He was one of the most famous and accomplished people I ever knew, and yet he was remarkably unassuming.
The late John Havlicek and I played together on the same basketball team. Honest. Back in the mid-80s 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 accomplishment 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. Doctor 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 Doctor 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 was 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 enthusiastically, "Are you Doctor 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.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.