For nearly the entirety of the past 64 years, including all 17 of the team’s world championships during that span, Tommy Heinsohn has been a part of the Boston Celtics organization as a player, coach, or broadcaster.
He is, essentially, Mr. Celtic. But his time in green nearly ended before it ever started.
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Reflecting on this week’s anniversary of Boston’s transcendent 1956 draft — the one in which Red Auerbach landed Heinsohn as a territorial pick before pulling off maybe the greatest trade in sports history to land Bill Russell — Heinsohn detailed how he nearly spurned the Celtics to play for the Peoria Caterpillars, a dominant amateur team that earned worldwide acclaim after its players comprised much of the gold medal squad for the United States at the 1952 Olympics.
"When [the Celtics] came to talk to me, I almost went and played for the Peoria Cats because Red Auerbach didn’t seem like he was really too interested in me,” said Heinsohn. "He always put a knock on me some way in the press. There was a Holy Cross grad that was with the Peoria Caterpillars and they offered me a job in labor management to go and play and have a regular business job. I got back and it was in the paper that I went. [Bob] Cousy gets me on the phone and said, ‘They gotta talk to you down in Boston.’ I said, ‘Well, Red doesn’t seem to be interested,’ and he said, ‘Oh no, they’re very interested.'”
Back in the early days of the NBA, teams could draft anyone who played college ball within 50 miles of the major league city if they forfeited their first-round pick. That’s how Auerbach landed Heinsohn, a standout at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. Still, territorial picks were rare, with only 23 players taken in the 17 years before the system was revamped.
And Russell, not Heinsohn, was the apple of Red’s eye.
"Red talked to me the day I went down there and he asked me about Russell. I played him in a [college] holiday festival. We were up 11 points at halftime and we lost the game,” Heinsohn said with a loud laugh. "So [Auerbach] said, ‘What about Bill Russell?’ I said, ‘Red, let me tell you, this guy couldn’t hit the backboard at times. But, defensively, he’s the only guy that ever blocked my shot. And he did it several times. Very competitive and what a pick you’re going to get if you can get him.’"
Auerbach famously traded Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to St. Louis for the second pick in the draft. Celtics owner Walter Brown then promised a week of the Ice Capades to Rochester if they didn’t select Russell with the No. 1 pick.
The Celtics emerged from that draft with Russell, Heinsohn, and another future Hall of Famer in K.C. Jones, secured with the 13th pick in the second round. Joining a team that had four other future Hall of Famers including Cousy, Frank Ramsey, and Bill Sharman, the Celtics went 44-28 and won their first title during the 1956-57 season.
Russell missed the early part of the season because of his obligations with the 1956 Olympic team and Heinsohn benefited from the extra spotlight.
"I ended up being Rookie of the Year but Russell really revolutionized the game,” said Heinsohn. "It was quite obvious that he was going to be a terrific player. … Russell, when I got the envelope and the check fell out, he got dressed in the locker room next to me and he said, ‘What’s that for?’ I said, ‘They gave me the Rookie of the Year award.’ So he said to me, ‘You should give me half of that. If I had been here since the beginning of the year, you never would have got it.’
Russell could do stuff like that. He was so great a competitor. He did the most unusual things I’ve ever seen on a basketball court.
Mike Gorman, Heinsohn’s long-time tagteam partner on NBC Sports Boston’s Celtics broadcasts, remembered trying to sneak into the Garden as a kid for a glimpse of those star-studded teams that created Boston’s dynasty.
"You knew that Russell was transcendent because of the ferocity, I guess is the word, that he played with on the defensive end. He really protected the goal like a goalie,” said Gorman. "There weren’t any other people in the league that were doing that. This was a league, on a regular night, Tommy and the Celtics would beat the Knicks, 138-132, in regulation. They had 170 points in a game against Minneapolis. I can see myself sitting on the corner, where I’m supposed to be selling papers in traffic, and I’m looking at this box score where they scored 170 or something the night before.
"It was a thrill because I’m watching Cousy play, I’m watching Russell play, I’m watching Tommy play. I’m watching the Jones boys play. You had so many good players. There’s never been a team like that team.”
And it all could have been very different if Heinsohn had taken his talents to Peoria. Instead, he became Mr. Celtics and his biggest joy now is watching teams that play with the spirit of Boston’s early title teams.
“Who knows?” said Heinsohn when asked how things might be different for all involved if he went to Peoria. "I had great joy playing for the Celtics. The fun part about it, everybody on that team was very competitive and they wanted to win. The spirit of that team still carries on in different places with different teams.
"I think when [the Celtics] had Isaiah Thomas here, that team had the sort of spirit we had. There was nobody trying to go score 40 points so I look good. They scored 40 points so they won. They gave the ball up to each other. This [year’s] team, also, now has a willingness to do that. And that's a big thing for watching the sport, when you see people gather together and play humble basketball.”