The Boston Celtics have produced some of the biggest names in basketball history: Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, Larry Bird. But among all those icons, Tommy Heinsohn was Mr. Celtic.
A 6-foot-7 forward who smoked cigarettes and sank hook shots, he was a Hall of Fame player and coach who worked with the Celtics from the day he was drafted in 1956 to the day he died, this week, at age 86. That made Heinsohn the only person to play a part in each of the franchise’s 17 championships, a record shared with the Lakers franchise.
Despite his starring role in one of sports’ most dominant dynasties, Heinsohn became even better known and loved in Boston for being the Celtics’ color commentator and unofficial mascot for more than four decades.
Most New Englanders under 50 remember him not from his time as a championship player and coach, but from having his Boston accent booming into their living rooms every game day. He shouted regularly. He rooted unabashedly. And he excoriated the refs. He did just about everything modern broadcasters are taught not to do, and that was why he was so entertaining.
“The Celtics were all he ever knew, and it was very, very personal to him,” said Mike Gorman, Heinsohn’s partner behind the mic for nearly 40 years — perhaps the longest tenure for any duo in American sports broadcasting history. “He allowed fans to be over the top, because he was over the top. He was leading the charge.”
As I grew up in central Massachusetts, my first narrators of the game were Heinsohn and Gorman. Gorman played the straight man, describing the action, while Heinsohn would yell at the Celtics to run the court and dive for loose balls. When a call went against Boston, Heinsohn sounded less like a suit in the broadcasting booth and more like a fan in Section 323.
“Are you kidding me?” he would shout. “This is ridiculous!” While sportscasters in other locales had catchphrases to punctuate their teams’ best moments, Heinsohn’s memorable calls marked the referees’ worst ones.
That style made Heinsohn stand out in the modern era of sports media. He was one of the final voices in the old guard of broadcasters who weren’t afraid to show their allegiance. Announcers like Hawk Harrelson of the Chicago White Sox and Phil Rizzuto of the Yankees openly pulled for the teams they followed, to the delight of the hometown fans. But increasingly, sports broadcasts strive for a more measured and unbiased tone, in part because announcers move around more often, have aspirations for a national gig, or worry about a clip going viral.
“It’s all of the above,” said Mike Breen, who has called Knicks games for 28 years and is now ESPN’s lead N.B.A. announcer. “Quite frankly, I think there’s a lot of us that are envious, in that we wish we could call a game the way Tommy did.” Heinsohn, Breen added, “was himself on the air, all the time, every single night. And there’s such a beauty to that.”
That was true even when Heinsohn called national games for CBS in the 1980s, in the heart of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. “If you listened to the broadcast, and you were not a Celtics fan, you would not like him,” said Doc Rivers, the Celtics coach from 2004 to 2013 and a former color commentator. “And Tommy was OK with that.”
Rivers said that in his first years in Boston, he would often look to the broadcast booth after a questionable foul call. Heinsohn, he said, would always signal that the call was awful.
“So I would then go and tell the ref, ‘What the heck are you doing?’” Rivers said. “And you find out later the refs got it right.”
In annual league meetings, Rivers said the referees always brought Heinsohn up. “Every year one of the refs would say, ‘Can you at least just tell him that he doesn’t have to be so hard on us all the time?’” Rivers said. “I used to laugh and say, ‘That will never happen.’”
Bob Ryan, the longtime Boston Globe sports columnist, said he was a Boston College student when he wrote his first article about Heinsohn in 1967. “I completely blasted him as a totally unprofessional announcer,” he said. “Something along the lines of, ‘That is why you don’t want a jock announcing games.’” Ryan later changed his mind, and his final article about Heinsohn focused partly on his intelligence.
In 1967, Heinsohn was in his first stint as a broadcaster, calling games alongside Auerbach, the pioneering Celtics coach and executive. Heinsohn was fresh off a playing career in which he helped lead the Celtics to the N.B.A. finals in each of his nine seasons, winning eight. He and Russell started a dynasty as rookies, playing alongside greats like Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman. Later, Heinsohn became Boston’s head coach and secured two more titles.
Yet one of Heinsohn’s most lasting legacies came from his years as the second president of the N.B.A. players’ union. Before the 1964 All-Star Game, Heinsohn organized a strike to demand better working conditions. The owners agreed, leading to the N.B.A.’s first collective-bargaining agreement and, eventually, free agency.
Although he was a ferocious competitor, those who knew Heinsohn described him as kind and serene when the game clock expired, and generous with his time as a mentor and a friend. Heinsohn was also an accomplished painter, partial to watercolors and New England landscapes. “We have a Heinsohn in our living room,” Ryan said. “It’s called Snowy Winter Evening.”
As basketball evolved, Heinsohn did not. When 3-pointers became the rage, he still loved the midrange jumper. When advanced statistics became sportscasters’ parlance, he ignored them. “You know what metric I know?” he once asked Gorman during a game. “The final score.” Instead, he invented his own stat to measure the immeasurable; he awarded thousands of “Tommy Points” for hustle plays.
Tony Allen, the scrappy Celtics defensive specialist, admitted this week that he would rewatch games to count his Tommy Points. “Any Celtic that ever played in a Celtic uniform always was thankful for a Tommy Point,” he said.
Heinsohn believed his eyes over stats, Gorman said. Before their first N.B.A. game together in 1981, Gorman said, he was laying out detailed notes with statistics and player anecdotes when Heinsohn arrived and asked what they were.
“He gave me kind of a wry smile, picked up my notes, rolled them in a ball, and tossed them off the first balcony,” Gorman recalled. “I didn’t know what to say. Then Tommy put his arm around me and said, ‘Kiddo, we’re just going to talk about what we see in front of us.’ And that’s what we did for the better part of 40 years.”