On April 15, 1965, in just his third NBA season, Boston Celtics great John Havlicek defined his basketball legacy. With five seconds left in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers – and the Celtics clinging to a 110-109 lead – Havlicek stole the inbounds pass from Hal Greer to Chet Walker to preserve Boston’s victory. Celtics’ Hall of Fame announcer Johnny Most’s famous “Havlicek stole the ball” call still reverberates in Beantown bars today. Boston went on to defeat the L.A. Lakers in the NBA Finals in five games to cement the team’s seventh straight title.
When you grow up idolizing somebody, they remain larger than life throughout the course of your life. The player you tried to emulate as a kid with your own jump shot could seemingly hit that same shot 10 out of 10 times. You, on the other hand, weren’t always so successful, but it just felt good trying. Such was the case with John “Hondo” Havlicek and me. My father was a born-and-bred Bostonian who always professed the virtues of cheering for the Celtics despite our Huntington, New York address. It seemed I was the only kid at Little Plains Elementary who didn’t cheer for Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley of the New York Knicks. But that was okay with me; Hondo was an easy guy to cheer for and the Celtics wore green, my favorite color.
Havlicek died on April 25, 2019, at the age of 79. He had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He had a remarkable career as he helped the Celtics win eight NBA titles during his 16-year career, all of which he played for Boston. A 13-time NBA All-Star, he teamed with fellow legends like Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones, Dave Cowens and JoJo White. A graduate of The Ohio State University, Havlicek led the Buckeyes to the 1960 NCAA title in his sophomore season and was drafted seventh overall by the Celtics in 1962. His pro career began with four straight NBA championships in Boston (1963 to ’66) and that was just the start for No. 17.
Known for his all-out hustle, Celtics former head coach Red Auerbach once described Havlicek as the “guts of the team.” In essence, he was the straw that stirred the drink long before Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series. It was because of his unyielding energy and drive that Havlicek’s 1969 Topps rookie card (#20) and his autograph became sought-after commodities. With 26,395 points to his credit (now 16th overall on the NBA’s all-time leaders’ list), he averaged 20.8 points per night over the course of 1,270 games. He also led the league twice in minutes played per game (45.4 in 1970-71 and 45.1 in 1971-72). Simply put, the man had a motor that never stopped running.
In the spring of 2013, at age 73, Havlicek decided to auction off most of his personal memorabilia collection. Top sellers in the SCP Auctions’ sale included his 1963 Boston Celtics NBA Championship ring ($68,482) and his 1960’s signed and game-worn Celtics road jersey and shorts ($34,190). But for the average sports fan, even the most ardent Celtics worshiper, finding a trading card of Hondo in decent condition or simply snagging a Havlicek-autographed item would be enough.
A quick glance at PSA’s CardFacts Population Report shows that as many as 1,217 of Hondo’s 1969 Topps rookie cards (#20) have been graded with 29 obtaining Mint 9 status and a faint two reaching Gem Mint 10. Of the two Gem Mint 10 RCs, the auction prices realized of the pair varied greatly between 2013 and 2018. The first sale, conducted by Mile High Card Co., closed with a winning bid of $25,273, while the subsequent sale, hosted by Goldin Auctions, fetched $100,655. Granted the two were different Gem Mint 10 cards, but what a difference five years can make!
With his recent passing, expect those numbers to rise, as will certainly be the case with Havlicek-signed items, which currently bring $35 (8×10 photo), $200 (basketball) and $250 (jersey), respectively. The 1984 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee was a generous signer during the course of his lifetime, but the allure of an autographed piece from the man called Hondo will only amplify as tributes and recollections of his storied career continue to pour in as the Celtics battle the Milwaukee Bucks in their Eastern Conference semi-final match-up this week.