand as well as my right and to bring the ball up the floor facing my opponent. Otherwise, I’d never be able to properly see the free man.”
“I don’t say the Celtics wouldn’t have won in the East last year without Havlicek,” Cousy said, “but it certainly would have been tougher. In my opinion, John was the most consistent member of the team.”
The fact that John lost a close Rookie of the Year vote to Terry Dischinger of Chicago (now Baltimore) prompted Celtics’ Owner Walter Brown to give Havlicek a $200 bonus. This was the same money Dischinger received from the league for winning the award.
“I did it,” Brown said, “because to me the whole thing seemed extremely unfair. Dischinger was a great rookle, but for a while he was available only on weekends and he performed for a last-place team.
“I know what happened. The writers look to see who scored the most points. They failed to appreciate the Importance of Havlicek’s overall game.”