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Old-worlder Frank Havlicek rarely saw John play anything, never having gotten over soccer, but Mrs. Havlicek became a devotee. She harbored a mother's qualms about John playing football, though the football scouts came after him in droves. She found a sympathetic ear in Fred Taylor, the Ohio State basketball coach. Taylor has never been overly fond of what he still calls "oblong ball." "Mrs. Havlicek," he told her, "if you don't want John to play football, then he'll play it over my dead body."
Even that might have been arranged at Ohio State, because Woody Hayes himself wanted Havlicek. John told Hayes he didn't think he could hack basketball, baseball, football and the books, too, and he had a mind to play basketball and baseball. "How do you know until you try?" replied Hayes.
But Woody finally relented, and he told Havlicek he was the kind of boy they wanted at Ohio State "even if you don't play football. So come on, and I won't bother you again." And Hayes didn't, says John. His assistant coaches did. For the next four years they scattered hints like rose petals every time John passed by. Hayes himself was just slightly more subtle. He would introduce Havlicek to his football recruits as "the best quarterback in the Big Ten who isn't playing."
The 1960 Ohio State basketball team was the NCAA champion, led primarily by sophomores—Jerry Lucas, Mel Now-ell and John Havlicek. It was just before that season began that Havlicek came unilaterally to the conclusion that very likely made his career.
He walked into Coach Taylor's office, as Taylor recalls, and respectfully informed him there was "only one basketball, and you've got plenty of guys who can shoot it. I'm going to make this team on the other end of the floor."
"At the time," says Taylor, "we were trying to sell our kids on defense. Defense is hard to sell, but here was John literally jumping at the chance. I never saw anything like it. And of course I never saw anything like John. By midseason I was usually assigning him to the opposition's best player automatically, whether it was a frontcourt man or a backcourt man."
In his three years, during which Ohio State won one NCAA championship and lost two in the finals, Havlicek drew them all: Lenny Chappel of Wake Forest, Terry Dischinger of Purdue, Cotton Nash of Kentucky. "We even put him on a couple of centers," says Taylor. "He'd get upset if he didn't think he was guarding the best."
And Havlicek himself made a discovery: "I knew from the first time I played this game that the toughest guy to score on was the guy who kept after me all the time, nose-to-nose, basket-to-basket. The opposite is also true. The toughest guy to defend against is the guy who keeps running. Who never lets up. Never lets you relax. Who sneaks one in on you the first time you drag your feet. I never worried about the physical part, killing myself running or anything like that. I read once where a doctor said you'd pass out before you did any real damage. I never passed out."
Dervishes are an ascetic order, and so are stoics, and Havlicek is one of those, too. Shy, self-disciplining (he punishes himself for athletic failures by running great distances or denying himself Cokes), a noncomplainer. He played hurt, and still does. In a 1973 semifinal series with the Knicks he played three games with a partially separated shoulder, his right arm virtually useless at his side. Against Los Angeles in the 1969 finals he played with an eye swollen shut by an accidental gouging. "I don't think you should mind a little pain if you're paid to play," he says.
In that 1960 NCAA championship he played with a severely cut middle finger on his right (shooting) hand. Taylor remembers a time when John's knee was in such pain from strained ligaments that he finally consented to try an elaborate homemade brace the trainer called an "octopus." When Havlicek appeared on the practice floor his teammates whooped at the contraption, and John retreated to the training room. "I can't wear this thing," he said. "Take it off. It's embarrassing."