But reducing Heinsohn’s life to clips of his vehement disagreements with NBA officials would not be fair, because he accomplished so much more in a life that ended this week at age 86.
“It’s hard to imagine the Boston Celtics without Tommy Heinsohn,” the Celtics wrote Tuesday on their official website. “There isn’t a generation of Celtics fans for whom Tommy’s presence hasn’t been felt. He is the only person to be an active participant in each of the Celtics’ 17 World Championships, an extraordinary and singular legacy.”
Few individuals have been so intertwined with one team and one city. Though he grew up in New Jersey, Heinsohn came to Massachusetts to play basketball for Holy Cross in the early 1950s. Picked by the Celtics as a territorial selection in the 1956 NBA draft, he made an immediate impact by beating out teammate Bill Russell for rookie of the year honors (Russell missed time that season while playing for the U.S. Olympic team), playing in the All-Star Game and winning the first of eight NBA titles as a player.
Sporting a buzz-cut and a straight-line jumper, Heinsohn was the Celtics’ sharpshooter and led the team in scoring for four of those eight championship seasons. But a foot injury ended his career in 1965 and he went off to sell insurance, only to return to the Celtics when Red Auerbach asked him to replace Russell as the Celtics’ coach in 1969. In Heinsohn’s first season, the defending NBA champions missed the playoffs for the first time since 1950. By his fifth season, Boston was again the champion, a feat it repeated two seasons later.
In 1986, Heinsohn was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player. In 2015, he made it as a coach.
In all, Heinsohn was a Celtics player, coach or announcer for all 17 of the franchise’s NBA titles, the last four as the team’s color commentator on local broadcasts. (He also called NBA and college basketball games for CBS, giving national audiences a taste of his candor.) But at his local essence he was, in short, the world’s biggest homer.
Take, for instance, a 2002 game between the Celtics and Phoenix Suns in which the calls were not going Boston’s way and Heinsohn was getting increasingly wound up. At one point, he said referee Ken Mauer “should go home to his wife, ‘cause nobody here loves him.”
“Tommy doesn’t really do color,” Mike Gorman, Heinsohn’s broadcast partner since the early 1980s, told the Boston Globe. “In his heart, he’s still coaching the Celtics and he always will be. It doesn’t matter who the coach is, and it’s no disrespect to the coach. This always will be Tommy’s team. Tommy will be coaching this team till he takes his final breath. If it was possible to still be playing for this team, he would be.”
There simply was no way around the fact that, to Heinsohn as both a coach and an announcer, the referees were the enemy.
“I said to him, ‘My kids think you’re great,’ ” said Dick Bavetta, the longtime referee who was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame along with Heinsohn (as a coach) in 2015. “He said, ‘Well, they don’t know any better.’ I tried different things, like: ‘My family likes you. I’ve got friends of yours.’ He’d say, ‘Well, that’s your problem.’ He wants to be brutal. That’s his thing.”
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