12.25.2007

Havlicek's Recruiting Class at Ohio State

Jerry Lucas, Bob Knight, and Hondo

Before transplants arrived to pave Grove City, erect golf-course homes in Dublin and strip-and-mall whatever was left in-between, Columbus was an oasis in a cornfield, a one-skyscraper town poised to annex. Back then, even more than now, Ohio State University was the center of it all. The city's soul was wrapped in pigskin, and it moved 3 yards at a time, followed by a cloud of dust.

Near the end of this era, in 1958, there arrived a recruiting class for the ages.

Curiously, this class was a cache of basketball players.

After Mel Nowell, the smart point guard from East High School, the rest were harvested from Ohio's fields. There were two high-scoring perimeter players, Bob Knight and Gary Gearhart. There was the most famous schoolboy player in America, center Jerry Lucas. And there was John Havlicek.

As sophomores and led by Lucas, this class propelled the Buckeyes to their first and only NCAA basketball championship, in 1960. During their three years of eligibility, they won three Big Ten titles, made three consecutive appearances in the national championship game and amassed a record of 78-6.

"One thing about that team: We had a 3.4 grade-point average one grade period," Havlicek said. "Everyone graduated. Seven went on to get master's, two Ph.D.s, two MDs. All but one of us were from Ohio."

Havlicek was part and parcel of an era, and he was quintessential Ohio. He was reared in a small town and taught the value of honest labor. He was steeped in humility just as he was pointed to the highest strata of sport. He got every ounce out of his mind and body, gained fame and fortune and then aged gracefully, without changing.

He was John Glenn in Chuck Taylor tennis shoes.

Three-sport star

Havlicek's parents were immigrants of Czech and Croatian ancestry. They owned a grocery store in the tiny town of Lansing, hard by the Ohio River on the eastern edge of the state. Lansing was dissected by a busy highway, and given the dangers of this thoroughfare, little Johnny was not allowed a bicycle.

Without wheels, the kid ran everywhere.

"I'd say John was a better athlete than a basketball player," said Larry Siegfried, the excellent junior guard on the 1960 Ohio State team. "My God, he could run."

Havlicek was all-state in football, baseball and basketball at Bridgeport High. He found his greatest fame on the gridiron, as happens in steel country. He was an option quarterback who was said to throw an 80-yard pass. Woody Hayes was aware.

In fact, Hayes had a plan to put Havlicek at quarterback in a backfield that would include Tom Matte at halfback and Bob Ferguson at fullback.

"I had four visits to Ohio State and three were for football," Havlicek said, "I told Woody I wanted to play basketball. Woody said, 'You're the kind of kid we want on the basketball team, so I'll help Freddy (Taylor) recruit you.' And that's what he did. And Matte wound up playing quarterback."

Matte led the Buckeyes through two fair-to-middling seasons. Joe Sparma took the quarterback duties in 1961, when the Buckeyes went 8-0-1 and won the Big Ten but a faculty council turned down an invitation to the Rose Bowl because, the council felt, football was getting bigger than academics.

Havlicek could have been a football hero.

"I never regretted my decision," Havlicek said, "but I've always wondered what would have happened if I played quarterback at Ohio State. Of course, you can look at it the other way, too."

Lucas and Co.

After powering Middletown to two state high-school titles, Lucas had 150 scholarship offers. He told recruiters to leave him alone until his senior season was completed. He wasn't kidding. When Adolph Rupp knocked on the door to his English class, Lucas politely told Rupp and his entourage to leave and then crossed Kentucky off his list.

Lucas knew he would end up at Ohio State because Taylor was the only one who wanted to discuss academics with recruits. When Lucas committed, Havlicek and others were prepared to follow the famed center.

"John and I played on a number of All-Star teams together, and his talent was plain to me," Lucas said. "But he was coming up from a small school and didn't think he was good enough. I had to convince him to come to Ohio State."

Fear, Havlicek once said, drove him to improve and compelled him to defeat complacency. It's probably what fed him as a wide-eyed lad of 18 as he faced incredible competition.

"After playing All-Star games with some of those guys, I thought I could play," Havlicek said. "But this was a big, new world. You're going to always have some apprehension when you have no yardstick, nothing to judge yourself by. You throw yourself in, not sure what'll happen next."

In those days, freshmen were not eligible to play varsity, or even play off-campus games against other freshman teams. What they did was scrimmage against the junior varsity and varsity teams.

"The freshmen were better than the varsity," Lucas said. "Maybe not initially, but it wasn't long into the year before we beat them. By the end of the year, we beat them by 40 points. We played the JV team before home games and St. John Arena was full. Some people even left after the freshman game. They didn't watch the varsity."

Havlicek took stock. Lucas was locked in at center. Heck, the offense was restructured for Lucas before he was even eligible. Nowell would be the starting point guard, no doubt about that. Siegfried, Dick Furry and Joe Roberts -- three future pros -- were upperclassmen who would eat up playing time at small forward and shooting guard. Knight and Gearhart, fellow freshmen, were pure scorers.

"Fred was preaching defense," Havlicek said. "It was going to be a staple. Fred said, 'There are nights when you're not going to shoot well, and defense can sustain you.' I took notice. It was a part of the game not too many people took notice of. I said to myself, 'This is a way I can make the team.' "

That championship season

Lucas, agile and expressionless, machine-like and yet artful, was the instant star of the 1959-60 team. The Buckeyes led the nation in scoring with a 90.5-point average. Havlicek became a starter after one game and never surrendered his position. He played defense with unflagging gusto.

