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Tommy (Gun) Heinsohn: Mr. Celtic

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Under-appreciated Heinsohn has served Celtics well in many roles for six decades

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With the death of team patriarch, coach and architect Red Auerbach several years ago, the mantle of Mr. Celtic fell to the under-appreciated Tom Heinsohn.

Many people think of Heinsohn as a belligerent, ref-berating head coach, or as a pitchman in a series of popular beer commercials, or perhaps as a CBS announcer or more recently as a homer-ish Celtics analyst.

Few know that Heinsohn is one of four men in the Hall of Fame as a player and coach (joining luminaries like John Wooden, Lenny Wilkens and Bill Sharman in this rare achievement, or recall his insightful CBS commentary or his artistic achievements.

His intense scowl as a coach and player seem to drown all else out, as well as his booming, Fred Flintstone-like annuncing voice.

For nearly 60 years Heinsohn has served the Celtics in numerous roles, and excelled in each one.

First, Heinsohn was an All-Star player and tenacious competitor. In nine seasons from 1956-65, he helped Boston win eight championships.

Heinsohn averaged 18.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game during his career, which saw him elected to six All-Star Games and the All-NBA second team four times.

Alas, there was always someone like Bob Pettit or Elgin Baylor to keep "Ack-ack" off the first team all-league squad. Also nicknamed "Tommy Gun" for his ability to take (and often make) any shot presented him, from jumpers to drives and hook shots, he was also NBA Rookie of the Year in the first Celtic title season of 1956-57.

But fellow rookie great Bill Russell and popular veteran Celtic Bob Cousy got most of the credit for the first banner win.

Heinsohn improved his strong career regular season totals by averaging 19.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per contest over 104 playoff games, showing how clutch he was.

Only in 1958 did a Heinsohn Celtic team fail to win it all, and even then they lost in the Finals to Pettit's Hawks, 4-2. Nine seasons, nine Finals.

Yet Heinsohn was the whipping boy for Auerbach because he knew Tom was the one Celtic star who could take it and was smart enough to realize why. Everyone else was too thin-skinned, belligerent or sensitive, or too big a star, to handle the barbs and blame Red handed out. So the Germanic forward got the brunt of Auerbach's temper.

When Red stepped down as coach after winning the 1966 crown, his first choice to replace him was his old target, Heinsohn. But Heinsohn, who had taken a job with ABC as an NBA color analyst, told Red he felt he could not coach Russell.

Bill had gotten too spoiled by Red's kid glove treatment such as being allowed to miss practice regularly, or to take it easy in workouts. Plus, being so closely removed from playing with Russ would make it difficult to coach someone who was basically his peer.

But Tommy told Red he would be interested in the job once Russ retired. Auerbach also tried to entice Cousy into taking the Celtic job, but he was the successful head coach at Boston College at the time and did not want the pressure of following Red.

So Russell took over as player-coach in 1966 and won two more titles in his final three seasons before retiring in 1969. Heinsohn then assumed a massive rebuilding project as head coach as he tried to mold the second chapter of the dynasty.

After a difficult learning season of sub-.500 ball in 1969-70, the Celtics drafted unknown center Dave Cowens to team with superstar holdover John Havlicek, up and coming guards JoJo White and Don Chaney, and heady forward Don Nelson.

Together, under the hard-driving tutelage of Heinsohn, they formed the nucleus of a new NBA power.

Boston went 44-38 in 1970-71 as the fiery, athletic Cowens shared Rookie of the Year honors with Geoff Petrie. But the Celtics narrowly missed the playoffs for the second year in a row.

The next season Heinsohn's running team, which featured his unique offense without a true primary ballhandler to take advantage of the unusual skills of Havlicek and Cowens, got back to the post-season.

He called it a point forward or sometimes point center attack, since Dave played outside a lot and Hondo frequently moved to guard and was the team's best passer. Cowens walso a skilled passer, shooter and driver, especially by center standards.

"The 1970's Celtics were the quickest team in franchise history," Heinsohn pointed out years later.

In 1971-72 Boston posted the best record in the East with 56 wins, but lost to the wily, more experienced rival Knicks in the conference finals, 4-1.

The Celtics then acquired rebounding expert Paul Silas and put together the best record in franchise annals at 68-14 in 1972-73.

