Nov 10, 2020 12:08 PM ET
BOSTON – It’s impossible to imagine the Boston Celtics without Tommy Heinsohn. From the day he was drafted in 1956 until his death this week at the age of 86, the iconic Green-Team lifer never left the organization’s side.
Throughout parts of eight decades, Heinsohn provided the Celtics with an incomparable combination of devotion, pride and charisma. He also experienced unparalleled success, as he is the only person to have been involved with the team for all 17 of its championships, as well as each of its 21 NBA Finals appearances. In time, he became one of the most recognizable figures in NBA history, all while establishing himself as the ultimate Celtics Legend.
Heinsohn was introduced to the New England hoops scene not by way of Boston, but 50 miles west, in Worcester. It was in the hub of Central Massachusetts at the College of the Holy Cross where the New Jersey native began his basketball journey.
The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 22.1 points per game during his collegiate career, becoming the Crusaders' all-time leading scorer with 1,789 points. During his senior season in 1955-56, Heinsohn put together a remarkable stat line of 27.4 points per game and 21.1 rebounds per game, which included a school-record 51-point, 42-rebound masterpiece against Boston College.
Because Heinsohn went to school in the Boston area, the Celtics were able to use their territorial pick to select him in the 1956 NBA Draft. The purpose of the territorial pick was to allow fans in specific regions to track local college stars into the pros. In this case, it worked out brilliantly for both the local fan base and the Celtics, as Heinsohn embarked on a historic career.
Heinsohn came into the league with Bill Russell, providing the Celtics with an otherworldly rookie combo. Heinsohn made the All-Star team during his very first season and went on to win 1956-57 Rookie of the Year after averaging 16.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.
That spring Heinsohn and Russell helped to lead Boston to its first championship, while playing alongside other future Hall-of-Famers in Bob Cousy, Frank Ramsey and Bill Sharman. Heinsohn was the hero of that championship run, as he tallied 37 points and 23 rebounds during the title-clinching double-overtime Game 7 against the St. Louis Hawks. In the process, he became – and remains to be – the only player in NBA history to win Rookie of the Year, earn an All-Star appearance and win a championship all in the same season.
And that was only the beginning.
Heinsohn went on to play nine NBA seasons, during which he averaged 18.6 PPG and 8.8 RPG, while earning six All-Star selections and winning a whopping eight NBA titles. In league history, only Russell and teammate Sam Jones have won more championships as players.
Heinsohn served as both a leader on the court for his Celtics teammates, and a leader off the court for his fellow NBA peers. He served as the NBA Players Association’s second president, following founding president and fellow Celtics Legend Bob Cousy, and played an integral role in paving the path toward the league’s acceptance of free agency after threatening to lead a players’ strike following the 1964 All-Star Game.
After the 1964-65 season, the 30-year-old hung up his Converse sneakers for the final time and his No. 15 jersey patch was promptly retired to the rafters. However, his basketball career was still far from over.
Heinsohn went straight from the court into the broadcast booth, calling play-by-play for the WKBG radio station. The broadcast booth is where Heinsohn would eventually spend most of his basketball career, but first, he had to try out the coaching game.
After spending three years in the radio business, Heinsohn took over for player-coach Russell on the Celtics sidelines. He would have tremendous success as a head coach, compiling a 427-263 record across nine seasons. To this day, he is the second-winningest coach in franchise history, behind only Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach (795 regular-season wins).
Having already dedicated eight of his fingers to championship rings during his playing days, Heinsohn took care of his final two digits as a head coach; under his tutelage, the Celtics won championships in 1974 and 1976. He also won Coach of the Year in 1973 after leading the C’s to a franchise-best 68-14 regular-season campaign.
Heinsohn would eventually enter the Hall-of-Fame as both a player and a head coach, making him one of only four people in NBA history to hold that distinction, along with Lenny Wilkens, John Wooden, and former teammate Bill Sharman.
Heinsohn retired from his post on the Celtics sidelines following the 1977-78 season, but he didn’t go far. In 1981, he joined television play-by-play commentator Mike Gorman in the broadcast booth and together they remained for nearly 40 years.
Over time, Heinsohn and Gorman became one of the most recognizable duos - if not the most recognizable duo - in sports broadcasting history. While Gorman was mild-mannered and even-keeled, Heinsohn lived up to his role as the color commentator, providing viewers with an adventure of emotions every time they’d tune into a game. Together, they made the perfect combo.
It was in this role where Heinsohn truly revealed his devotion and charisma toward the Celtics. In his mind, the C’s could only do right, while the referees would often do them wrong. Yes, he may have been a little biased, but all Celtics fans will agree that his commentary was just as essential to the game as the plays that were being made on the court.
Heinsohn also brought a great deal of color to his life away from the court, as he became an accomplished painter whose works were displayed at art exhibitions across the country. On top of that, he co-authored two books and at one time headed a life insurance company. In 1995, he was the recipient of the Jack McMahon Award, given annually by the National Basketball Coaches Association to an individual who has made a special contribution to the NBA coaching profession. And in 2009, he received the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of the integrity, class and competitive excellence he brought to the game of basketball.
It’s beyond belief how much this one man accomplished during his 86 years on Earth, and Celtics fans were incredibly fortunate to have him as a part of their lives for 65 of those years.
It’s likewise difficult to imagine not hearing Heinsohn’s raspy, energetic voice during future Celtics home games while handing out a "Tommy Point." That being said, his legacy is long-lived and wholesome, and he provided an endless amount of wonderful memories for Celtics fans across eight different decades of basketball.
Tommy is the embodiment of Celtic Pride. He is the spirit of the entire organization. He is the single-most devoted figure in franchise history. And he always will be.
MORE:Team Statement on Passing of Legend Tommy Heinsohn