Legends profile: Tom Heinsohn
Known for his hard-nosed style of play, yet possessing a superb shooting touch and good body control, Tom Heinsohn was a vital cog in the Boston Celtics’ dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s. Chosen as NBA Rookie of the Year in 1957, he helped the Celtics win eight NBA titles during his nine-year tenure, was named to the All-NBA Second Team for four years, and was an All-Star for six.
Averaging 18.6 ppg in 654 regular-season games, he was a versatile scorer but was often overshadowed by such illustrious teammates as Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Bill Russell. After turning in his jersey in 1965, Heinsohn coached the Celtics to two more world championships and was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1986.
Born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, just across the river from New York City, Heinsohn attended Saint Paul of the Cross school through the fifth grade. Then his family moved to nearby Union City, New Jersey, and he was introduced to basketball while attending sixth grade at Saint Joseph’s.
A high achiever, Heinsohn poured his heart and soul into the sport, practicing as much as he could, both at school and on local playgrounds. By the time he reached the eighth grade he was leading his team in scoring.
As a junior at St. Michael’s High School he was awarded all-county honors. The following year he was named a high school All-American after averaging 28 ppg. After considering more than 40 scholarship offers he decided on Holy Cross College.
Heinsohn continued to improve during his collegiate years, playing under coaches Lester Sheary and Roy Leenig. He pumped in 23.3 ppg in his junior year and as a senior he set a Holy Cross scoring record by averaging 27.4 ppg. Named to almost every All-America team, he also made the dean’s list for scholastic excellence in his last four semesters.
The Celtics claimed Heinsohn as a territorial pick in the 1956 NBA Draft, the same year that Boston coach Red Auerbach worked a deal with the St. Louis Hawks for the rights to a rookie named Bill Russell. Auerbach was impressed with Russell’s potential, but he wasn’t particularly optimistic about Heinsohn’s chances of making the team. Heinsohn responded by flying to Illinois to look into the possibility of playing amateur ball for a national industrial league. If Cousy hadn’t advised the youngster to stick with Boston, Heinsohn might never have played in the NBA.
As if to prove Auerbach wrong, Heinsohn had a sensational rookie year with the Celtics. A slender but tough forward with exceptional agility, he averaged 16.2 ppg and played almost 30 minutes per contest. His jump shot had a flat trajectory that made the ball look as though it were attached to a string, and he shot often, with a quick release. Russell missed the first 24 games of the 1956-57 season while helping the United States to a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, so Heinsohn claimed the inside track in the race for the NBA Rookie of the Year Award.
Boston’s two outstanding newcomers combined with the legendary backcourt duo of Sharman and Cousy to forge the best record in the NBA at 44-28. The Celtics advanced to the 1957 NBA Finals, in which they met the St. Louis Hawks and Bob Pettit. The series was decided in a memorable Game 7. Heinsohn’s 37 points helped the Celtics to a thrilling 125-123 double-overtime victory that earned Boston its first NBA championship.
The Boston blitzkrieg was now underway, and for most of the next decade the Celtics would dominate professional basketball as few teams in any sport ever have. Boston won eight consecutive championships from 1959 through 1966, and Heinsohn was a part of seven of them. He led the Celtics in scoring three times during those years, made six All-Star appearances, and was named to the All-NBA Second Team four times. He had his finest offensive season in 1961-62, when he averaged 22.1 ppg.
If there were any complaints about Heinsohn’s play, they were that he sometimes shot too much and that he took the occasional low-percentage attempt. During his career, Heinsohn, nicknamed “Tommy Gun” by his teammates, tossed the ball up an average of two times for every three minutes he was in a game. And for every assist he was credited for, he shot the ball nine times. Although the media sometimes railed against him for being a selfish shooter, his teammates didn’t seem to mind.
“Sure, he takes a few bad shots now and then,” Cousy told the Saturday Evening Post, “but over the long haul the confident player is the one who takes the initiative and wins games for you.”
A former New York Knicks coach added that Heinsohn would “take five miserable shots that’ll make you sick. But then he’ll turn around and hit with five or six straight. Even on a bad night he’ll get his 17 or 18 points.”
Some of the premier offensive players in the league marveled at Heinsohn’s astonishing shot-making flexibility. Sharman, known as one of the NBA’s best pure shooters, claimed Heinsohn had more variety in his repertoire than anyone else in the game. “There are better shooters, I suppose,” he said in the Saturday Evening Post, “but Tommy’s agility and his exceptional body control give him a big advantage.”
Heinsohn’s deadliest shot was a long-range jumper that he liked to launch from the corners and from beyond the head of the key. He also boasted a righthanded hook shot that he lofted from the 5- to 15-foot range, a short-range lefthanded hook, a one-handed set shot and several types of driving layups.
In addition to employing him as a go-to scorer, Auerbach directed his criticism of the team at Heinsohn, knowing that other players’ egos were too fragile for such a direct assault. “[Auerbach] knew that some of the big guys had sensitive egos — egos that didn’t like it if Red started to get on them verbally,” Heinsohn recalled in an article in the Boston Globe. “So when he wanted to get on someone to stir up things in the dressing room, he got on me. He knew I could take it. I was his whipping boy. I understood what he was doing, so I could handle it.”
For example, Heinsohn remembered one game in which he had scored more than 20 points and grabbed a dozen rebounds in the first half. But Auerbach, unhappy with the way the team was playing, lit into Heinsohn. The player silently withstood the attack for a while, then asked, “Red, what the hell have I done wrong tonight?” Auerbach looked at him with a serious face. “Tommy,” the coach said, “you warmed up lousy.”
