When John Havlicek was a rookie Boston Celtic, one of the most important second-string players on the Boston team was Jim Loscutoff, the National Basketball Association equivalent of a middle linebacker. Loscutoff was sometimes called "The Enforcer." In the first scrimmage of that 1962 training camp at Babson Institute in Wellesley, Loscutoff introduced Havlicek to the realities of a noncontact sport. The more noncontact Havlicek had with Loscutoff, the closer he figured he was coming to the emergency ward at Massachusetts General. Loscutoff outweighed him by 25 pounds, and was not disposed to coddle. The shoe rubber, Havlicek recalls, was screeching on every play.
Rookie Havlicek responded to this intimidation by running. He ran veteran Loscutoff into the floor, as surely as if he were a 10-penny nail. It is a style peculiar to Havlicek and, since it requires the physiology of an Arabian saddle horse, impossible to imitate. Havlicek runs and runs (scoring, rebounding, defending tenaciously, making key passes, setting up plays), and when his opponent begins to go under, he runs some more.
"Hey, you're crazy," panted Loscutoff as they lined up during a free-throw lull. "Nobody runs like that. Slow down."
Havlicek explained that he was not an unreasonable man, and that if he was making Loscutoff look bad, he had a solution.
"Quit pushing me around," he said, "and I'll quit running so hard." The compromise at least saved Loscutoff from an early swoon, but it has not saved the rest of the NBA from Havlicek in these intervening 12 years. Red Auerbach, then the Boston coach and now its president and general manager, remembers that first scrimmage, and having thought, "Oh, have I got something here. Are they going to think I'm smart!"
Smart Red had drafted Havlicek off the Ohio State campus at a time when his Celtic team was a philharmonic of Cousys, Heinsohns, Russells and Joneses. Eventually Red relinquished the baton to Russell, and the blend was altered to include Sanders, Nelson and Howell. Then Russell, too, turned it over, this time to Heinsohn, and the empty chairs were filled by a brassier medley of Cowens, Chaney and Jo Jo White. And always the insatiable Celtics won—well, seven out of 12 NBA championships is almost always—and always there was Havlicek.
Then at an age (34) when he was at last showing some faint signs of breaking into a sweat, Havlicek emerged last winter into total light as the physical, spiritual and appointed leader of the Celtics in their seven-game championship decision over the Milwaukee Bucks. Havlicek was named Most Valuable Player in the series.
The vote was academic. A case could have been made that Havlicek was more like Most Valuable in the Game Today. Or the Best Athlete the NBA has ever had—which would rank him right up there universally because few other sports demand anywhere near as much of an athlete as pro basketball.
Pshaw, you say. How can that be? How can such things be said of a guy who doesn't shoot as well as the best, isn't strong enough to smother a backboard, doesn't have breathtaking speed, can't dribble behind his back and isn't 7 feet tall? How can that be as long as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is alive and living on the basket rim?
There is no arguing Abdul-Jabbar's preeminence. Basketball is a game divided between centers and other fellows, and the best big man will get the franchise owner's vote. The best centers are called "dominant forces." Abdul-Jabbar, as the reigning dominant force, follows the skyline of George Mikan, Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. But inevitably he will make way for another. Already there are pretenders: a redhead named Walton in Portland and an adolescent named Moses in Utah. It is only a matter of time.