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Celtics legend Tom Heinsohn dies at 86

Tom Heinsohn, an integral part of the Celtics' dynasty in the 1960s and a Hall of Famer, has died.

From Staff

Tom Heinsohn was a part of each of the Celtics’ 17 NBA titles.

Tom Heinsohn, who won titles with the Boston Celtics as a coach and player and is a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer as a both a coach and player, died today. He was 86.

“It’s hard to imagine the Boston Celtics without Tommy Heinsohn. There isn’t a generation of Celtics fans for whom Tommy’s presence hasn’t been felt,” the Celtics said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. “He is the only person to be an active participant in each of the Celtics’ 17 World Championships, an extraordinary and singular legacy.

“For all of his accomplishments as a player, coach, and broadcaster, it is Tommy’s rich personality that defined the man. A loving father, grandfather, and husband. A talented painter and a lively golf partner. Unofficial mentor to decades of Celtics coaches and players. A frequent constructive critic of referees. Originator of the most “Celtic stat” of them all, The Tommy Point. And a boundless love for all things Boston Celtics, a passion which he shared with fans over 64 years.

We take this time to celebrate his life and legacy, and to share in the sorrow of his passing with his family, friends, and fans. As long as there are the Boston Celtics, Tommy’s spirit will remain alive.”

Known for his hard-nosed style of play, yet possessing a superb shooting touch and good body control, 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.

As an NBA coach, Heinsohn led the Celtics to NBA titles in 1974 and ’76 and amassed a 427-263 record in eight-plus seasons in Boston. The Celtics made the playoffs in six of his seasons and made the conference finals in five of those six seasons. Since retiring, he has served as an analyst for basketball on both the national and regional level, endearing himself to Celtics fans for his unique flair and calls during Boston’s games.

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.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released the following statement regarding the passing of Heinsohn.

“Tommy Heinsohn’s remarkable contributions to our game bridged generations and personified the Boston Celtics for more than 60 years.  He was synonymous with success, winning eight NBA championships in nine seasons with Boston as a player and two more as its coach, which led to his rare distinction of Hall of Fame status in both capacities.  Tommy was equally renowned as an NBA broadcaster who made his mark on both the national and local stage.  Celtics games will not be the same without Tommy, and he will be dearly missed by those who share his fervor for basketball.  We extend our deepest sympathies to Tommy’s family, his friends and the Celtics organization.”

The contributions extended beyond basketball to business. The National Basketball Players Association called Heinsohn one of its “founding fathers,” saying it would not be here “without his commitment and passion for players’ rights and for that, we are forever grateful.”

“Not only did Tommy have an incredible career in the NBA as a player, coach and broadcaster, but closer to our home, he was instrumental in creating our union, taking the baton from his friend and teammate Bob Cousy and serving as our President from 1958-66,” the NBPA added.

“Tommy was truly a pioneer in player empowerment, championing the notion of free agency at a time when it was highly controversial and unpopular, and fighting to create our NBA Players’ Pension Plan, under which generations of players have thrived.”

NBA players, coaches and members of the media expressed their condolences on social media in the wake of Heinsohn’s passing.

Averaging 18.6 ppg in 654 regular-season games, he was a versatile scorer as a player 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.

After a standout career at St. Michael’s High School, he opted to attend Holy Cross College, where 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.

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.

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.

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.

Younger generations of fans came to love him through his commentary, whether calling it straight for CBS while working the NBA Finals in the 1980s, or with his Celtics bias sprinkled in during his years alongside Mike Gorman for local coverage.

“Roughly 2800 times I sat down with Tommy to broadcast a game. Every time it was special,” Gorman wrote on Twitter. “HOF player…HOF coach…HOF partner. Celtics Nation has lost its finest voice. Rest In Peace my friend. It has been the privilege of my professional life to be the Mike in Mike & Tommy.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report