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BOB RYAN

It's a moment that is not lost with time

"All right, Greer's putting the ball into play . . . He gets it out deep and Havlicek steals it! Over to Sam Jones! Havlicek stole the ball! It's all over! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans. It's all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball! Oh, boy, what a play by Havlicek at the end of this ballgame! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball on the pass-in. Oh, my, what a play by Havlicek! A spectacular series comes to an end in spectacular fashion! John Havlicek being hoisted aloft . . . He yells and waves his hands. Bill Russell wants to grab Havlicek . . . He hugs him. He squeezes John Havlicek. Havlicek saved this ballgame. Believe that! Johnny Havlicek saved this ballgame. The Celtics win it, 110-109. We'll be back with our wrapup in just one minute!
-- Johnny Most, describing the end of a basketball game played at Boston Garden April 15, 1965.

It's the single most famous moment in Boston Celtics history. And it was a moment, an act that took a second. John Havlicek knocked away an inbounds pass and immediately went from Nice Player to Legend, abetted by the most famous basketball radio call ever. Forget Boston. This is the most famous call in NBA history. I mean, let's get real. There was only one Johnny Most. Ask ESPN. They ran the call on "SportsCenter" last night.

The date was April 15, 1965: 40 years ago yesterday.

"That's a long time," notes Red Auerbach. "It was a memorable night."

Ya' think?

It was, as Most so accurately described, "a spectacular series" coming to an end "in spectacular fashion." The Bill Russell-led Celtics and the Wilt Chamberlain-led 76ers had battled evenly in the Eastern Conference finals for six games, 47 minutes, and 56 seconds. The Celtics were clinging to a 1-point lead with four seconds left, but the 76ers were putting the ball in play under their basket after Russell made the boo-boo of all boo-boos, hitting a guide wire on an inbounds pass after a Chamberlain stuff had made the score 110-109, and thus turning the ball back over to the Sixers.

I can hear the young'uns out there. What's a guide wire, `guy' wire, or whatever?

Hey, it was 1965, and this was the beloved Boston Garden. They didn't have a fancy basket standard as we have today. The backboard was supported by wires that ran from the edge of the backboard up to the first balcony. It was one of those wires that Russell hit.

"Russell was in the huddle saying, `I screwed up,' " recalls Tom Heinsohn, then a guy with a bad foot playing in his penultimate series. " `Somebody get me off the hook.' "

"Everybody was sitting there in the stands saying, `We're going to lose the ball for that?' " recalls Mike Gorman, the eternal Celtics' television voice who was present in the stands on that fateful evening. "We wondered what was going to happen."

Here's what happened. Hal Greer took the ball out of bounds. Sam Jones was on him. Russell was, of course, guarding Wilt, who already had 30 points and 32 rebounds. Satch Sanders was guarding burly Luke Jackson. K.C. Jones was guarding the 6-foot-10-inch Johnny Kerr. And John Havlicek was guarding Chet Walker.

The Celtics had a lot of things to worry about and four long seconds to worry about them. Walker was a great shooter. Jackson had that colossal size mismatch with the 6-1 K.C. Greer, one of the great middle jump shooters ever, could take a return pass from anyone and become an instant threat. Chamberlain could take a pass and dunk one. And Chamberlain, Kerr, and Jackson could crash the boards if a shot were missed.

None of it materialized. Greer tried to throw it in to Walker, and Havlicek, reading the play perfectly, tipped the ball in the direction of Sam Jones, who dribbled into a mob that had swarmed onto the court. "I went up, but I couldn't get control of it," Havlicek said in a 1985 interview. "I saw Sam going the other way and, fortunately, nobody was in a position to foul him."

"What's interesting," says Gorman, "is that if you saw the play, you would never say that Havlicek `stole' the ball. He `deflected' the ball. But Johnny Most said he `stole' the ball, and that was that."

The game and the series were over. But The Legend was just about to take shape, thanks to Johnny Most and thanks to Jess Cain, who played the call over and over the next morning on his immensely popular WHDH (850) morning show, and thanks to a subsequent highlight album put out by Fleetwood Records of Revere.

"It gave me some of my healthiest publicity I ever got in my life," Most observed at the time of the 20th anniversary. "It was something to be remembered for, something to hang my hat on. It gave John and me a sense of foreverness I couldn't have had otherwise . . . and it sold about 50,000 records."

The Celtics were en route to a seventh consecutive championship (they would wipe out the Lakers in five for the title), but they were more of a cult than a local sports fixture until this play and Most's call. "It was a league for basketball junkies," declares Gorman, a Dorchester kid from St. Brendan's parish. "There was great pride among those who cared. That's why I learned so much when I went to the games. Casual fans hardly existed. The ones who went really knew and loved the game."

It was an entirely different Boston. There was hardly a skyline. The Pru had been built a scant two years earlier. The new John Hancock was an architectural conception only. The big radio names, in addition to Jess Cain, were Bruce Bradley and Arnie "Woo-Woo" Ginsberg. Don Kent was Boston's weatherman. Cardinal Cushing was The Man. The Red Sox were pathetic, a team that would draw fewer than 700,000 to a ballpark everyone agreed was a dump. Three hundred people ran the Marathon. The winner got a handshake from Jock Semple and a laurel wreath, and everyone who finished got a bowl of beef stew.

And the NBA had nine teams.

No one could possibly have envisioned the NBA of today, with its flash and glitter, with its lights-out intros, its dazzling scoreboards, its cheerleaders, and the booming music. It was a world in which the opposing team would call time out to stop a Celtics' run and John Kiley would rouse the crowd by playing the "Mexican Hat Dance" on the organ.

One similarity, however: They had Wilt. We now have Shaq.

It was all innocent, but it was eminently accessible. It was about the basketball, not about The Show. And the basketball was pretty darn good, you know?

Heinsohn has had a front-row seat for the NBA since 1956. He's in the Hall of Fame as a player. He coached the 1974 and 1976 championship teams. And he's been watching the league for the past 28 or so years as a broadcaster. Who is better qualified to tell us the difference between the "Havlicek Stole The Ball" NBA and the "I Love This Game" NBA?

"All the players back then were masters of the fundamentals," he explains, "which allowed them to be creative. They were jazz groups. And now we have orchestras with music right in front of them. Some of these guys even ask the coach to turn the pages of the music for them."

If one of the guys in the Celtics and Heat orchestras is lucky, he might someday enjoy a moment like John Havlicek's. The only problem is he won't have a broadcasting maestro like Johnny Most to make him an instant legend.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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