Cowens was named league and All-Star Game MVP (but ironically second team all-league behind Jabbar) while the tireless Hondo was first team All-NBA and the sweet-shooting White made his third ASG appearance.

Boston appeared poised to win its first crown of the post-Russell era. But bad luck and a familiar foe rose up and prevented a renewal of the storied Laker/Celtic Finals rivalry.

Havlicek severely injured his right shoulder while running into a Dave DeBusschere screen in game three of the East Finals vs. New York. The Knicks took a 2-1 lead, and then one of the great playoff games in NBA history took place on Easter Sunday of 1973 at Madison Square Garden.

With Hondo out Boston ran out to a big lead, but the Knicks rallied to force overtime on two Phil Jackson foul shots. After Cowens fouled out with 33 points in double OT, the Knicks prevailed over the short-handed Celtics 117-110 to take a commanding 3-1 lead.

Incensed at what he deemed numerous questionable late calls in the season-turning loss, the lasting image of Heinsohn was of him storming off the court while screaming at official Jack Madden, one that came to symbolize his demeanor for many.

Of course, green-is envy of all the Celtic titles helped the Heinsohn hate along as well.

Tom would later claim that the plethora of bad calls forced Madden to jump to the ABA the next season before returning to officiate well in the NBA for 18 years after the merger in 1976.

Hondo returned and Boston rallied to force a seventh game, but with Havlicek ineffective the Knicks upset Boston and ruined the Celtic dream season.

The Lakers and Wilt Chamberlain publicly stated they wanted to face the Knicks (whom they had beaten 4-1 in the 1972 Finals) instead of Boston, who swept them easily 4-0 that season. At 36 and immobile in his final season, Wilt was no match for a young, athletic Cowens.

The Knicks knocked off LA 4-1 and a healthy Boston almost certainly would have beaten the Laers as well.

The next season Heinsohn coached Boston to a 54-28 mark, second-best to Milwaukee's 59-23. For the third year in a row they faced the Knicks in the East Finals, and this time Boston broke through and took out the aging Knicks, 4-1.

In an unpredictable NBA Finals where the road team won five of the seven games, two of which went into overtime, Boston defeated the Bucks and sent Oscar Robertson into retirement.

Before game seven at Milwaukee, Heinsohn decided to change their previous strategy of trying to guard the 7-2 Jabbar singly with the 6-8.5 Cowens. Instead, they would front and help out with Silas, Havlicek and Nelson doubling down on Kareem.

The strategy freed Cowens up to use his speed, renewed energy and superior skills to combat Jabbar. The fiery redhead tossed in 28 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to out-play Jabbar as Boston won 102-87 and Havlicek was named Finals MVP.

The Celtics, and Heinsohn and Hondo in particular, finally had their elusive first post-Russell crown. In addition, the Celtics sent Hall of Famers Willis Reed, DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas and the Big O into retirement after eliminating their teams in 1974.

The next year Heinsohn drove his short-benched troops to a 60-22 record, which tied for league best with Washington. But in the East finals, the younger and hungry Bullets knocked off Boston 4-2.

As Auerbach later pointed out, Washington celebrated so much after dethroning Boston that they took Golden State too lightly in the Finals and were swept by Rick Barry's Warriors, 4-0.

Chaney left for the ABA and Boston traded up-and-coming star Paul Westphal to Phoenix for established veteran Charlie Scott in an attempt to win another title or two as the aging club's title window had started to close.

Hondo and Nellie were 36 in 1976, while Cowens and White were older than their late 20s ages due to many seasons of heavy minutes and hard running.

Yet Heinsohn cajoled another title run out of his older group. They got past Buffalo and Cleveland in the East, both by 4-2 counts, despite a foot injury that slowed the indefatigible Havlicek.

In the Finals, they faced the upstart Suns, who had upset the champion Warriors in seven games out West. Led by blossoming All-Star shotmaker Westphal and Rookie of the Year center Alvan Adams, Phoenix battled Boston to a 2-2 tie before the greatest game in NBA Finals history (arguably) took place.

Boston outlasted the Suns 128-126 in triple overtime in game five at the Garden. The memorable contest featured two last-second shots, an on-court melee after the fans stormed the court where referee Richie Powers was punched, and numerous heroics and strategems.

