There has been one common thread in all of the Boston Celtics’ success: Tommy Heinsohn.
A two-time Hall of Famer as a player, coach, and Hall of Fame broadcaster in the minds of Celtics fans, Heinsohn was part of all 17 championships and is as much a symbol of Celtics mystique as the banners and parquet floor. An eight-time champion as a player, a two-time champion as a coach, and a beloved broadcaster for his unabashed support of all things green team, Heinsohn was Mr. Celtic.
He passed away on Monday at the age of 86.
“Tommy is the true definition of what a Celtic is,” said former Boston coach Doc Rivers.
Echoed former Celtics center Kendrick Perkins: “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 comes to my mind is Tommy Heinsohn.”
Plucked out of Holy Cross as a territorial pick in 1956, Heinsohn earned six All-Star nods in nine seasons before a foot injury ended his playing days at age 30. Heinsohn recorded 427 wins as Celtics coach — the second highest total in team history behind only Auerbach -- while guiding Boston from 1969-1978. For the past four decades, Heinsohn was a ref-scolding color commentator who never hid his allegiances in his role for NBC Sports Boston.
Yes, Heinsohn truly bled green.
“When people think of me, they don't think of me as an artist, they don't think of me as an insurance guy … I'm a Celtic,” said Heinsohn. “Everybody in the league believes I'm a Celtic.”
THE EARLY YEARS
Thomas William Heinsohn was born August 26, 1934 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He caught the basketball bug at age 10 after his family moved to Union City and Heinsohn befriended Perry Del Purgatorio, a local high school standout a few years his elder who would play college ball at Villanova.
Heinsohn starred at St. Michael’s High School, but it was his success in a local semi-pro league, where he sometimes played under an assumed name against NBA and college talent, that caught the eye of recruiters.
"My sophomore year in high school, I ended up being the MVP of one of the [semi-pro] tournaments. I got a lot of offers. By senior year, I had over 300 offers, I could have gone anywhere,” said Heinsohn. "I made the high school All-America team. I wanted to go to a Jesuit school … I looked at Fordham, Georgetown, and Holy Cross. Holy Cross was away, and I wanted to go away and it had the best basketball program. So the two factors combined, that is how I chose Holy Cross.”
The Crusaders won the NIT championship in 1954 with Heinsohn and Togo Palazzi at the helm. In three seasons at Holy Cross, Heinsohn averaged 22.1 points per game and, despite his solid passing skills, earned a nickname for his propensity to shoot when the ball came his way.
“We called him 'Tommy Gun’ because we knew that once Tommy got the ball, Tommy had the ball,” said Sam Jones, who was drafted one year after Heinsohn. "We knew that when he got the ball, he was going to shoot it. One of the amazing things that I remember was going up for a layup, there's no one around me for 10 feet but Tommy, and he was calling for the ball."
A BUMPY START IN BOSTON
It’s hard to imagine now but there was a time when Heinsohn wondered if he’d ever don Celtics green. Even after the Celtics drafted him, taking advantage of Holy Cross’ 50-mile proximity to Boston, Heinsohn was already pondering other basketball options.
"Red Auerbach didn’t appear to be an enamored with what I could bring to a team and he said so in the newspapers a couple times,” said Heinsohn. "He was renowned for knocking Holy Cross guys, because he didn’t like [Bob] Cousy either. He said 'I don't want to have to live with the local yokel.’”
On the advice of a fellow Holy Cross graduate, Heinsohn traveled to Illinois and nearly took a job with the Peoria Caterpillars, a top amateur team.
"I went to Peoria and I was tuned in to forget about the Celtics,” said Heinsohn. "I didn't like Peoria. I couldn't see myself living out there for the rest of my life. I came back and, as soon as I was back, Cousy had me on the phone, and he said, ‘Don't do anything until you talk to Red.’ I said, ‘He doesn't want to talk to me,’ and [Cousy] said, ‘Don't believe what you read in the newspaper, I'm gonna talk to him.’ Cousy drove me in [to Boston]. That's the first time I ever met Cousy. And Red Auerbach said, ‘We want you. Don't believe all this stuff in the newspaper. We're gonna take you as the territorial pic and we're making moves to get [Bill] Russell.’"
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True to his word, Auerbach secured the No. 2 pick in the 1956 draft and landed Russell. But Boston’s new big man missed the early part of his rookie season while participating in the Olympics and that helped Heinsohn establish himself.
"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.’”
Heinsohn averaged 22.9 points per game in the postseason as a rookie as Boston won its first title. They’d win seven consecutive titles from 1959-1965 with Heinsohn a key ingredient in Boston’s success.
"As I got to know Tommy, he was the life of the party. When we lost a game, he would always cheer us up,” said Jones. "He was Red Auerbach's beating boy. When I say beating boy, no matter what you're doing — whether it's right or wrong — he would always get on Tommy Heinsohn. Later on, I thought that that might be a way of motivating Tommy to play his best. Tommy was very, very good. … I don't know if he knew, he was one of the best shooters in the game. Defensively, I don't know if he knew what that was all about. But he always came to play, he always came to win. Any time there was a big game, you could always count on Tommy Heinsohn to be there.”
