It’s early January 2004 and the Boston Celtics are slogging their way through a rock fight in Chicago in a battle of two sub-.500 teams.
During a break in the action, a director cues up a shot of a green-clad fan inside the United Center with a homemade sign and Tommy Heinsohn cackles in delight.
"People would hold up signs when we were on the road,” started Heinsohn before accentuating his next five words, "'GIVE ME A TOMMY POINT!’ And I would look at [longtime broadcast partner] Mike [Gorman] and I would say, ‘Can you believe this?’”
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What started as a simple desire to spotlight hustle plays birthed the “Tommy Point.” In the early 2000s, that spawned the overarching “Tommy Award,” with Heinsohn eager to spotlight the game contributions of the more unsung players.
Shortly before the 2019-20 season paused in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Tommy Award reached a milestone of sorts: 1,500 honors distributed.
Since 2002, there have been 144 different recipients of the award. Paul Pierce tops the list at 139 total wins, including two as a visitor. Rajon Rondo is the only other player in triple digits, having won 100 times. Marcus Smart (54) should eventually leapfrog Kevin Garnett (56) to assume a spot on the Tommy Award’s Big Three.
Still, the Tommy Award was really designed for all the sparse winners at the bottom of the leaderboard.
It’s for Kevinn Pinkney, who played only six games in green, but scored 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting in a loss to Milwaukee on April 4, 2007. It’s for Vitor Faverani, who exploded for 12 points, 18 rebounds, and 6 blocks in Boston’s home opener against the Bucks in 2013. It’s for J.R. Bremer, who scored 20 points in a loss in Indiana on Feb. 1, 2003.
"I remember we were talking at one point about what could we do that was different,” said Gorman. "We wanted to bring something different to the broadcast that wasn’t being done. We came up with this idea of, as Tommy said, 'I don’t want to just award a high-scorer every night saying he’s the best player, I want somebody who does the little things that help you win.’”
Heinsohn said his philosophy about Tommy Awards was derived from Red Auerbach’s coaching style.
"Let me tell you about Tommy Points: My concept was to introduce something into the game that people don’t recognize,” said Heinsohn. "After all the years as a player and as a coach, I knew the press would come in, get a stat sheet, look over it, and they’d see who scored the most points, got the most rebounds, who got most assists, and that would be their story. Now, I learned from Red Auerbach when I was playing that he spread the love.
"By the love I mean, boy, you start a game, and you’re one of those first five that gets called out to the middle of the floor and the spotlight is on you, alright? Imagine you being a player who is on the bench who believes that you’re as good as anybody that’s there getting the spotlight and you’re not getting the love. What Red Auerbach did is extend the love. … What he did in the locker room was more often talk about Henry Finkel making something happen in the game, a very relevant play, or played well, or exceeded his role. I caught onto that.
"That’s the way I looked at the Tommy Award at the time, is that these don’t have to be the highest scorer or the greatest rebounder — although sometimes they are because their contribution might be so great. But most of the time it’s the little guy who comes in off the bench and turns the game around and what have you.”
GIVE THAT MAN A...HEINIE!?
With nearly four decades calling games together, Gorman and Heinsohn long ago established themselves as the benchmark for all other broadcasts. But Gorman tells a story of how, after about six years of working together, Heinsohn offered some rare advice, requesting a little more “whimsy” in the broadcast. That, Gorman said, was when they truly became, “Mike and Tommy.”
The quest to balance information and entertainment has long been Heinsohn’s mission. It’s the reason why, around the late '90s, Gorman and Heinsohn found themselves bouncing around ideas for what would eventually become the Tommy Award.
“It was really Tommy’s idea,” said Paul Lucey, the broadcast duo’s longtime producer. “We were on the road, probably killing time. Tommy wanted to do something; he loves to have fun. It took a little while to get to the Tommy Point name, but it became this common term, and it got really big for a while.”
Gorman credits Lucey with landing on the name that quickly became ubiquitous with the duo’s broadcasts. Back in the Fox SportsNet New England days, it spawned items like the “Tommy Pint” glass the network gave away to eager viewers.
But the name could have been very different if Gorman had his way.
"I wanted to call it a Heinie — because I thought there was a lot that we could play with there,” said Gorman. "Tom nixed that early on in the process; we were not going to have any Heinies.
"It really was great for the broadcast because it became this kinda big question as the broadcast rolled on, especially when it first started, who was going to get a Tommy Point or not get a Tommy Point? And, ultimately, who would get the Tommy Award at the end of the game. So it really gave us a good hook.”
In the mid-2000s, Fox SportsNet New England created some cartoons for the promotion of the Tommy Award. Not that the network needed it.
The Tommy Point was an organic hit as evidenced by the amount of signage — especially on the road — that Heinsohn saw on the team’s travels.
During some of Boston’s leaner years, the balcony would be sparsely filled at the Garden and yet there’d be a group of 10 kids holding up letters to spell out T-O-M-M-Y P-O-I-N-T.
"The funniest one of all was … we’re at the Garden and a girl holds up a sign, ‘Give me a Tommy Point please, my boyfriend will take me to the prom if you give me a Tommy Point.’ Needless to say, we showed the sign and I give her a Tommy Point. Three weeks later, she holds up a sign and it says, ’The Tommy Point got me to the prom.’ The next year, the season starts, these girls come up to me, and she’s got this guy in tow, and she says, ‘I want you to meet the guy that took me to the prom!”