"He ran all the time," coaching legend Pete Newell remembered. "He never seemed to get tired. If the guy guarding him started to take short cuts, well, God help him then."

The Buckeyes lost three games -- on the road to Kentucky, Utah and Indiana -- early in the season. They managed to beat Indiana in St. John on a last-second shot by Siegfried to ensure themselves the Big Ten title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. It was a 16-team tournament then, and the Buckeyes rolled through it.

In the championship game, they were matched against the No. 1 defensive team in the land, Newell's California Golden Bears, who'd beaten Cincinnati and Oscar Robertson in the semifinals.

The Buckeyes made 16 of 19 shots from the field in the first half and pushed their lead to 37-19. The interesting twist came on the other end of the court. Taylor, known for his great touch with offense, had picked Newell's brain about defense a year earlier. In this game, Taylor used the tactics he learned to beat his teacher. Cal's weakest shooter was left isolated, the passing lanes were closed and the Bears were shut down. Havlicek had a lot to do with it. Final score: Ohio State 75-55.

"They were a smart team," Newell said, "they were a close team, and they were on a mission."

Havlicek said, "Those teams were fundamentally sound and meshed perfectly. We never even called a play. Even though the offense wasn't designed for me to score, I knew I'd get my garbage."

Havlicek emerges

The blessed group of sophomores became juniors, and they made it back to the championship game. They lost to Cincinnati 70-65 in overtime. They went 27-1. As seniors, they again made it back to the championship game. They lost again to Cincinnati 71-59.

Bearcats coach Ed Jucker, a schemer with a slow-down style, pinned his strategy on taking Havlicek away from the basket. Jucker knew Havlicek would guard his leading scorer, so Jucker left Ron Bonham standing at midcourt -- and Havlicek stayed with him. Havlicek couldn't rebound.

Jucker hoped that his center, bruiser Paul Hogue, could effectively counter Lucas. The Bearcats won in a shocker in '61. They romped in '62, when Lucas was playing on a severely damaged knee. Again, the admitted key was taking Havlicek out of the mix.

As a senior, Havlicek averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds and was a first-team All-American. Still, the large shadow of Lucas made Havlicek a relatively questionable commodity.

"I heard people say, 'Do you really think John can make it to the NBA?' "Lucas said. "These were supposedly knowledgeable people and they said these things because John was not a prolific scorer.

"Anybody who really knew the game had no doubt. I had no doubt whatsoever."

Havlicek was drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics. Coach Red Auerbach saw something. He liked Havlicek's defense and winning pedigree, but that was only the start of it. Auerbach was the first coach to copiously utilize a sixth man, and he pictured Havlicek as the perfect player for that role.

There was a catch: Havlicek earned three basketball letters, two baseball letters and a degree at Ohio State. He was also drafted by the NFL's Cleveland Browns as a receiver, despite not having played football in four years. Coach Paul Brown saw something.

"The football season only had 12 games back then," Havlicek said. "I figured I'd miss 16 games with the Celtics, so why not play both? I'd give it a year, see how it was and make a decision."

There was more money, and a new car for a signing bonus, in the NFL. Havlicek set his sights on making the Browns. The team had Ray Renfro, Gary Collins and other entrenched receivers. In comes Havlicek, testing himself in a new realm, driven by fear and running, running, running.

He nearly pulled it off. He was the very last cut of training camp in 1962. He was bitterly disappointed, but not to the point where he would accept another invitation to Browns camp. And he had six more invitations.

"I figured the good Lord was telling me something," Havlicek said.

To Boston and beyond

Havlicek played 16 NBA seasons and won eight championships with the Celtics. He was 13 times an All-Star. When he retired in 1978, he was the league's career leader in games played, and was third in points scored and second in playoff points.

"Early on, Red said to me, 'You can't let them insult you by playing off you -- you've got to shoot,' " Havlicek said. "That's all I needed to hear."

His numbers still hold up well after 27 years. Here's the list of NBA players with more career points than Havlicek's 26,395: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon, Oscar Robertson and Dominique Wilkins. Here's the list of players with more playoff points than Havlicek's 3,776: Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Jerry West, Shaquille O'Neal and Larry Bird.

Time ought to march backward today. It should pause in 1960, when Columbus was a one-skyscraper town, an oasis in a field of corn. Buzz your hair, cover your bellybuttons and reflect on Havlicek.

He was recruited by Taylor, drafted by Auerbach and Brown. He moved out from the shadow of Lucas, then eventually from the shadow of Bill Russell. He won nine titles in 19 years and did it by the sweat of his brow, always running, driven by the fear of not being his very best. What scared him was the alternative, mediocrity.

He is the quintessential Ohio athlete. It all started there.

2 comments:

Border Bird said...

Nice article about a great team. As an Ohio native and lifelong Celtics fan, John Havlicek is my all-time favorite player.

A year ago Friday, I was at the United Spirit Arena in Lubbock with my daughter, who was a high school senior checking out Texas Tech. We were attending the Red Raiders' game with UNLV, Bobby Knight's first opportunity to set the all-time wins mark for college coaches.

We had good seats, about five rows above Knight and the Tech team. It was a star-studded crowd. There was Dick Vitale at the announcers' table, Jerry Tarkanian at one corner of the court. Steve Alford was in the crowd; so was Fuzzy Zoeller.

But my knees grew weak when I saw Hondo sitting four rows in front of us. My will was weak, too, as I left that night without a photo, autograph or even a handshake. He probably would have given me the slip anyway -- no way I could stay with Mr. Perpetual Movement!

Lex said...

In my humble opinion, Hondo deserves a place at the table of all-time Celtic greats, right there with Russell and Bird.

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