In the end, the Celtics doused the pesky Suns without a fouled out Cowens and a sub-par Hondo as little-used reserve Glenn McDonald scored eight big points and White scored 33.

So draining was the contest that a dehydrated Heinsohn passed out in the post-game press conference on the hot, draining Friday night in early June.

Two days later as the exhauted clubs played across the country in Arizona, Cowens scored nine big points late to break open a tie game and give Boston an 87-80 win and their 13th championship banner.

Their experience, guile and desire embodied by the highly-motivated, no nonsense quartet of Heinsohn, Cowens, White and Havlicek pushed them past the younger, plucky Suns.

In 1977, a worn-out Cowens took a 30-game leave of absence, upset also that Boston traded his offensive-rebounding frontcourt mate Silas after winning it all.

When he returned the Celtics were not quite the same, and a more selfish tone had infected the team with the addition of talented but troubled ex-UCLA bookend forwards Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe.

Boston was eliminated from the 1977 playoffs in a seven-game classic by the eventual runner-up 76ers, signaling the end of their title contender status until the Bird era.

The next season, Heinsohn was let go after a slow start and Cowens finished out the season as player-coach. Havlicek retired and Boston missed the playoffs with just a 32-50 record. Tommy Gun had squeezed all he could out of an aging roster and short bench.

He had 474 season and playoff wins to his ledger, including two titles and five straight ECF showings. Yet somehow his efforts, and those of the 1970's Celtics in general, have been overshadowed and overlooked, sandwiched between the Russell and Bird dynasties, and by Auerbach's nine titles.

In addition, the great popularity of the charismatic and successful Bobby Orr-led Bruins of the early 1970's in hockey-mad Boston overshadowed the Celtics, who won so much they were taken for granted. Plus their top player, Havlicek, was very understated and non-flashy.

Yet the Bruins, perennial also-rans in comparison to the Celtics, only won as many titles in the 1970's as their basketball counterparts.

But since they had won so little in the years before and after Bobby O (the much-awaited savior and Beantown hockey version of Larry Bird), the Orr era is seen as the golden period in Boston Bruin history - and just an ok decade in hoops, with "just" two crowns after nine in the 1960s and three in the star-studded 1980s.

Until Bird came along and the Bruins slumped in the 1980s, Boston was a Bruin and Red Sox town first, with the Celtics a distant third.

Thus the unapologetic Heinsohn, never a media darling due to his gruff, uber-serious demeanor, never received just due for his coaching achievements, much like his playing career was much less heralded than teammates Russell and Cousy.

After leaving coaching, Tom returned to the TV booth with Boston, and then was tabbed as the lead analyst for the NBA on CBS coverage in 1983, replacing Russell again.

Heinsohn served as the top game analyst for CBS from 1983-87, teaming with Dick Stockton. In all four seasons that he was their number one commentator Boston went to the Finals, winning it all twice.

Frequently criticized (often unfairly) for being pro-Boston, his insightful commentary was typically overlooked. Anyone who waches repeats of the 1984-87 playoffs now and listens carefully will see how well Heinsohn understood and analyzed the game, and anticipated what was to come expertly.

He was also lampooned for his deep, loud and at times gravelly voice which sounded very similar to bombastic cartoon character Fred Flintstone, which led to him being taken less seriously.

His delivery was also tinged with an East coast accent that, combined with his booming voice and delivery, could be construed as occasionally obnoxious.

But Tom showed he had a sense of humor as well. Making fun of himself one time regarding the Flintstone comparison during the 1987 playoffs, he boomed "Now, Barney (Rubble)" to the dyed-in-the-wool sports reporter Stockton, who was more of a baseball aficionado than a hoop expert, leading to much on-air disagreement in analysis between the duo.

This was noticeable since Bostonian Stockton, especially in their last three years together, tended to be more anti-Celtic in order to "even things up" and offset the growing Heinsohn pro-Boston criticism, which was largely incorrect. Heinsohn consistently went out of his way to praise Jabbar and Earvin Johnson, as well as James Worthy and Pat Riley.

