I have a confession. I love Tommy Heinsohn. It really amuses me when opposing fans complain about Tommy and call him “that old guy on the Celtics broadcast.” They really don’t have a clue that Tommy has forgotten more about the game of basketball than they will ever know. He’s a 10-time champion - eight as a player and two as a coach. He’s in the Hall of Fame as both. Most Celtics fans know about Tommy’s career as a player and as a broadcaster, but I truly believe his true genius was as a coach.
Tommy was coach of the Celtics from 1969 until 1978. He took over the reins upon the retirement of Bill Russell. He had big shoes to fill following Red Auerbach and Bill Russell. And the team he took over just lost the player who had been its heart and soul for 13 seasons and who had won 11 titles in those 13 seasons, including 8 in a row. As a first time coach, he would need to oversee a rebuild.
The resurrection of the Celtics in the early to mid seventies ranks as one of the most successful coaching jobs in league history. His first season was a losing one. They had just lost their coach and long time star along with Sam Jones, who retired the same year and KC Jones retired the year before. After that the Celtics had 2 more seasons without a playoff appearance and by his fourth season on the bench, Celtics were again division champions. In his fifth season as coach, the Celtics were once again world champions.
No one had ever stepped into a coaching job where there were bigger shoes to fill or bigger holes to fill in the team or bigger expectations from fans. Bill Russell and the Jones Boys were gone and left big holes in the roster. Then, in his first season as coach, both Bailey Howell and Larry Siegfried retired as well. Boston fans were spoiled and had gotten to expect a championship every year. And since Russell’s retirement announcement was sudden, Tommy had just a week to prepare for the players coming into camp.
Tommy didn’t have much of a team that first season. The job of replacing Russell was given to “High Henry” Finkel, who was backed up by Jim “Bad News” Barnes and Rich Johnson. Opponents no longer feared going to the basket against the Celtics and they finished the season just 3 games ahead of last place Detroit. Tommy made a gutsy call to replace veterans Larry Siegfried and Emmette Bryant with Jo Jo White and Don Chaney, two recent draft picks. That move would definitely bear fruit the following season.
Finishing with the second worst record, their lottery luck wasn’t the best as usual, and they had the 4th pick in the draft, with which they selected Dave Cowens, a little known center out of Florida State. Cowens quickly became the center they needed to replace Bill Russell. He also became the most unusual post player in league history. He was undersized but he also was a fierce rebounder and played with unmatched intensity.
This is where Tommy’s genius came in. He designed an offense that would play to all of Cowens’ strengths which were speed, mobility, and energy and that would minimize his weaknesses which were size and strength to battle beefy centers like Chamberlain, Thurmond and Abdul-Jabbar. In Tommy’s system, Cowens would be a low post player, but he would also play farther out than traditional centers in that day. He would outrun taller defenders and over power smaller defenders. Cowens was a great center, but his success in the league was certainly in great part to Tommy Heinsohn’s brilliant system designed to maximize his talents.
Another great move by Tommy was to move Don Nelson into the starting lineup and converting Paul Silas to yet another great Celtics sixth man. As a player, Tommy had been know as a scapegoat for Red Auerbach. If Red wanted to make a point, he’d yell at Tommy, knowing that Tommy was strong enough to take it without lashing back. As a coach, he was also shadowed by the scapegoat role. The Boston public still saw the team as Red’s and underrated Tommy’s role in building the latest championship team.
An example of Tommy’s coaching genius, and his role as an under-appreciated underling of Auerbach’s, can be seen in the circumstances surrounding the 1974 Finals against a Bucks team that featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center. The whole series was a chess match between Tommy and Bucks’ coach Larry Costello. The road team won each of the 4 games leading up to a Game 7 in Milwaukee.
Throughout the series, the Celtics used the same strategy they used all season with Cowens going head to head with the bigger Jabbar. Before Game 7, Tommy met with Red and Bob Cousy and told them that he decided to change his strategy for the final game of the series. He had to convince both Red and Cousy of the merits of his plan.
In Game 7, the Celtics double and triple teamed Abdul-Jabbar with Cowens fronting him and Paul Silas guarding him from behind. Tommy’s strategy worked perfectly. Cowens finished with 28 points and 14 rebounds while Kareem was frustrated throughout the game and was held scoreless for an entire quarter.
Tommy had proved his genius as a coach with his innovative strategy to use Cowens as well as his decision to change his system for Game 7. You would think that Tommy would have been hailed as the genius he was for the coaching job that landed the Celtics back at the top. But, the next morning’s headlines on the sports pages read as follows: “Cousy Strategy Saves Celtics.” Tommy didn’t even get the credit for his gutsy call that truly did save the season.
As a coach, Tommy matched both KC Jones and Bill Fitch in the number of championships won, but both of the latter coaches have gotten more credit for their successes. Tommy won more games as Celtics coach than any other coach besides Red. While KC Jones and Bill Fitch never had to suffer through a rebuilding project, Tommy had to start pretty much from scratch and when he did get a franchise player in Cowens, he had to employ a bit of genius to get the most out of him.
Tommy Heinsohn probably did more with less than any coach before him or after. Just taking over after Red Auerbach and Bill Russell and all their successes had to be a daunting task in itself. But, five years after taking over a team that had hit the bottom of the NBA, Tommy Heinsohn returned the Celtics to the championship, mostly due to his ingenious coaching strategies and his gutsy calls on the bench. Tommy Heinsohn has been a winner at every level of his career, and especially at the coaching level.