FROM THE BOOTH TO THE BENCH
After his playing days, Heinsohn focused on his successful life insurance business but also did a radio show to stay involved with basketball. Eventually Auerbach approached him about being part of the Celtics’ new television broadcasts — ironically, with Heinsohn settling in as the straight-down-the-middle analyst while Auerbach played the homer role.
When Russell stepped down as coach, Heinsohn asked Auerbach about taking the job and embraced the challenge of getting Boston back to title contention.
"We had to win without Russell, and don’t forget that Sam Jones also retired that year. So you had the best defensive, and one of the greatest offensive players for the Celtics leave in one fell swoop,” said Heinsohn. "We had to re-energize the team, come up with a way of doing it. I believed in Red's philosophy of playing up-tempo basketball. The way I describe it, if you play up-tempo, you destroy the will of the other team to win.”
That up-tempo style became a signature of Heinsohn’s teams. With John Havlicek and Dave Cowens leading the way, the Celtics won titles in 1974 and 1976. Heinsohn was the Coach of the Year in 1973.
Even after hanging up his whistle in 1978, Heinsohn never stopped coaching. He routinely offered advice to players — trying to convince any big man that would listen to try a hook shot — and often became a sounding board for the coaches that followed him.
"Tommy was the absolute best,” said Rivers. "Tommy was great, obviously, when we were winning, but, for me, Tommy was the best when we were losing -- those two or three years. He would see me sometimes and just come over and sit with me on the plane. He got it. He just kept telling me over and over, 'You're a really good coach. You're really good. You just need to hang in there.' ... I don't know how many times he told me that.”
Near the end of a 25-win campaign in Celtics coach Brad Stevens’ first year at the helm, Heinsohn — famous for his years as a Miller Lite pitchman — offered Stevens some advice on how to handle the defeats.
"Tommy says, 'I have a great idea for you: When you get home, open up that computer, then close that computer, and go have a beer,'” said Stevens. "That was some of the best advice I got.”
REFS, TOMMY POINTS, LOVING WALTAH!
For the better part of the past four decades, Heinsohn and play-by-play man Mike Gorman perfected the art of a game broadcast (which is appropriate because Heinsohn was a fantastic artist who enjoyed painting in his downtime). Operating with heavy doses of chemistry and whimsy, they became must-see TV even when the product on the court was anything but.
Forever in search of ways to engage viewers, Heinsohn dreamed up the "Tommy Point," a verbal reward given to any player that went above and beyond their role in a particular game. Soon fans were flocking to games with signs requesting their own Tommy Points. The spirit of the Tommy Point lives on with the postgame Tommy Award, which has now been handed out over 1,500 times since the early 2000s.
“Now there’s this whole generation of like 12-year-olds who don’t know [Heinsohn] but just likes this guy,” said Gorman. "He gives out Tommy Points... I want a Tommy Point!”
Heinsohn developed an affinity for hyperbolical comparisons of Celtics players. Undrafted center Greg Stiemsma got compared to Russell after blocking a shot in 2012. Two years later, Heinsohn called MarShon Brooks the right-handed James Harden.
No one got quite as much genuine affection, however, as Walter McCarty, whose solid play helped put, “I love Waltah!” into the Boston lexicon. Much to the chagrin of Cousy whenever he joined broadcasts.
"Cousy did not like Walter McCarty, he wasn’t enamored with Walter. Cousy is a purist about the game. I enjoy watching Walter's real enthusiasm, and energy that he brought to the game,” said Heinsohn. "I would come out with, ‘Boy, I love Walter!' Cousy would look at me like I was crazy. Finally, Walter hits a 3 up in Toronto at the buzzer, Cousy says to me, 'I think I'm getting to love Walter.’ I said, ‘You cannot love him, you have to pay to join the Walter McCarty fan club, write me a check and you're in.’
"All of a sudden, [the station is] getting emails to join the Walter McCarty fan club. I get on the air and say, ‘Only Cousy has to write the check. Everybody else, If you like Walter, at the end of each game, throw open your windows and yell at the top of your lungs, I LOVE WALTAH!' All of a sudden, we're getting emails back from mothers saying, ‘Stop telling my son to open the windows and scream, 'I love Walter!’ We had to stop, but that's the fun of it.”
One group that didn’t receive nearly as much affection: Referees, who became a frequent target of Heinsohn’s frustrations.
“There are three teams out there that make a basketball game: There's the two teams who are playing and there's a team of officials,” said Heinsohn. "They all have an impact on the game. The best thing you can say about an official is to say nothing. … When guys are doing a great job, you don't hear me say anything. When I think somebody is really not doing the job, I kinda mention it in some way shape or form. Particularly, for instance, when one team is shooting 35 free throws and the other team shoots 10. That should not happen in an NBA game. I don't care what goes on, that's too big of a disparity. That's what I bring up.”
Former NBA referee Danny Crawford heard plenty of Heinsohn’s barbs and had to tune them out.
“We looked at a lot of video after games so whenever we’d work a Boston game, we’d always turn the volume down,” Crawford said before playfully adding, "That guy was the worst. Talk about a homer.”
Yes, but he was OUR homer. And Heinsohn, having learned under the tutelage of radio voice Johnny Most, knew exactly how to pander to his audience. Heinsohn worked as a national broadcaster during the '80s and, despite his attempts to be impartial, would constantly be told he was favoring Boston.
Such is the case when you are undeniably Mr. Celtic.