High Above Courtside: Reflections on Johnny Most Fifteen Years Later
This article is a special feature from BSMW Full Court Press, one of the web’s finest Boston Celtics sites.
To Johnny Most, being called a "homer" was a badge of honor. In fact, it was his complete and utter lack of pretense about his rooting interests that made him a "must listen". During his heyday, many fans were known to turn down the television and listen to his broadcasts instead. They were always rewarded with a colorfully painted picture of the on-court action peppered with his blind praise for all things Celtics and his often-amusing hostile distaste aimed toward those wretched players not fortunate enough to wear the green. As last month marked the fifteen year anniversary of Most’s passing, it’s an appropriate time as ever to take a look back at the man who served as the primary voice of the Celtics during their lengthy reign as the best team in basketball.
It’s fitting to begin by pointing out that there was a lot more to Johnny Most than what you heard in his broadcasts. As an aerial gunner on a B-24 bomber, he flew 28 combat missions with the 15th Air Force during World War II, earning seven medals. He was also a prolific poet who wrote these lines as he looked over the graves of his fallen comrades just after VE Day:
“I stood among the graves today and swept the scene with sight.
And the corps of men who lay beneath looked up to say goodnight.
The thunder still, the battle done, the fray has passed them by;
and as they rest forever more, they must be asking, ‘Why?’”
After his service to his country, Most began his broadcasting career in the 1940s, initially mentored by Marty Glickman, the voice of the Knicks and Giants for over twenty years. In New York, Most cut his chops calling road games for the Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers as well as for the Army football team. In 1953, Boston Celtics owner Walter Brown and legendary coach Red Auerbach came calling, hiring Most to replace Curt Gowdy as the team’s radio play-by-play man on WBZ radio.
During his tenure with the Celtics, Most was never shy about criticizing the other team’s players, often delivering delicious insults and derogatory nicknames at their expense. For example, Most once described the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kurt Rambis as "something that had crawled out of a sewer." He also nicknamed Washington Bullets players Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland as "McFilthy" and "McNasty." Kareem Abdul Jabbar was "Kareem Puff", Isaiah Thomas was "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and Magic Johnson became "Crybaby Johnson" whenever he challenged a call. Most’s pro-Celtic descriptions frequently turned shoving matches into "blood baths" and minor fouls into "vicious muggings" and once during a game in Detroit, he loudly proclaimed, "Oh the yellow, gutless way they do things here." Even now, whenever a Celtics player is fouled hard, I imagine the voice of Johnny Most declaring that an unfathomable crime against the Celtics had just been perpetrated. On the flipside, whenever a prior sworn enemy such as Xavier McDaniel would come to the Celtics, he would instantly be rehabilitated into a wonderful guy.
Most was also famous for coming up with his own phrases to describe the action on the court. Perhaps he is best know for the term He originally used the term “fiddlin’ and diddlin’”, which he used to describe the habit of Philadelphia point guard Maurice Cheeks of dribbling the ball for four or five seconds while he waited for his team to set their offense. Eventually, it also became a signature expression to describe the play of Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge. Neither Ainge nor DJ were true fast break style point guards and both would frequently dribble the ball to one side of the court and then back to the middle while waiting for the offense to set up. Rather than describe the seemingly aimless ball-handling for five or six seconds at a time, Most would use the phrase “he fiddles and diddles” while he waited for the ball to move.
Johnny’s most notable call came, of course, during the closing seconds of Game 7 in the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals between the defending champion Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. Taking you back to that game: the Celtics’ lead had shriveled to 110-109, and Philadelphia had regained possession with five seconds left after an inbounds pass attempt by Boston’s Bill Russell hit one of the wires that ran down from the ceiling of Boston Garden and helped support the baskets in those days. Hall of Fame guard Hal Greer prepared to toss the ball inbounds under his own basket. The logical target seemed to be Wilt Chamberlain in the low post, but Russell fronted Chamberlain and took away that option. K.C. Jones, guarding Greer, leaped along the baseline and frantically waved his arms to distract him as the five seconds ticked away. To get a better view of the court, Greer jumped up and spotted high-scoring forward Chet Walker, seemingly open beyond the key. But Boston’s John Havlicek had taken a position several feet off the direct line between Greer and Walker, making it look like Walker was open when he really wasn’t. After counting off a couple of seconds in his head, Havlicek sneaked a peek over his shoulder at Greer just as he prepared to release the ball. He moved into the passing lane…but we’ll let Most tell the rest of it:
"Greer is putting the ball into play. He gets it out deep," Most intones, before his voice rises into a frenzy. "Havlicek steals it. Over to Sam Jones. Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball!"
Havlicek had tipped the inbounds pass away from Walker and toward teammate Jones, who dribbled out the clock as fans poured onto the court. The Celtics had the win, and would go on to capture their seventh consecutive championship. As Havlicek tipped the ball, Johnny Most could be heard yelling into the microphone in his raspy voice, "Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! It’s all over!"
His second most famous call (and my personal favorite) came in Game 5 of the 1987 playoff series against the Detroit Pistons, the series tied at 2-2. Detroit had a one-point lead late in the game and merely needed to inbound the ball to secure the victory and take a 3-2 Series lead, with Game 6 to be on their court. Isiah Thomas was inbounding the ball to Bill Laimbeer, who was in the backcourt. But in the words of the immortal Johnny Most…
"Now there’s a steal by Bird! Underneath to DJ! He lays it up and in!! … What a play by Bird! Bird stole the inbounding pass, layed it up to DJ, and DJ layed it up and in, and Boston has a one-point lead with one second left! OH, MY, THIS PLACE IS GOING CRAZY!!!"
But perhaps his most memorable on air moment wasn’t even the call of a play, but rather when he dropped a lit cigarette into his lap, setting his pants on fire while he was on the air.
On October 10, 1990, Johnny Most, who was a lifelong smoker, announced his retirement due to health concerns. On December 3rd of that year, Most was honored with the permanent installation at Boston Garden of his microphone, silver-plated and encased in a Celtic-green frame. The microphone was attached to the façade of the vantage point that Most always described as "high above courtside." Just a shade over two years later, on January 3, 1993, Most died at the age of 69 from a heart attack in Hyannis, Massachusetts.
Shortly after his death, Johnny Most was awarded the prestigious Curt Gowdy Media Award by the Trustees of the Basketball Hall of Fame for his contribution to basketball. The honor was ironic, considering Most was Gowdy’s replacement as the Celtics’ play-by-play announcer. On October 4, 2002 (almost ten years after his death), Most was inducted into the media category of the New England Basketball Hall of Fame at the University of Rhode Island.
Looking back, Johnny Most is fondly remembered by a legion of Celtics’ fans who were fortunate enough to have listened to his broadcasts and appreciate his unique humor as well as his superior play-calling. As for those who criticized Most for being a homer, perhaps Red Auerbach said it best: "You’re damn right he is, and that’s just the way we want him!"