Top Stories

Tom Heinsohn's legendary NBA career spanned decades

The Celtics icon, who passed away on Tuesday, was a Hall of Fame player and coach before his broadcasting days.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Tom Heinsohn is one of only four people to be inducted twice into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Mike Gorman, longtime Boston Celtics play-by-play announcer, had a line that always delighted his partner Tom Heinsohn, to the point he would nudge Gorman to drop it on any fresh audience they could find.

“Everybody 60 or over knows Tommy as a player,” Gorman told NBA.com back in December 2010, when they were just 30 years into their 40-year relationship calling Celtics games. “Everybody 40 or over knows Tommy as a coach. Everybody 20 or over knows Tommy as a broadcaster. And everybody 10 or under thinks he’s Shrek.”

Throwing 10 more years on that pile clinched it, the number of people growing exponentially who thought of Heinsohn – who died Tuesday at age 86 – as the boisterous, lovable color man for his beloved Celtics. He was your loud, funny stool neighbor at the corner tavern, your let-‘er-rip uncle in the family room, Fred Flintstone as a hoops maven.

He doled out “Tommy Points” for hustle plays, hollered about referees as if he worked at DraftKings, and turned a journeyman center who averaged 5.7 points and 2.8 rebounds in his eight years in Boston, Walter McCarty, into his signature call and personal mascot.

“I love Waltah!” Heinsohn would shout, a rallying cry that echoed well beyond McCarty’s departure from the Celtics in 2005.

The man’s career as a basketball broadcaster lasted more than twice as long as his work as either an NBA player (1956-65) or the Celtics head coach (1969-1978). So yeah, it’s understandable that a couple generations of fans don’t know much about Heinsohn in those earlier gigs.

But just as some people know Charles Barkley only for his outrageous remarks on TNT’s studio set or Tom Selleck as an old guy hawking reverse mortgages, those familiar only with Heinsohn in a headset miss arguably the most impressive chapters in his NBA career.

Consider: Heinsohn is one of only four people enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame twice – as a player in 1986 and as a coach in 2015. Bill Sharman, John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens are the others.

Even his legendary Celtics teammate Bill Russell can’t say he participated in the Finals every year of his career, but Heinsohn can. Boston won eight of those nine, with the 6-foot-7 gunner from Union City, N.J., averaging 18.6 points and 8.8 rebounds before having to retire at age 30 due to a nagging foot injury.

A six-time All-Star and the 1957 Rookie of the Year, Heinsohn earned the nickname “Ack-Ack” for his propensity to shoot the ball. He averaged 18 field-goal attempts per game, happily slipping into the scorer role while Bob Cousy handled playmaking and Russell reigned as defender and rebounder.

A territorial pick from Holy Cross tucked away by Red Auerbach two spots before the Celtics took Russell in the 1956 Draft, Heinsohn “was as exciting offensively as Russell was defensively,” according to sportswriter Leonard Koppett in his 1968 book, “24 Seconds to Shoot.”

Russell’s rookie season was delayed when he participated in the Olympics, giving Heinsohn time to settle into his role. For years, Russell would tease his teammate that he owed him half of that ROY award for starting late.

Hall of Famer Sam Jones told the Boston Globe about Heinsohn the player: “We knew that when he got the ball, he was gong to shoot it. … I remember going up for a layup, there’s no one around me for 10 feet but Tommy, and he was calling for the ball.”

Auerbach was said to use Heinsohn as a whipping boy, making points to the whole team by directing his ire at him. The partnership wasn’t without friction but it paid off big when Heinsohn put up 37 points and 23 rebounds in Game 7 of the 1957 Finals against St. Louis. He hadn’t just carried the Celtics to their first title ever – he had sparked the dynasty that followed.

As a player, Heinsohn had a pivotal role, too, in leading the NBA players union from its roots under Cousy. He was instrumental in the near-boycott of the 1964 All-Star Game in Boston, when players refused to participate until they got assurances from the owners on issues related to training, facilities and pension considerations.

Heinsohn began his broadcasting career after retiring after the 1964-65 season. After working both college and Celtics games, he expressed interest in the coaching job when Russell stepped down as player-coach in 1969.

Boston’s talent cupboard was relatively bare, compared to the dynastic years when it won 11 of 13 championships under Auerbach (nine) and Russell (two). So Heinsohn pushed for an up-tempo style built around wing John Havlicek and undersized center Dave Cowens. They improved from 34 to 44 to 56 to 68 victories in his first four seasons on the bench, Heinsohn earning Coach of the Year honors in 1973. In 1974 and 1976, they added two more rings to the franchise’s now-total of 17.

Heinsohn was fired with an 11-23 record in January 1978, a few months before Auerbach drafted Larry Bird. He posted a 427-263 mark, with a .619 winning percentage that still ranks 19th in league history (and seventh among coaches who worked at least 500 games).

Beyond the pace at which he liked his teams to play, Heinsohn was best known for his bellowing sideline antics involving referees, a trait he later brought to his announcing.

“The best thing you can say about an official,” Heinsohn said, “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.”

There was one other aspect of Heinsohn’s basketball style, player and coach, that he carried with him into broadcasting, crafted over his 64-year affiliation with the Celtics. As former Boston coach Doc Rivers said of him, “Tommy has more love for a team than any human being I’ve ever seen in my life.”

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

Latest