If you’re somewhat younger than me, your only memories of Tommy Heinsohn may be as an announcer, bringing you Boston Celtics’ games with the fervour of a true homer. Of course that means you’re too young to remember Johnny Most, the gravelly-voiced King of the Homers, whose famous “Havlicek stole the ball!” call outweighs all his “they’re murdering (Russ or Cowens or Jojo or Bird or Parish or whomever was wearing green) in there!” displays of partisan torment. Heinsohn was different. His analysis of the game was spot on; he spoke from the perspective of a guy who had been a star player and a championship-winning coach, and one who had hated and abused referees in both roles.
More than that, Tommy brought to commentary the kind of feeling you’d have if you were watching the game in a bar and the guy next to you turned out to be not only erudite, funny and outspoken, but also tp know a hell of a lot about the game. His long time broadcast partner Mike Gorman told a story about the time, early in their working together, Tommy, smoking courtside at the announce table, looked over at the papers in front of Gorman. “What are those?” he said. Gorman told him they were his game notes. Heinsohn reached across him for the notes, rolled them into a ball, and shot them into the stands. “We won’t need those,” he said. “We’ll just watch the game and talk about what we see.”
Most important perhaps, Heinsohn saw the game through the eyes of someone who understood the Celtic tradition, something that was not so much about winning, though it was that, but winning by emphasizing team play over individualism, and individual effort above individual skill. During the games he broadcast, Heinsohn awarded “Tommy Points” for players who did the little things, the extra-effort moments of sacrifice or smarts that help teams win in ways that don’t show up on the scoresheets. At the end of each game he gave a Tommy Award, a sort of MVP of Tommy Points. I had not realised how seriously Celtics’ players took this until I listened to Paul Pierce saying how he would go back and watch broadcast footage to see if he’d pick up points, and Tony Allen, a real Tommy Points kind of player, get teared up as he explained how much each point meant to him, meaning his work had been noticed by someone to whom it mattered more than a little.
People had forgotten how good a coach Heinsohn was, but if you’re not that much younger than me, maybe you saw him coach. His teams played at a frenetic pace, and gathered Tommy points just as quickly. But He took over, after Bill Russell retired, a team whose core was aging: John Havlicek, Satch Sanders and Don Nelson were all that remained of that core. But look at who the Celtics added around them: Dave Cowens, the ultimate Tommy Points guy; Paul Silas, Don Chaney, JoJo White. It took him a couple of seasons, during which he scaled down White’s offensive game into a team context and worked with Chaney on both shooting form and shot selection, and starting with the 71–72 season he averaged 59 wins a year and went to five straight conference championships. He won two NBA titles (oddly, with the 54 and 56 win teams) and would likely have won a third with his 68 win team in 1973, except Havlicek dislocated his right shoulder in the third game of the conference final against the Knicks. The Celtics took the series to seven despite Havlicek playing left handed, unable to use his right arm at all.
In ‘77–78 they slipped a little, to second in their division, after Silas (who at 33 wanted a three-year contract) was traded in a three-way deal for Curtis Rowe, and Red Auerbach bought Sidney Wicks from Portland (who went on to win the NBA title without Wicks).
On paper, the deals looked like more of Red’s magic: he knew their reps but he had traded for Charlie Scott and Tommy had coached Scott into the Celtic mystique brilliantly. Sadly, you might define Wicks and Rowe, teammates on national champions at UCLA under John Wooden, as maybe the least Celtic players to play for the team to that point!. The next season, which would be Havlicek’s last, the bottom fell out. Owner Irv Levin fired Tommy, and Sanders replaced him.
Heinsohn nearly went to the Houston Rockets after that. As he told the story, he went down with his agent, and a big contract was negotiated, but when Tommy suggested a player he thought Houston ought to go after, “they looked at me like I was from Mars. I decided I was not going to spend the next five years educating these people.” On the flight back to Boston, he asked the stewardess for champagne, and she asked if they were celebrating. “I’m celebrating turning down a million dollar deal,” he told her.
His Celtic teams were not like the dynastic teams of the Russell era, which virtually every season held opponents to the lowest scoring in the league. They were offense first: if anything they ran the ball quicker than the Russell Celts, and as you might expect if you knew Tommy as a player, they shot a lot. Though they gave up more points, and lacked a big defensive stopper, they relied on speed and Tommy hustle to win. They were fun teams to watch: the scoring concentrated in Cowens, Hondo and JoJo; while Silas and Chaney were defensive stoppers and Sanders or Nelson were masters of getting the little things right.
They were a lot like Tommy the player. You’d have to be around my age to remember that. Yes, he was known as a gunner — hence the nickname Tommy Gun, which the press laid on him. Even Bob Cousy said “to Tommy’s credit, he never shoots when he doesn’t have the ball”. But there was more to his game than that, and it was interesting to see how he fit into those Red/Russ teams.
He’d been, like Cousy, a star at Holy Cross in Worcester. Doggie Julien won an NCAA title with Cousy, Joe Mullaney and George Kaftan in 1947 and were third in 1948. Heinsohn’s team, coached by Buster Sheary, won the NIT (which in those days was virtually as prestigious as the NCAA, to which UConn had received the one invitation for New England) in 1954, though Togo Palazzi, not Tommy, was the tourney MVP. They beat a Duquesne team with Sihugo Green and the Ricketts brothers, Dick and Dave (Dick played in the NBA and also pitched in MLB; Dave was a catcher in MLB) and one of Heinsohn’s high-school rivals from New Jersey, Mickey Winograd.
