More Than a Commentator
We spoke with Tommy Heinsohn about his lifetime of playing, coaching and commentating in Boston.
Long before a suited, seated and silvered Tom Heinsohn became a TV commentator, before he became an awarder of Tommy Points and source of Celtic-colored commentary, a lean, limber, 6-7 Tom Heinsohn was an All-League forward for Boston who was best known for getting Tommy points on low-arcing shots, winning Championships and spreading Celtic Pride throughout New England.
Most current NBA fans only know the former and have little insight into the latter. For his part, though, Heinsohn, who aside from winning eight Championships with the Celtics between 1956-65 and coached them to two more between ’69-78, has come to terms with his source of popularity.
“It’s really amazing,” begins the 77-year-old Heinsohn, who entered the League with Hall of Famers Bill Russell and KC Jones in 1956 after graduating from Holy Cross and immediately won a Championship. “[Play-by-play man] Mike Gorman once said, ‘There’s a generation of people that knew Tommy as a player, another generation that knew him as a coach and the current generation thinks he’s Shrek.”
While it’s OK for Heinsohn—who was once known as “Ack-Ack,” akin to a machine gun sound, for his propensity to shoot—to joke about his legacy, it’s not OK to remain unaware of the Hall of Famer’s career.
With that in mind, we recently connected with the nine-year Celtic player (he averaged 18.6 ppg and 8.8 rpg, and as the Player’s Union President, was the impetus behind major reforms), nine-year Celtic coach (he went 427-263, and as the Coach’s Union President was the impetus for major reforms) and 30-plus year commentator to discuss how much he’s gotten from the game, and how much the game’s gotten from him.
SLAM: How did you get started in basketball?
Tommy Heinsohn: I’m originally from North Jersey, and basketball was very big there. Back when I first got out of high school, the seventh and eighth men on high school teams were going to college on basketball scholarships. We would play three-on-three in the schoolyard where the backboard was just hanging off the wall.
SLAM: What was it like for you when you first played in the NBA with the Celtics?
TH: The first game I played was a pre-season game up in Houlton, ME, which at the time was a prosperous county in Maine because of the potato industry. They had a terrific high school gym that they built there. We would go up, it was like a four-and-a-half hour trip in those days to get to the tip of Maine, I walked out and there was Indians walking around the street. That was quite different than what I was used to.
SLAM: Along with fellow rookies Bill Russell and KC Jones, you joined a team that already had Bob Cousy, and you went on to win eight NBA titles as a player. Do you feel like you landed in the perfect place at the perfect time?
TH: Red [Auerbach] was there first, then Cousy came along, then Red put the rest of the team together. They had a pretty productive team before we came with Cousy, [Bill] Sharman and Ed Macauley. They could score, but they weren’t a good defensive or rebounding team. They needed what Russell and I provided—rebounding and defense. Add in KC Jones and it might’ve been the best Draft any team ever had. The first three guys drafted ended up in the Hall of Fame; I don’t think any team has ever matched that.
Red was smart enough to develop a loyalty and he made us all believe in, what I call, our Cosa Nostra. It was our thing, everybody took pride in what we did, and we were all responsible. It really was a team effort, in every sense of the word. From the beginning of training camp, they would introduce something and you were asked to critique it, and it might be changed because of your thoughts. At key points in the game, for instance the last two minutes of the game, I’m sure people would be surprised at how the huddles went. Instead of the coach telling a guy what to do, Red would say, “Has anybody got anything?” You were expected to tell him, in front of your teammates, what you thought would work.
SLAM: Even though you won a Championship as a rookie, were you able to grasp how special winning one was?
TH: Oh, sure. Sharman and Cousy had been there six years before Russell and I showed up. When we got to the final game, they were so anxious just to win that they couldn’t get out of their own way. Russell and I both had great games, though. Russell had won two NCAA titles in college and I had won an NIT, which at one point was the key tournament, so we were used to winning. And we had guys like Frank Ramsey, who played at Kentucky. Red made sure that most of the players that he drafted had some kind of championship background.
SLAM: Tough to ask, but does any one memory stick out to you from your playing days?
TH: My biggest kick I got out of playing was not just the first Championship we won but tipping in the game-winner to knock Philadelphia out of the Playoffs at the buzzer. Eleven thousand Philadelphia fans in the Convention Hall all shut up at once. Nobody’s ever done that [laughs].
SLAM: The fan base was pretty small when you started, so do you take a sense of pride in people talking about Celtic Pride and all that?
TH: Yeah. We used to travel 200 miles a day from one town to another in late September, early October. I’ve seen every little town in New England because of that. Once we started winning Championships, we saw baskets going up in driveways in the suburbs outside of Boston. Cousy and I lived in Worcester during our playing days, and we’d see basketball courts going up during our travels, so we knew we were starting to connect.
