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Ron Fimrite
May 23, 1988
Martins Ferry, Ohio, and its sister villages have produced a generation of superb athletes
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May 23, 1988

The Valley Boys

Martins Ferry, Ohio, and its sister villages have produced a generation of superb athletes

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"Our grandparents on both sides of the family came from Poland," says Joe, "but our parents were born in the Valley. My dad pitched sandlot ball for teams the mines sponsored. He had a great fastball until he hurt his arm, then he switched to the knuckler. I can remember him teaching it to Phil, but my hands were too small then to do anything with it."

"Our dad would come home at 5:00 or 5:30 from the mines, and he'd be black with coal dust," says Phil. "He'd go upstairs and wash and then rest for a while—sometimes he'd just fall asleep on the floor. But he'd always come down and play catch with us in the backyard. I learned to catch his knuckler before I could throw one. Then, when I finally picked it up, we'd play a first-one-to-miss game. Everywhere he went, he took us. There were lots of things he could've been doing besides dragging his kids along fishing. He could've been drinking beer with his buddies, but he spent that time with us."

"There just wasn't that much to do," says Joe. "There was no TV, but we did have a radio. Of course, we played ball all the time."

"The whole area was really sports-minded," says Phil. "We didn't have a car, an allowance or new clothes, so basically whatever we did, we did in that little town. We'd catch minnows in the stream and use them for bait. We'd go rabbit or squirrel hunting, and we had a garden. Whatever we could catch or shoot or grow, that was our meal. My mother would put up 200 cans of tomato juice to last us through the winter. But you know, I wouldn't change that time of my life in that little town for anything. I can't imagine anybody else enjoying growing up as much as we did."

A big kid named John Havlicek lived across the street, Route 40, from the Niekros, above his family's general store. John was just a year younger than Phil, and the two became fast friends, "as close," says Phil, "as two kids growing up together can be. We did everything as a pair." John and Phil played varsity baseball and basketball and, very briefly, football together at Bridgeport High, five miles from their homes in Lansing. "He was just an outstanding all-around high school athlete," says Phil. "The only things I could ever do better than him was catch fish, shoot squirrels and throw the knuckleball."

Havlicek's prowess earned him all-state honors in basketball, baseball and football. He averaged better than 30 points a game his junior and senior years in basketball, and he was a consistent .400 hitter as a baseball infielder. But it was as a football player that he attracted the most notice. In fact, he had more football than basketball scholarships offered to him, and Woody Hayes at Ohio State was a dogged pursuer. But Havlicek decided, almost reluctantly, that basketball was his game. He accepted a scholarship to Ohio State, but as a basketball, not a football, player. On the one hand, Hayes was relieved that at least Havlicek wouldn't be playing quarterback against him for some other Big Ten school, but on the other hand, he was often heard muttering, "The best quarterback in the Big Ten isn't playing football."

Havlicek's choice of sports proved sound. In 1960 he starred on an NCAA championship team that also included Jerry Lucas, Larry Siegfried, Mel Nowell and a feisty guy named Bobby Knight. And in 1962 he was drafted in the first round by the NBA-champion Boston Celtics. Then he did something extraordinary. The Cleveland Browns, recognizing his superior athletic ability, drafted him in the seventh round, and Havlicek, still the frustrated football player, reported to their training camp as Red Auerbach nearly swallowed his cigar. He played as a wide receiver in two exhibition games and was the last receiver cut. Recalling that training camp, Lou Groza, a friend from the Valley days, says, "He had fine skills and he was very competitive, but he hadn't played in so long that the things we did naturally, he had to think about." Still, for six more years the Browns asked him to try again, until they finally concluded he was, after all, a basketball player.

That he was. He played 16 seasons with the Boston Celtics, eight of them on championship teams, and he appeared in 13 All-Star Games. He holds team records for games played (1,270) and points scored (26,395, an average of 20.8 per game). His jersey hangs from the rafters of Boston Garden and he is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. And for the energy and style he gave to the game, he will never be forgotten. "There was always something inhuman about his endurance," says boyhood pal Phil Niekro. "I've never seen anybody so constantly on the go."

"I have exceptional lungs," says Havlicek, now 48 and a successful businessman living in a Boston suburb. "They have to take two chest X-rays to fit them in. I think I developed them back in Lansing. I never had a bicycle when I was young, so I ran everywhere. When I was just five or six, I'd run from one mile marker to another on Route 40. I learned self-discipline back then, too. I went a whole year without drinking Coke—and I loved the stuff—because I was afraid it might affect my lung capacity. I could play two games in one day without wearing down, so the racehorse game never affected me. Both of my parents worked, so I was alone a lot and learned to take care of myself. Everything I owned, I think, came from our general store. My grandfather and my uncles all worked in the mines, and my grandfather finally died of black lung disease, but he was in his 80's. My father, Frank Havlicek, came here from Czechoslovakia when he was 12. My mother, Mandy, is Croatian, but she was born in this country, one of 10 children. They were hardworking people, and they instilled that work ethic in me.

"My father could never understand how anyone could get a college scholarship for playing basketball. He really didn't understand sports at all. I think he may have gone to one football game while I was in high school. He went to some games when I was in Ohio State, but that was because he liked to fly and because he was fascinated with the buildings we played in. He'd never seen anything quite like those big arenas. I never knew if he paid attention to the games at all until [once when the Celtics] lost to Cincinnati. He came to me and said, in his broken English, 'I think they win because they make more free throws.' He died of a heart attack when he was 71, two years after he sold the store. My mother still lives in the Valley.

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