Lansing, Ohio, is nothing more than a map dot, really, a tiny mill town hiding out in extreme eastern Ohio, 100 miles or so from Columbus and light years removed from Big City, America.
The population’s about 1,100 now, which makes it a metropolis compared to the time John Havlicek was growing up there, right across the street from Phil Niekro.
“He’s one year and seven days older than me,” Havlicek said. “And that’s how long we’ve been friends.”
Which explains why Havlicek, inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983, will be in Cooperstown Sunday when his pal, Niekro, goes into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Also set for induction are manager Tom Lasorda, whose Los Angeles Dodgers teams won 1,599 games in 20 years; 12-time American League All-Star infielder Nellie Fox; and Negro Leagues star Willie Wells. Sportswriter Charley Feeney and broadcaster Jimmy Dudley will be honored with media awards.
Havlicek and Niekro grew up in a rural setting right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. They’d hitch-hike to school every day to save the 6 cents bus fare. “If we had the money, we’d use it for other things,” Havlicek said. “All we did was play sports and hunt and fish all the time. There was no television then and no indoor plumbing, either.”
There were two creeks, one very polluted, the other somewhat cleaner. The two pals would load up on night crawlers to fish for minnows with homemade poles in the clean creek and toss cans with corks in them into the dirty one, throwing stones trying to break them.
Niekro’s knuckler, delivered at speeds of slow, slower and slowest, hardly threatened the cans.
Playing catch in his backyard with his father and tag-along brother Joe, Niekro developed that dancing pitch and confused hitters with it for 24 seasons, earning 318 victories. Havlicek knows all about the knuckler.
“I caught him without catcher’s equipment,” he said. “Maybe that’s why I had such good reflexes.”
There were the usual boyhood dreams, of course. The two pals would climb up the apple tree or the plum tree in Niekro’s yard and pass long hours there together.
The vagaries of pro sports separated the two friends, Havlicek playing his entire NBA career in Boston and Niekro spending most of his baseball days in Atlanta before late pit stops in New York, Cleveland and Toronto.
Those days are vivid in Havlicek’s memory and that’s why the day after Niekro was elected to the Hall of Fame, he was making arrangements to be there for his buddy. He does have one fear.
“I hope Phil doesn’t fall asleep at the ceremonies,” Havlicek said. “He’s one of the great sleepers of the world. He used to stay over at my house on Friday nights and fall asleep. I’d put smelling salts right under his nose to see how deep he could inhale. He slept right through them.”
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