By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
JOHN HAVLICEK, R.I.P.
The late John Havlicek and I played together on the same basketball team. Honest. Back
in the mid-eighties he organized a celebrity team to play in a charity game at Weston
High School, the town where he lived. Team members included Doug Flutie, fresh off his
Heisman Trophy season at Boston College, and Jerry Remy, then the recently retired Red
Sox second baseman but not yet the TV icon he was to become. Bobby Orr was there too,
but as an honorary referee, since his oft-injured knees prevented him from running up
and down a basketball court.
John must have had to reach pretty far down the local celebrity food chain to fill out his
team’s roster because he called and asked if I would participate. In those days I was on
TV news which, for those of you who may remember my appearances, meant that I was
used to embarrassing myself in front of a lot of people, so I, of course, agreed. We both
served on the board of the Genesis Fund (now Foundation) and I was the master of
ceremonies every year at his annual fishing tournament, so we knew each other well.
Then came the night of the big game which, as I remember, was played against members
of the Weston High faculty. At one point during a moment of weakness someone decided
to put me into the fray. The teachers had possession of the ball, but I hadn’t bothered to
get back on defense - why bother with a minuscule detail like playing defense? – when
Havlicek picked up a loose ball under the basket, looked up and saw me hanging under
the opposite one and hurled the ball in my direction. I had visions in my head of my name
going down in the annals of Weston High School as having scored a key hoop against the
fearsome faculty squad; then I faced the reality of a basketball coming straight at my
head like it was shot out of a cannon. Now I had visions in my head of it being
dismembered from my body by a projectile which was becoming larger and larger by the
instant. Are you familiar with the phrase, “Discretion is the better part of valor?” That’s
exactly what I was thinking as I stepped gingerly aside and let the the ball soar out of
bounds. I looked back up court at Havlicek who, forgiving my egregious lack of intestinal
fortitude, merely smiled and shrugged.
He was one of the most famous and accomplished people I ever knew, and yet he was
remarkably unassuming. It’s not that he didn’t realize how famous and accomplished he
was, but it instead was that he was able to put it in context; he knew that the real
accomplshment was in how you lived your life, and in that he really was a superstar.
One more story of how unpretentious he was: Every year a week or so after his fishing
tournament, which raised over time millions of dollars for the Genesis Foundation, a
group of us held a postmortem dinner to assess how it had gone and discuss ways to
make the following year’s event even better. One year it was decided to hold the dinner at
the Cranberry Moose Restaurant on Cape Cod. Dr. Murray Feingold, the founder and
keeper of The Genesis Foundation flame, took it upon himself to make the dinner
reservation. As it happened, the owner and operator of the Cranberry Moose was an
affable guy named Jerry Finegold. He had just the right personality to run a restaurant,
outgoing and welcoming. He could talk on virtually any subject with humor and insight,
with one exception. He knew nothing at all about sports. Nothing.
On the night in question Jerry was looking over the list of reservations and saw that one
had been made in the name of a Dr. Feingold. He and Murray had never met and didn’t
even spell their names the same, but Jerry was excited that another Finegold (or Feingold,
as the case may be) was coming to his restaurant.
First in our party to arrive for the dinner were John and his wife Beth. When they walked
into the outer lobby, crowded with customers waiting for their tables (it was a Saturday
night), a buzz went through the room; husbands whispered to their wives, who hardly
needed to be told, “Look, that’s John Havlicek!” He ws instantly recognizable by
everyone – or almost everyone. After all, he’d won eight NBA championships; scored
more points and played in more games than anyone else in Boston Celtics history; and his
“Havlicek stole the ball” play was (and still is) perhaps basketball’s most famous play.
The moment was made even more memorable by the fact that the beautiful Beth Havlicek
was on his arm.
As those in outer lobby of the Cranberry Moose looked on in admiration, John walked up
to the reservations desk and said, “We’re with the Feingold party.” Whereupon Jerry
Finegold came racing around to the front of the desk, grabbed John by the hand and
began pumping it vigorously, as he asked enthusiastcally, “Are you Dr. Feingold?”
There was a stunned silence among the other customers as Beth tried, really tried, to stifle
her laughter, and John simply said, “No, we’re just with his party.”
There was much hilarity at our table as Beth recounted what had happened, it took her a
while because she couldn’t stop laughing. Jerry Finegold, when made aware of his
blunder, was full of apologies, while John tried to assure him that he had not been
offended. I think Jerry sent a couple of bottles of wine to the table so none of the rest of
us was offended, either. The reaction of Murray Feingold, all five feet nine inches of him,
was, “Gee, how come nobody ever mistook me for John Havlicek?”
In all the thousands of words that have been printed about John since his passing there
has not been even the hint of a negative one, not by a teammate or an opponent, not by an
acquaintance or a stranger who just happened to encounter him on the street. That’s
because there is nothing negative that anyone – anyone – can say about him. Talk about a
life well lived.
Requiescat in pace.