One of the few legitimate criticisms Auerbach leveled at Heinsohn was his lack of conditioning. The coach once said that Heinsohn owned the “oldest 27-year-old body in the history of sports.”
Heinsohn probably laughed at the quip and shot back one of his own, for he was the team’s resident jester. Once, to get even with Auerbach, who had given him an exploding cigar, Heinsohn fiendishly tried to return the favor. But Auerbach was too smart and refused to accept cigars from him. Heinsohn kept offering him perfectly good cigars until Auerbach let his guard down. As the coach was holding a press conference before a playoff game with Syracuse, he lit a cigar Heinsohn had given him, and proceeded to give the reporters — and himself — a start when it blew up in his face.
Heinsohn was also an ace mimic and would often parody the speech and mannerisms of his fellow players. He also wasn’t above cutting somebody’s shoelaces just enough so that they broke when being tied. His clowning, however juvenile, served a useful purpose for the team. “Before a game,” Sharman said in the Saturday Evening Post, “Heinsohn bursts into the dressing room and, no matter how important the game is, he’ll get one of the guys in some give-and-take that relaxes the tension.”
By his own estimation, Heinsohn’s most memorable contest was the sixth game of the 1960 Eastern Division Finals against the Philadelphia Warriors. It capped a season in which Heinsohn had placed eighth in the league in scoring, averaging 21.7 ppg. But it was also the year that Wilt Chamberlain entered the league as Philadelphia’s center.
The big man put up incredible numbers as a rookie, leading the NBA in both scoring (37.6 ppg) and rebounding (27.0 rpg). In a classic duel between a superstar and a squad whose strength was teamwork, Boston took the lead in the playoff confrontation after five games. In the sixth game Heinsohn contributed 22 points, including a game-winning tip-in at the buzzer that was, he told the Saturday Evening Post, “the biggest thrill I’ve had from basketball.”
The 1964-65 season was Heinsohn’s last. His point production had fallen every year since his career high of 22.1 ppg in 1961-62. Missing 13 games because of injuries in 1964-65, he slipped to just 13.6 ppg, the lowest mark of his career. Yet the Celtics earned the NBA’s best record at 62-18 and beat Los Angeles in five games in the NBA Finals. It was Boston’s seventh consecutive championship and the eighth in Heinsohn’s nine seasons.
Three years later, after Russell had retired, Auerbach offered the post to Heinsohn again. This time Heinsohn said yes. He had a monumental job ahead of him. With no experience as a coach, Heinsohn was supposed to create a team that could carry on the winning ways Boston fans had grown to expect without the services of the greatest defensive center the game had ever seen, and with one of the greatest coaches of all time scrutinizing his every move. “It was pure trauma,” Heinsohn recalled.
In Heinsohn’s rookie season as coach, 1969-70, the Celtics won 34 games and lost 48, marking the first time in almost 20 years that Boston had posted a losing record. During the offseason the Celtics drafted Dave Cowens from Florida State. At the start of the next season, Heinsohn assigned the 6-9 Cowens to play center despite his relatively short stature. Don Chaney, only 6-5, played forward. Jo Jo White was a quick, slashing guard who ran the fast breaks.
The team started to jell, winning 44 games and losing 38 in 1970-71. Later, Heinsohn reflected that this was one of his most satisfying seasons at the helm, as the Celtics won with a simple, effective game plan — run the fast break and use only three plays. The following year Boston fared even better, posting a 56-26 record and making the playoffs for the first time in two years.
The Celtics began to steamroll in 1972-73, racking up the best record in the NBA at 68-14, including a 32-8 showing on the road, the second-best mark of all time. Their .829 winning percentage overall was the third highest ever. But New York derailed Boston’s fast break in the Eastern Conference finals, beating the Celtics in seven games. Though denied another championship ring by the Knicks, Heinsohn did win NBA Coach of the Year honors.
After a solid 56-26 regular season in 1973-74, the stage was set for the Celtics’ first NBA Finals appearance since 1968-69. Their opponents, the Milwaukee Bucks with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, were favored to win. But the shorter Cowens capitalized on his quickness and determination, proving that a championship team didn’t need a big man in the middle. In the climactic seventh game in Milwaukee, Cowens scored 28 points and snatched 14 rebounds to push Boston to a 102-87 win.
The victory was an affirmation of Heinsohn’s coaching ideas. In what he called “guerrilla warfare,” his teams kept the pressure on opponents at all times, controlling the tempo of the game and playing with great intensity. “We made teams crack in these playoffs,” he told the Boston Globe. “We got them to points in big games in the fourth quarter where they just didn’t want to play anymore.”
The Celtics regained the championship in 1975-76. During Heinsohn’s eight full seasons as coach, Boston won five Eastern Division titles in a row, took two NBA championships and compiled a 416-240 record. At the start of the 1977-78 season, with the Celtics at 11-23, Heinsohn stepped down.
Since retiring from the NBA, Heinsohn has done basketball commentary for television, has run a life insurance company and has indulged his lifelong passion for fine-arts painting. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1986.
In 1995 Heinsohn received the Jack McMahon Award, given annually by the National Basketball Coaches Association (NBCA) to an individual who has made a special contribution to the NBA coaching profession.
In 2015, he became the fourth person ever enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a coach and player after Heinsohn coached the team to two titles in the 1970s and was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1973. He died at the age of 86 on Nov. 10, 2020.