To the New England sports fan, the phrase ‘Havlicek stole the ball!’ is as profound and as personal as ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ is to Irish Democrats.
‘Havlicek stole the ball!’ was the most famous radio call in basketball history. The lore about it is as much about the colorful radio announcer Johnny Most as it is about the Boston Celtics’ all-time high scorer, John Havlicek.
Most was the radio voice of the Celtics during the team’s golden era, from 1953 to 1990. Many fans would watch the game on television with the sound turned down and Johnny Most turned up.
High Above Courtside
Johnny Most was born on June 15, 1923 in New York City and named after his grandfather, Johann Most, an anarchist newspaper editor. After Most served with distinction as an aerial gunner in World War II, he went into broadcasting.
He established himself high above courtside in the old Boston Garden, back in the day when fans could run into players on the way to their seats. He called games in a voice that sounded like a cheese grater. His explanation: he gargled with Saniflush.
Newspaper reporters who sat beneath Most had to dodge his long cigarette ashes that fluttered down through the floorboards. He once dropped a cigarette into his lap and set his pants on fire while on the air.
He was a notorious homer who — according to one referee — could cause a riot at High Mass. To Most, the game was a morality play in which his beloved Celtics were the good guys and the opposing players were thugs and cheats.
He didn’t like Lakers star Wilt Chamberlain one little bit. In 1969, the Lakers were favored to win the NBA championship. When the Celtics arrived at the Lakers’ Forum for the final game, they found thousands of victory balloons tied to the ceiling, the USC Trojan Marching band on the sidelines and cases of champagne stacked outside the Lakers’ locker room. During the game, Chamberlain famously left the court with a knee injury, but wanted back in when his replacement started producing. The Celtics won that game, and the championship. Most was not gracious:
We busted their balloons! The USC Band is packing their instruments and all the champagne has suddenly gone flat. And then there’s poor Wilt, who probably is icing his boo-boo right now while picking up a crying towel.
Johnny Most was also a poet who published a volume of poetry called Feelings: Private Thoughts and Poems.
‘Havlicek Stole the Ball’
It was on April 15, 1965 that Havlicek stole the ball, during the closing seconds of Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics’ lead had melted away to one point. Philadelphia had the ball out of bounds and a good chance to win. Philadelphia guard Hal Greer tossed the ball to Chet Walker, but Havlicek tipped the ball to Celtic Sam Jones in one of the greatest NBA plays ever.
From his perch high above courtside, Most screamed over the WHDH airwaves:
Greer is putting the ball in play. He gets it out deep and Havlicek steals it! Over to Sam Jones! Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over. It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans!
The Celtics won, 110-109, and delirious fans carried Havlicek off the court. The Celtics went on to win their seventh consecutive championship.
Later in his career Most was notorious for nicknaming opposing players. Magic Johnson was ‘Crybaby,’ Isiah Thomas was ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ and Washington Bullets players Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland were interchangeably ‘McFilthy’ and ‘McNasty.’ Most especially hated Detroit Pistons player Bill Laimbeer, a ‘dirty rotten player’ he nicknamed ‘Big Baby.’ (Watch Most trash the opposing teams here.)
He retired in 1990 due to failing health. Johnny Most died on Jan. 4, 1993, in Hyannis, Mass. John Havlicek died on April 25, 2019, having suffered from Parkinson’s disease.
This story was updated in 2023. Photo of Most in 1984 courtesy By City of Boston Archives from West Roxbury, United States CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65419210