Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 28, 2019

A Hero Passes, But His Moment Lives Forever

What is it that turns a moment in time into a moment for all time? What is it about the setting, or the participants, or the drama, that ensures a fleeting few seconds in a single game, a miniscule number well right of the decimal point in the total hours of competition comprising an athlete’s career, will become the signature of his time on the great stage of sports? Perhaps there is no single answer, for it is really some magical combination of all three, leavened with the attitudes and expectations of the fans who witness it, that converts the ephemeral into the historic.

Young sports fans may not believe it, but there was a time not so very long ago when Boston was regarded by most as a provincial backwater when it came to success in sports. Before the recent multiple championships by the Patriots and Red Sox, and the title parades for the Celtics in 2008 and the Bruins in 2011, one fallow season piled on top of another for most of the city’s teams. Tom Brady’s first Super Bowl win in 2002 was also the first for the Patriots franchise, in its forty-second year of play. The Red Sox went more than eight and a half decades between titles, torturing fans by veering from atrocious to agonizingly close during that time. But for two championships won during the all too brief prime of Bobby Orr, the story of the Boston Bruins was seven decades of disappointment between 1941 and 2011.

The sole exception during all those years, the one team that New England fans could count on to be not just competitive but contenders, was the Celtics. Boston’s NBA franchise won sixteen titles over a three-decade span from 1957 to 1986, including eleven championships in thirteen years from that first one in ’57 through 1969, a record of dominance unmatched in the history of the league.

Scores of players contributed to the banners that now hang in the rafters of TD Garden commemorating all those titles. Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale at the end of the run. Bob Cousy and the incomparable Bill Russell, who remade the role of center into a defensive position, at the beginning. Heinsohn and Cowens, Archibald and White, and so many others, along with Red Auerbach, for years the head coach and then eventually the GM, all doing their part in furthering the success of the one Boston franchise that regularly gave fans reason to cheer.

Which brings us to the night of April 15, 1965, and the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals at the old Boston Garden. The NBA was very different then, with just nine teams divided into two conferences. Six of the nine advanced to the playoffs, with Boston and the L.A. Lakers, regular season conference champions, receiving a bye into the conference finals while the second and third place teams played a best-of-five opening series. That year the first round in the East was between the Philadelphia 76ers and Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings), with the 76ers prevailing in four games. The conference finals format was to alternate the site every game, and so Boston and Philadelphia traveled back and forth for six games over nine days, with the home team winning each contest.

Like the series, the decisive Game 7 was a tight affair. When Wilt Chamberlain, who began his career in Philadelphia with the Warriors before that franchise moved west and who had returned to the city in a trade by the 76ers in the middle of the 1964-65 season, slammed home a dunk the score was 110-109 in favor of the Celtics with just five seconds left to play.

Russell took responsibility for the inbounds pass, later saying that he trusted no one more than himself to execute a clean throw. It was an ironic exercise in self-confidence, because Russell’s toss hit a stabilizing guidewire running from a corner of the backboard to the balcony high above the court. The interference made for an automatic turnover, giving Philadelphia the ball under their own basket, with five seconds to win the game and the conference championship.

The fans packed into the Garden were in shock. Russell would later be named the league’s Most Valuable Player for the fifth time. No one on the Celtics and certainly not the team’s leader made such a mind-numbing error. Other Boston franchises had their share of pratfalls, but not the NBA team that was the darling of the city. During the ensuing timeout Russell sat on the bench with his head down.

The referee handed Philadelphia’s Hal Greer the ball. On the court John Havlicek, then a 25-year-old in his third season, was guarding Chet Walker, his back to Greer. Havlicek knew that Greer had to throw the inbounds pass within five seconds or lose possession. In his mind he began counting to five, and when he reached four, he turned his head a fraction to glance back at Greer. That was the moment the ball left Greer’s hands, intended for Walker. With the split-second advantage gained by his glance, Havlicek took two steps and reached up with his long arms, deflecting the ball away from Walker and into the hands of Boston’s Sam Jones, who quickly dribbled down the court as the clock ran out. Fans stormed the parquet, lifting Havlicek onto their shoulders and ripping off his jersey.

In the decades since that night, the number of fans claiming to have been eyewitnesses to Havlicek’s steal has far exceeded the capacity of the Garden. But many times even that impossible number heard, rather than saw, the game-deciding play. Johnny Most, the Celtics gravel-voiced radio announcer for nearly four decades described the play for countless thousands throughout New England, “Alright, Greer’s putting the ball in play. He gets it out deep but Havlicek steals it! Over to Sam Jones! Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball! Oh boy, what a play by Havlicek at the end of this ballgame!”

The Celtics went on to beat the Lakers four games to one in that year’s NBA Finals. For Havlicek, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 79, it was his third championship in as many seasons. Over a career that stretched to seventeen years, all in a Boston uniform, he would win a total of eight. Along the way Havlicek set team records which he still holds for the most games played and most points scored. But because he was not a starter for much of his career his contributions are sometimes overlooked by the broader universe of NBA fans.

In Boston the Celtics faithful know better. Red Auerbach created the concept of the sixth man, or first player off the bench. The coaching legend wanted a strong scorer to be able to come into the game as a substitute, so the team’s offense wouldn’t decline noticeably when a starter needed to rest. While he was not the first player to fill that role for Auerbach, Havlicek was undoubtedly the best. That selfless willingness to serve in any role, along with an unmatched work ethic, made Havlicek a 13-time All-Star and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. All those career accomplishments are why his number 17 hangs in the TD Garden rafters next to the championship banners. But nothing that John Havlicek did matched the moment when he rescued Bill Russell, saved his team’s season, and preserved Boston’s pride, on that long-ago night when Havlicek stole the ball.


  1. Excellent best first paragraph loved 6ths man. Chuck

    Sent from my iPhone


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