Gorman marvels at how the Tommy Point helped Heinsohn introduce himself to another generation of Celtics fans.
"I have fun introducing Tommy in public by saying, if you’re 60 years or older, you know Tommy as a player. If you’re 40 years or older, you know Tommy as a coach. If you’re 20 years or older, as a broadcaster. And if you’re 10 years or younger, you think he’s Shrek,” said Gorman. "And that’s how Tommy has crossed all ages — with Tommy Points. The little kids come up with signs. 'Get me a Tommy Point, get me a Tommy Point.’ All of a sudden, we knew the people in the '60s followed him and all the guys who grew up with him were going to like him but now here’s this whole generation of like 12 years old who don’t know what he does but just likes this guy. He gives out Tommy Points... I want a Tommy Point.”
DID I GET A TOMMY POINT?
In the days before social media, Kendrick Perkins didn’t have the luxury of having a video waiting in his mentions if Heinsohn spotlighted a notable hustle play in a game. So he was at the mercy of game tape to track his Tommy Points.
"I used to go back and watch the game over, especially when I got a Tommy Point, just to hear Tommy say that,” said Perkins. "This is no gas on this. This is real life. I did.”
“That means something. It means a lot.”
Perkins joked how Heinsohn used to pull him aside before team flights and implore him to abandon the turnaround in favor of Heinsohn’s beloved hook shot. Perkins would agree and then steal a glance towards the broadcast booth to spot an annoyed Heinsohn when he went to the turnaround the very next game.
Despite his transgressions, Perkins finished his career with 35 Tommy Awards. He sits 11th on the all-time list but insists those Tommy Awards were a big deal.
"My first time playing, that was my main goal: To get a Tommy Award,” said Perkins. “That’s the best thing. You want to get a Tommy Award. it makes you feel great.
It means everything. He’s that DNA. When you think about Celtics pride and what it means to be a Celtic, you think of Larry Bird, Red Auerbach, but then the next thing that comes to my mind is Tommy Heinsohn.
Perkins, now blazing a path to being his own media maven, says he’s modeled his TV personality after Heinsohn in that he’s unafraid to say what’s on his mind or offer a perceived homer take. During a sitdown with NBC Sports Boston’s Kyle Draper in March, the two joked about the possibility of him handing out Perk Points.
“The Tommy Award to the Boston Celtics is like food to me. You gotta have it," said Perkins. “That's what it is. It speaks volumes what Tommy means to this franchise, what Tommy means to the city as a whole.”
Back in 2015, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle was describing a key late-game deflection Raymond Felton made to preserve a win over Boston when he noted, "Tommy Point there. Big time. That was the play of the game.”
Tommy Points might be well known around the league, but there’s still an initiation process for new Celtics. Earlier this season, this reporter informed Enes Kanter he had won his first Tommy Award and got a quizzical glance in return. Later in the year, after a big rebounding night, Kanter approached wondering if he won the Tommy Award again.
In its infancy, the Tommy Award could go to an opposing player. Opponents account for only 26 of the awards with Paul Pierce, Steve Nash, Marcus Fizer, and Ben Wallace the only opponents to ever win twice. But there are some random choices in there, too, like Vladimir Stepania, who came off the bench for the Heat in 2002 and put up 14 points and 14 rebounds in 28 minutes.
"When you see such a great performance by an opposing player, if you’re a player like me, you recognize a guy that played great to beat you,” said Heinsohn. "I learned from [Celtics radio legend] Johnny Most when the Celtics lose, you don’t start complaining about the Celtics losing, you compliment the team that beat you because they really played great."
THE TOMMY AWARD: EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS
Of the 144 total winners of the Tommy Award, 43 of them are one-time victors. And, in Heinsohn’s quest to keep things light, there’s been a handful of instances where someone outside of the game won the award.
The 1957 team got the nod on the 50th anniversary of the squad in 2007. Santa Claus landed his lone award in 2014. The musician Maury Epstein got a Tommy Award in 2003.
In 2004, things were all over the map. Not only did Mark Blount somehow top the list with 12 awards (tied for the lead with Pierce), but individual honors went to the Seattle fish tossers, a guy with a sign, radio broadcaster Cedric Maxwell, Dr. Glen Ross of New England Baptist Hospital, and even Heinsohn himself.
But nothing pleases Heinsohn more than giving it to someone on the end of the Boston bench, or an in-season acquisition just trying to get comfortable in a new city.
"I get a thrill when an unknown guy wins,” said Heinsohn. “The press don’t know him or he’s new to the team or whatever. I really get a thrill when I give that type of player a Tommy Point. You look at all the players that win Tommy Awards, they’re not all the highest scorers and some of them — I mean, Marcus Smart is a typical Tommy Award winner because he gives you something that transcends the score sheet.
“When I was coaching and we won that triple-overtime game [against Phoenix in the 1976 Finals], a kid came off the bench for me by the name of Glenn McDonald, who just helped us win the game, played terrific basketball in the third overtime to give us the victory. Those are the things that you gotta celebrate because those are so unusual in sports, where guys respond to the challenge as beautifully as Glenn McDonald did.”
Orien Greene got a trio of Tommy Awards in 2006. Von Wafer got two in 2011, while Shammond Williams got a pair in 2004. The Tommy Award is there to celebrate those who went beyond the expectation.
“You summed it up in three words, Tommy,” said Gorman. "Exceeds his role.”
Do that once and you get yourself a Tommy Point. Do it multiple times and you’ll get yourself a Tommy Award.