SLAM: And then, at age 30, you had to retire pretty much in the prime of your career.
TH: Well, I got hurt. I ripped up the plantar fascia muscle on my foot and I had a hematoma in there. In those days, there wasn’t much you could do about it. It really calcified—it was like a marble at the bottom of my foot—and they chipped away at it with an ultrasound. That was the only thing they could do in those days, and by doing it they kind of ruined the muscle that connects your toe to your heel and gives you the ability to lift when you jump. I had trouble walking for the next two years, as a matter of fact.
SLAM: So what did you do in those few years between when you retired and when you started coaching?
TH: Well, I had always been in the life insurance business. I had another career going, which a lot of people did in those days, because they had to—you weren’t gonna satisfy the rest of your life’s financial needs just by playing basketball like they can now. You had to have another career, and that was my career. The first year after I was out, Red came to me and asked me if I wanted to broadcast the games. I had a radio show when I was a player, so he knew I had some understanding. So I was on the scene all those years between playing and coaching, and actually, the last year I broadcast, Red was my color guy [laughs]. We did games together, and then he offered me the coaching job. So I took the coaching job and had great fun doing that.
SLAM: Right. And then when you stopped coaching, you slid right back into the booth?
TH: What happened is that I went back into the insurance business, and I was doing a lot of PR work for Miller beer. Then people came back and asked me to broadcast again. I did games on CBS for the League, and then the Celtics ended up with a cable contract and I started doing the away games. Thirty-two years later, I’m still broadcasting games.
SLAM: Do you have any special memories from your broadcasting days, be it plays or games or sequences?
TH: You don’t get to do the Finals [with cable], but I did do the Finals with CBS. In the Bird era, it really involved mostly the Celtics and somebody else [laughs]. When the Celtics ended up playing the Lakers, everybody thought I was a homer, and Boston thought I was a traitor. The way I would broadcast the games nationally is I would approach it like I was a coach. I would zero in on the weaknesses of the team and think about how those weaknesses might be exploited. Of course, that’s the first time people in L.A. found out their team had weaknesses [laughs]. They immediately thought I was the enemy. And when I started talking about some of the weaknesses of the Celtics, they thought I was a traitor giving away secrets [laughs]. I remember one game I broadcast with a purple and green tie, split right down the middle, just to prove that I was non-partial.
SLAM: Even people who don’t watch many Celtics games know about how you give out Tommy Points. Do you remember how that originated?
TH: There was a philosophy that Red Auerbach had that was generated by the PR aspect of the sixth man. You manage people by love, not just money, and the sixth man was really about extending love. The first five guys get all the accolades because they walk out and the spotlight is on them when they announce the starters. [Meanwhile], there’s always one or two guys sitting on the bench saying, “Geez, I’m better than that guy out there.” So Red had a philosophy: He’d let the numbers speak for the first five guys, then he’d talk about the contribution of the eighth guy, the ninth guy.
When we needed something special for the broadcast, I came up with the Tommy Point. Actually, they came up with the name but I came up with the idea of rewarding guys who play with extra verve, who are willing to gamble life and limb for victory. It was all based on Red’s philosophy. The funny part about the Tommy Point is, my wife, who was seriously ill for a long period of time, was a redhead and I would mention her on the broadcast by saying “the redhead from Needham would really have liked that.” People would start to understand, and then I gave Tommy Points to any redhead in the stands and they would show the people on camera and they came with signs [laughs]. One girl had one that said, “You’ve got to give me a Tommy Point. I need one to get a date for the prom.” So I said, “That girl gets a Tommy Point!” Three weeks later, she comes to a game and holds up a sign, “Thanks Tommy! I got my date for the prom.” The next season she came down and introduced me to the guy who took her to the prom [laughs].
SLAM: From player to coach to TV commentator—in the past 50 years you’ve truly seen the NBA grow from small-time to international phenomenon.
TH: I can tell if someone played in the old days by if they know about the Green Parrot Inn. When you played in Rochester and the next night you were supposed to play in Fort Wayne, IN, there was no way to get there in time. There was no plane [laughs]. There was no train that stopped in Fort Wayne and emanated in Rochester. What you had to do was take a train and get off in a cornfield about 15 miles from Fort Wayne. Walk, in the middle of the winter, from the cornfield to the Green Parrot Inn—which was in the center of this little town—and stand there with your bag and thumb rides from high school kids who you’d pay a few bucks to take you to Fort Wayne. Anyone who tells that story, you know they played in those early days [laughs].