Seated at the bar, Joe Atkinson, when told the news, reacted with an expletive.
The 58-year-old Roslindale native had been enjoying a drink Thursday night at The Four’s Restaurant & Sports Bar on Canal Street, near the TD Garden. Now, he was being told Boston Celtics great John Havlicek had died.
After the initial shock, the stories poured out: Atkinson recalled attending a Celtics game where Havlicek’s career was celebrated in 1978. He claimed one of his friends snuck onto the court and gave No. 17 a hug.
He recalled focusing on Havlicek during the pre-game warm-ups at the old Boston Garden. He mentioned the 1976 finals against the Phoenix Suns, a series Boston won in six and included a triple-overtime thriller.
Havlicek, said Atkinson, was a hustler, a class act, a true Celtic.
“When I was young, he was the man,” he said.
Bartender Billy Ritchie, at 28, is still young, too young to remember Havlicek’s playing days. But he knew the man’s records: most games played and most points in Celtics history.
“That games played record, no one’s touching that. [Paul] Pierce didn’t even come close and he played here forever,” said Ritchie as he took a break from pouring pints.
Boston, he said, is a city that cares about its legends.
“Growing up, the older generation makes sure you know who’s important, who mattered,” said Ritchie, a Somerville resident. “He was definitely one of those guys. Especially working here, you’ll get all the old-timers: ‘He’s pretty good, but he’s no Havlicek.’ You get a lot of that.”
Upstairs, patron John O’Malley, a 34-year-old credit and market analyst who lives in the West End, had similar sentiments.
“I understand the history, and I just think he’s a legend and everything that stands for the Celtics,” he said.
Nearby, the walls of the bar were covered with photos of Boston sports icons. In one, Havlicek drives on Los Angeles Lakers great Jerry West. In another, he smiles in a team photo, seated between Red Auerbach and JoJo White. A short walk away, City Hall was bathed in green light Thursday night in Havlicek’s honor.
Next door to Four’s, at Sullivan’s Tap, Ron Close, a 54-year-old who works for a software company, might have been the only guy in the bar who didn’t know who Havlicek was. He grew up in Los Angeles, a Lakers fan, and said his knowledge of the Celtics history ends with the Larry Bird teams of the 1980s.
“Who’s that?” he asked when told the news of Havlicek’s death.
His friend seated next to him, 57-year-old Back Bay resident Howie Markson, was incredulous.
“Havlicek stole the ball!” he said, as if it explained everything.
It was among the many Johnny Most impersonations of the night. After Bruins game got out, a 3-2 playoff overtime victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets, the bar filled up with black and gold, not Celtics green, but there was no shortage of Havlicek takes.
Don Feeney, a 60-year-old who works in printing and lives in Dorchester, called him an “underrated superstar in Celtics history.”
Roger Minton, a 72-year-old retiree from Jamaica Plain, was convinced the Celtics would have less championship banners if not for Havlicek’s relentlessness. The man nicknamed “Hondo” won eight championships during his 16 seasons with the Celtics.
“He was the guy that made it all happen,” Minton said. “He was the guy they always got the ball to. A classic Boston Celtic.”
Leo Maguire, 55, of Billerica, called Havlicek “the precursor to the Energizer bunny.”
“Run. Run. Run,” he said. “John Havlicek never stopped.”