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 column about Havliceck originally appeared in the April 15, 1978, issue of The Sporting News under the headline, “Hondo Bows Out With All Cylinders Firing”.
PHILADELPHIA — The toughest part of all is quitting.
In a sense, it is like dying. And very few professional athletes have been able to handle it.
John Havlicek is one. He is going out with style and class and dignity and grace.
Most of them agonize over it, dread it as it shadows them through their career, and then end up botching it. They either play too long and become an embarrassment or they sulk and brood and pout and finally stomp away with the bitter taste of ashes.
There is an art in knowing when it is time to leave.”
“THE ONES who have been able to deal with it successfully, you can count on one hand,” agreed Pat Williams, the general manager of the 76ers.
“Most of them go out kicking and screaming, or they slink off into the weeds. But John, he did just what you’d expect. He made it easy on all of us.
“And the thing is, he’s playing better now than he was three years ago. This isn’t some haggard old man limping up and down the court, waving goodbye. He can still play. In fact, I’d love to have him with us for the playoffs.
“Spotted right, playing on the right kind of team, he could probably play another three, four, even five years.”
The man they call “Hondo” is bowing out at the age of 38. In most lines of endeavor, he would just be entering his prime. In sports, that age qualifies him for the old folks home.
“I KNOW,” said Williams, “it’s not uncommon to find a baseball player who is 38. And there are some hockey players around who are that age. But a pro basketball player?
“Johnny Green is the only one I can remember, and at the end he was only playing five to seven minutes a game.”
The consensus is that Havlicek is still better than 80 percent of the players in the NBA. He went out still playing 30 to 40 minutes a game, still able to swing between guard and forward, still able to stick the jumper, still able to crash the boards, still able to fill the passing lanes and steal the ball, still able to be the whipcracker on the fast break.
This was no Willie Mays, old and past his prime, stumbling around under pop-ups. This was no Arnold Palmer failing to make the cut, no Muhammad Ali losing his title to a youngster while it became painfully obvious to everyone that age had sapped all the magic from his body.
THIS IS AN athlete who played in more games than anyone in the history of professional basketball and, at the end, was still more than capable.
And that is precisely what must have made his departure so frustrating, what must have made it so tempting to have second thoughts. Or perhaps a few regrets?
“Absolutely not,” Havlicek said, firmly. “No sad songs, please. No regrets. I made my decision.
“I don’t want to hang around and end up some old geezer who’s getting 15 to 18 minutes of playing time with most of that being 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 leave.
“I thought about this long and hard. I’d rather go out a year early than a year late.”
THOSE WHO broke in with him, or were his contemporaries, have long since hung it up. Some of them are coaches. Like Billy Cunningham of the 76ers, whose own decision about retiring was made for him when he went down, screaming in pain, with a shattered knee.
“People use words like ‘professional’ or ‘superstar’ very loosely,” said Billy C. “But John epitomizes all of those…
“I’m four years younger than John and I can remember what it was like playing against him. It was a marathon. The Boston team physician said they got a pulse rate on John of 41. Most pro players are in the upper 50s to low 60s. The average man would be around 72. John was blessed with a very strong body, and he’s taken extremely good care of it.
“What every athlete admires about John is that he leads by actions. He puts out 150 percent every game, and he inspires you when you go against him because if you’re not putting out the same, he makes you stick out like a sore thumb.
“He’s just an amazing athlete. As Red Auerbach once said, the man doesn’t sweat. He’s one of a kind, and there’ll never be another. Maybe what we’ll remember most is the way he left. He set a standard for retiring that every athlete should follow.”
THERE’S ANOTHER coach in the NBA who broke in as a rookie the same season (1962-63) as Havlicek: Kevin Loughery of the New Jersey Nets.
“I think John’s a freak of nature,” Loughery said. “He’s not ready to retire yet. He’s older, but his style hasn’t changed. He’s still constant movement; you still have to chase him till you’re tripping over your tongue.
“But he sure gave us all a lesson in how to bow out.”
Havlicek announced his retirement in January. It was carefully, deliberately timed so that the fans in the other 21 cities could get one last look at him. If anyone else had made such a gesture, it would have been considered offensive and interpreted as the act of a rampant ego. But it is a tribute to Havlicek that his gesture was taken exactly as he meant it, a genuine affection and appreciation of the public.
So, at the end, before sold-out houses, with gifts from each team showered on him, he was like a man listening to his own eulogy while he was still alive.
PERHAPS IT is only fitting that a player who shattered the records for starting should provide a model for ending.
“I don’t want my retirement to be one of tears and sadness,” he said, “for me or for anybody. My career has been a positive one and I want my retirement to be positive.”
The ultimate compliment came from Willis “Reed, who battled Hondo as a player and watched him finish up as the coach of the Knicks.
“John,” said Reed, “is the kind of player every player wished he was.”