At the end of game six in the 1987 Finals as it became obvious the Lakers were about to win their epic rubber series, he opined that Los Angeles had been "just as gritty" as the enormously beaten-up and tired Celtics.

This was a clearly overly-charitable comment (possibly an over-reaction to his Boston bias criticism) since LA had no injuries, was younger and much more well-rested coming into the Finals. The Lakers played five fewer playoff games, mostly against sub-.500 competition.

Meanwhile Boston ran the gauntlet through a young Jordan's Chicago club before they survived consecutive grueling seven-game series played over just 26 days over championship-caliber Milwaukee and Detroit clubs just to get to the title round - all with most of their top eight hurt and/or enormously fatigued, and top draft pick Len Bias (a sure-fire star) in the grave.

When former teammate Russell was the lead TV analyst for ABC and later CBS, he also often poked fun at "Tommy Gun's" tendency to shoot a lot. Multiple times he told a joke about Heinsohn "enjoying a great All-Star Game by going 17-for-18...he touched the ball 18 times and shot it 17," Russell would explain, cackling characteristically at his own punch line.

The next time he told the same story, the numbers were exaggerated higher. But Russell also conceded that his successor as coach was "definitely" a very, very tough competitor.

Because Heinsohn was so intense and had made a reputation as a do whatever it takes player - then was seen as a burly, constant griper as a coach - his sometimes artful, very insightful commentary aand coaching skills went unappreciated, as much of his career had been.

Few knew that Heinsohn was a very accomplished painter. He also had been chased home from school regularly in his mostly Irish-Italian New Jersey neighborhood as a kid during World War II because of his German heritage, and was often beaten up as a kid.

Perhaps that is where a large part of his tough, rugged exterior came from. The NBA of the 1950s and 1960s was also frequently a rough and tumble league, with few locker room amenities, almost no sports medicine exepertise, hard surfaces, tough coaches and low salaries.

Few also know that because Tommy loved basketball and competing so much, he played in multiple leagues at the same time under assumed names, one of them Jewish, when growing up to maintain his amateur status and improve his game.

A clutch competitor, his steal of a Jerry West crosscourt pass and ensuing layup helped propel Boston to the championship late in game six of the dramatic 1963 Finals. He then clinched another crown by coming up with a loose ball and converting a three-point play and later two foul shots in another title victory.

But in 1963 because it was Cousy's swansong and he had played with an injured ankle down the stretch, Mr. Basketball got all the attention, not Heinsohn.

Heinsohn was replaced as the number one CBS analyst in 1988 by Billy Cunningham and later Hubie Brown, but he stayed on at CBS for a few years before going back to his Beantown roots.

Since then for 25-plus years he has continued to be a color analyst on Celtic TV broadcasts with long-time partner Mike Gorman, where he remains to this day.

A loyal Celtic to the end, Heinsohn was offered the head coaching job with the Houston Rockets in the mid-1980's, a team on the rise with its Twin Towers of Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon.

After seriously considering the offer to return to coaching after several years away, he turned it down to stay in the Celtic family. Loyalty.

Ironically, the job then went to Bill Fitch, who coached Boston to the 1981 title over Houston. Finally earlie this year, Heinsohn was also inducted to the Hall of Fame as a coach.

Heinsohn's Boston clubs won two championships and could easily have won three or four with luck. His intensity and innovative coaching propelled Boston to five straight Eastern finals from 1972-76 despite a short bench, as he rebuilt the Celtic dynasty. His teams posted fine records of 427-263 in the regular season, and 47-33 in the playoffs.

A Hall of Famer as a player and coach, insightful national and local TV announcer for over 40 years and accomplished painter, nearly 60 years with the Boston Celtics where he was been a major part of hanging up 10 banners - as well as several others in the booth, speak to his well-rounded and high-achieving life.

Tommy's overall Celtic resume is staggering and unsurpassed by anyone - even Auerbach, who never played in the NBA, let alone starred for the Celts.

If he gets a statue outside the new Garden, it would have to be a combination of him as a star player, championship coach and fine announcer.

Clearly, more than anyone else due to all the hats he has worn well over time, despite being underrated, overlooked and misunderstood, Tom Heinsohn is a worthy successor to Red as Mr. Celtic.


If you want to contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at cdrada2433@yahoo.com.