He joined the Celtics as a regional draft pick in 1956, and was immediately the NBA rookie of the year. In fairness, Russell, who was a rookie the same year, joined in mid-season after leading the USA to the gold medal at the Melbourne Olympics. And people didn’t yet realise how much Russ would change the game. Heinsohn played in every game, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds a game. And what might have been the best game of Heinsohn’s career, and certainly his most famous, came in game 7 of the playoff finals against the St. Louis Hawks, with Boston winning 125–123 in double overtime to take their first NBA title.
Heinsohn, before fouling out in the second OT and sitting on the bench in tears, scored 37 points and took in 23 rebounds. He would have had more had he not gone 3 for 11 from the foul line, but he shot 17 for 33 from the floor, the only starter on either team over .500. The Boston guards, Cousy (2/20) and Bill Sharman (3/20) were a combined 5/40 from the field. The Hawks’ Bob Pettit, voted the playoff MVP, scored 39, rookie Cliff Hagen (obitained with the draft pick from Boston, along with Easy Ed Macauley, in the trade for Russell’s draft spot) had 24 and Slater Martin, who guarded Cousy, had 23. But 32 of their points came from the foul line.
I watched some Heinsohn tape before I wrote this, to supplement my memories, which would start around the time the Knicks had Richie Guerin and Willie Naulls, and I saw Boston on local New York stations, and when we saw a network or playoff game it was likely to be the Celts against the Wilt Chamberlain, Paul Arizin, Al Attles Philadelphia Warriors. The first bit I saw, from early in his career, had a sequence where Russell tipped a rebound to him. Tommy took it moving and passed diagonally to Cousy, who dribbed into the lane then flipped the ball back to Heinsohn trailing, and he hit the shot from the top of the key. It was Chief or McHale to Bird to DJ or Ainge, except Bird’s finish would have been worth three points and would have been an arcing parabola, not a line drive into the back of the basket. Heinsohn played at St Michael’s High in Union City, New Jersey; I would be willing to bet their court had a running track above it, whose banked turns extended over the court.
He slowed down as he got older and a bit bigger. He was listed at 6–7 220, but looks like a modern small forward who morphs into more of a power forward. His knees went in his last couple of seasons, and with that his mobility, but he made an interesting pair with Satch Sanders, 6–6 210, and a set-shooter from anything outside about six feet, but a tenacious defender with long arms, which let the Celtics play match-up as if their forwards were interchangeable. And Heinsohn, a big man in college, also had the classic Fifties big man hook shot, which he would unleash along the baseline. Taking advantage of match-ups meant the Celts liked players who gave them flexibility. Red also had Jim Loscutoff as a bruising power forward, and would always pick up a vet like Clyde Lovelette or Gene Conley who could play inside, allowing Tommy to play outside, and of course there was Frank Ramsey or Havlicek who could come off the bench to play small forward or add size at guard.
As a player, Heinsohn won eight NBA titles in nine seasons, a better percentage of success than even Russell. They entered the league together, and were close friends. A year after Heinsohn retired, Auerbach stepped down as coach, and he offered the job to Heinsohn. Which was funny in one way, because Heinsohn had been Red’s whipping boy as a player — Red could criticise him and know the other players would listen, including those who might react badly if they were criticised themselves. Plus Red knew Heinsohn lived large; he would grab a smoke at halftime, more than a few pops after games. He was also loose, and helped lighten the atmosphere in a locker room where Russ, more often than not, was puking up his nerves before games. But Heinsohn turned Auerbach down for one simple reason: “I can’t coach Russ,” he said. He’d watched the way Red and Russell interacted: Auerbach knew what he had in Russell, a smart and proud, self-motivated player, who was treated specially because he was special.
Auerbach then realised the only person who could coach the Russell Celtics was Russell, and Bill Russell became a player/coach, and the NBA’s first black coach. When he heard the news of Heinsohn’s death, Russell tweeted, with the picture below and one of the two of them celebrating their first NBA title with Red Auerbach, “We were rookies together and friends for life. In life there are a limited number of true friends, today I lost one. RIP Heiny.”
Tommy sold insurance for those years before Russell retired, and did occasional commentary. He must’ve been a hell of a salesman, even taking away his Celtic aura in the Boston area. Every mention of him I’ve seen brings him to life, bigger than life as it were — someone who enjoyed life, perceptive enough to understand it, and sensitive enough (I haven’t even mentioned his painting) to have fun with it. As I said at the start, listening to his Tommentary brought you instantly into his aura, his house, even more than the arena in which the teams were playing.
But it was always the Celtics. We’ve seen the Bad Boy Pistons, the Showtime Lakers, the Twin Tower Rockets, the short-lived Greatest Dynasty Of All Time Ever Knicks, but there has never been a team whose identity, whose playing style had been so consistent for such a long time. Celtic Pride seems like a cliché in the Twenty-First Century, and perhaps it is. But when Tommy was at the microphone, it was as if Celtic Pride were still alive.
There are those who were more crucial to the Boston Celtics’ survival and success. Cooz, Red, Russ. Sam and KC. Hondo, Cowens, JoJo. You need the list to extend because so many guys you’d call role players were in their own ways so crucial. Chief, Bird, McHale, DJ, Danny. The tragedies of Reggie Lewis and Len Bias. Pierce, KG, RayRay. Maybe someday soon Jason and Jaylon. You can make your rankings, put them in your pyramids, but there is one thing that you cannot change.
Tommy Heinsohn joined the Celtics in 1956. And for the remaining 64 years of his life he could be defined as a Boston Celtic. He wanted to be defined as a Boston Celtic. He wasn’t born to be a basketball star. He was born to be a Celtic, and that’s the way he went out. He gets a ton of Tommy Points for that.