From now until February 11, Red’s Army will be posting stories about the players behind the Celtics’ 22 retired numbers and that one retired nickname. Stories will be posted in the order that the numbers were retired.
Other than Red Auerbach, no person is more closely associated with the Boston Celtics than Tommy Heinsohn. Tommy has been with the Cs for more than 60 years as a player, coach and broadcaster. Most NBA fans of today probably know him only as the grouchy homer on Celtics telecasts, but that overlooks the tremendous success and influence Tommy has had during his lifetime in Boston.
Tommy played college ball at Holy Cross, where he averaged 22 points and 15 rebounds as a Crusader. In his senior year, he was named to the All-America team. Because Holy Cross is in Worcester, Mass., not even 50 miles from the Garden, the Celtics were able to draft him as a territorial selection in 1956. In the days when the NBA struggled to attract fans, territorial picks were a method to keep top college players in the cities where they were already popular. (By the way, the Celtics also selected Bill Russell and K.C. Jones that year, so with three future Hall of Famers, their ’56 draft was not too shabby.)
Tommy was a bruising 6’7” power forward known for his hook shot and a line-drive jumper. He was named the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1957, and in Game 7 of the championship finals put up 37 points and 23 rebounds as the Cs won their first title.
Over nine seasons, Tommy went on to average 18.6 points and 8.8 boards. He was six times an All-Star and four times All-NBA. Boston raised eight banners during his career. He capped this off with induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1986.
After his playing days ended in 1965, Tommy spent some time broadcasting Celtics games on local TV. When player-coach Bill Russell retired in 1969, Red hired Tommy to coach a rebuilding squad. Tommy had the Celtics running relentlessly, and in three years he brought them to the top of the Eastern Conference. When 6’8” Dave Cowens was drafted to play center in the era of dominant big men, Tommy adapted the team’s fast-break style and became the first NBA coach to innovate a small-ball system.
In nine seasons as coach, Tommy guided the Cs to 427 wins (second most behind Red) and two championships. It might’ve been three titles if John Havlicek hadn’t injured his shoulder in the 1973 playoffs. The Celts were 68-14 that season, as Tommy won Coach of the Year, but with Havlicek ailing, they lost in seven games to the eventual-champion Knicks.
If you think Tommy complains a lot about the refs on TV, you should’ve seen him on the sidelines. He alternated between artery-popping rage and bemused exasperation, and there were plenty of technical fouls rung up. But Tommy also got a lot of laughs when he made a “less filling/tastes great” beer commercial with high-profile ref Mendy Rudolph, who threw him “outta the bar.”
After some trades didn’t pan out in the late 1970s, the Celtics went into a decline that cost Tommy his job. He was fired in mid-season in 1978. But his excellence as a leader was recognized in 2015 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a coach – joining John Wooden, Lenny Wilkens and Bill Sharman in the elite group of those honored twice in Springfield, Mass.
During the couple of years that he was not affiliated with the Celtics, Tommy went full-time into the insurance sales career he had cultivated as a counterpart to his basketball career. In his book, “Give ‘em the Hook,” Tommy revealed that he made more money in insurance sales and management than he did as a power forward.
In 1981, basketball called again. Tommy teamed up with Mike Gorman to announce Celtics games on cable TV. They’re still together as the longest-running announcing duo in NBA history. It’s entirely possible he will become a three-time Hall of Famer, as he and Mike are more than deserving of that recognition for their television work.
Besides his rants towards referees, Tommy has become beloved for his famous phrases, including:
- “Hello to the redhead from Needham” (his wife, before she passed)
- “I love Waltah!” (Walter McCarty)
- “The Little Guy!” (Isaiah Thomas)
- “All of Australia” (which went viral)
- “Bogus! Ab-so-lutely ridiculous!”
For several years during the 1980s, Tommy was also the top analyst on CBS national broadcasts. Coincidentally, the Celts were in the Finals for his first four years at the CBS microphone. He bent over backwards to avoid being biased toward Boston – too much, in the eyes of many Celtics fans. Of course, fans of other teams thought the opposite. (Good thing Twitter didn’t exist yet.)
Away from basketball, Tommy is an accomplished artist who has created countless paintings, as described in a recent TV news report.
We should all be so fortunate, at age 83, to possess the same passion about the Celtics as Tommy Heinsohn.
The retired numbers project: