UK Markets close in 5 hrs 32 mins

An appreciation of Tommy Heinsohn, the legendary and lovable Celtics player, coach and broadcaster

Ben Rohrbach
·4-min read

No NBA figure is more entwined with his team than Tommy Heinsohn was with the Boston Celtics.

He first made his name about an hour away in Worcester, where he was the successor to Bob Cousy as an All-American at Holy Cross. The Celtics drafted Heinsohn with a territorial pick in 1956, and he spent the next 64 years entrenched with the team as a legendary player, coach and commentator until his death at age 86 on Tuesday, impacting every member of the organization who passed through the Garden doors.

You could often find Heinsohn before games in the building’s Will McDonough Press Room, watching whatever was on television and willing to discuss how Bill Russell would have fared in every NBA era. He was still Mike Gorman’s color analyst on local Celtics broadcasts this past season, convinced as ever the officials were out to get his team, even if recent health issues had limited his schedule. In the locker room after games, he would sidle up to Marcus Smart or whichever player was in need of his wisdom that day.

Long before Heinsohn became a lovable broadcaster, a homer who loved every Celtics player from “Waltah” McCarty to “The Little Guy” Isaiah Thomas as much as he loathed the referees, he was a hell of a player. Ask Russell, Satch Sanders or the few Hall of Famers he played alongside who are still with us.

Heinsohn won 1956-57 Rookie of the Year honors over Russell, a season that culminated with his 37 points and 23 rebounds in a title-clinching two-point Game 7 victory against the St. Louis Hawks. It was Boston’s first championship. He stuck around for all 16 more, eight of which he won in nine seasons as a player.

Heinsohn’s first stint as a broadcaster came in the three years between his retirement as a 30-year-old six-time All-Star in 1965 and a nine-year run as head coach of the Celtics that began in 1969. Serving as the bridge from Boston’s first dynasty to its next, his buzzcut and bare broad shoulders gave way to sideburns and a plaid sport coat. With John Havlicek, Jo Jo White and Dave Cowens as his torch-bearing stars, he delivered two more titles before stepping down as coach in 1978, the year the Celtics drafted Larry Bird.

Twenty nine years passed between Heinsohn’s Hall of Fame induction as an NBA player and coach. Only Lenny Wilkens is also enshrined as both, and Heinsohn should be the first to be bronzed as a broadcaster.

Tommy Heinsohn is one of two people to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as an NBA player and coach. (Getty Images)
Tommy Heinsohn is one of two people to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as an NBA player and coach. (Getty Images)

Heinsohn and Gorman started calling Celtics games together in 1981, the year Bird won the first of his three rings. They became the NBA’s longest-running broadcast duo, and then made that record unbreakable in their 39 years together. Gorman was the straight man to Heinsohn’s schtick, and together they were the soundtrack to Boston basketball. When bent to one of his “These guys are ridiculous!” rants or compared Greg Stiemsma to Russell, Gorman reined him in, each win or loss a window into their lifelong friendship.

“Roughly 2,800 times I sat down with Tommy broadcast a game. Every time it was special,” Gorman wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “HOF player ... HOF coach ... HOF partner. Celtics Nation has lost its finest voice. Rest in peace my friend. It has been the privilege of my professional life to be the Mike in Mike and Tommy.”

Celtics road games felt different these past few years, when Brian Scalabrine was on the call with Gorman. They are forever changed now that Heinsohn’s cigarette- singed voice is no longer echoing through Garden hallways. The Celtics have three picks in the first round of the 2020 draft, and for the first time since 1956 they will not be welcomed with some sage advice from the man who has seen it all. Red Auerbach’s words ran through Heinsohn to Havlicek and Cowens, Bird and Kevin McHale, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

Run the damn ball. I have heard that phrase from Heinsohn’s mouth more than any other in basketball. And all anyone ever said when he left the locker room? “Legend.” That lives on, even if the room feels emptier.

– – – – – – –

Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

More from Yahoo Sports: