Hall of Famer Phil Niekro is introduced at Clark Sports Center during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 24, 2011 in Cooperstown, New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Phil Niekro remembers his boyhood friend, John Havlicek

Two boys grew up almost inseparable in a small Ohio town, playing sports together and sharing their love of the outdoors.

As men, they became famous beyond their roots. One of them eventually played baseball professionally, the other basketball. In time, a major Hall of Fame came calling for each.

Braves legend Phil Niekro reflected Friday on his memories of Boston Celtics great John Havlicek, one day after Havlicek died in Jupiter, Fla.

Niekro and Havlicek grew up as neighbors in Lansing, Ohio, a town of coal miners and steel-mill workers in the eastern part of the state, near Wheeling, W.Va. The Havliceks, who owned a general store, lived “about 70 yards across the street,” said Niekro, who was one year older than his friend.

“If I wasn’t eating or sleeping at his house, he was eating and sleeping at mine,” Niekro said. “If you saw John some place, you saw me. … If someone came looking for me to take me some place, they were going to take John, too.”

Niekro said he and Havlicek enjoyed fishing and hunting together. “Everything two best friends could possibly do,” he said.

They were so close their birthdays were seven days apart – Niekro born April 1, 1939 and Havlicek April 8, 1940.

Sports took each man away from Lansing, but their journeys began in radically different ways.

Havlicek went to Ohio State to play basketball, though coaching great Woody Hayes wanted him to play football for the Buckeyes.

“Woody Hayes came down from Ohio State and said we have a full ride (to offer), and John said, ‘I don’t want to play football,’” Niekro said.

“What a great athlete he was,” he added. “He could have played professional in any sport.”

Niekro followed closely his friend’s success at Ohio State, where Havlicek helped the Buckeyes win the NCAA championship in 1960 and finish as the runner-up in each of the next two seasons.

In 1962, the Celtics drafted Havlicek with the ninth pick of the first round, and “Hondo” as he was known, joined one of sports’ great dynasties.

By that time, Niekro had embarked on his own journey through professional sports, signing with the Milwaukee Braves in 1958. He worked his way slowly through the minor leagues before making his majors debut in 1964.

Over his first five seasons, Niekro struggled to gain a hold on a major league career, in part because seemingly no one could catch his knuckleball. From 1964-68, Niekro compiled a 31-27 record, but he broke through with 23 wins in 1969, and by the time he finished his career, Niekro had recorded 318 wins.

Over the years, the boyhood friends from Ohio stayed in touch, discussing tips on how to stay in shape for their respective playing careers, and swapping stories.

“I asked about this (NBA) player and that player, and he asked about this batter and that batter,” Niekro said.

Havlicek retired in 1978 at age 38, but Niekro continued until he was 48, returning to the Braves for one last game in 1987. Havlicek was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984 and Niekro into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

Each man rose to those pinnacles of athletic success from a small Ohio town that didn’t have a traffic light, which was rather fitting, for neither man let much get in the way of his talent and determination.

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