The Tom Heinsohn Interview
By: Michael D. McClellan
He is perhaps the single most overlooked player in the Boston Celtics’ storied pantheon of greatness, his arrival coinciding with that of a certain shot-blocking, game-altering, paradigm-shifting center named Bill Russell, his place on the 1956-57 roster anything but guaranteed, his considerable basketball talent initially overshadowed by the dazzling ballhandling of fellow Holy Cross alum Bob Cousy and the deadeye marksmanship of the gifted Bill Sharman. There would soon be other marquee players added to the mix, future hall-of-famers such as John Havlicek and the Jones Boys, KC and Sam, further obscuring the contributions of one Thomas William Heinsohn, and yet his very arrival helped cement a roster on the rise send the Boston Celtics on an unparalleled, decade-long championship feast.
In many ways, Heinsohn was the trigger man for that untouchable run of eleven titles in thirteen seasons; with Russell in Melbourne, missing the first 24 games of 1956-57 regular season to compete in the Olympic Games, Heinsohn bounded onto the NBA stage like a playful pup, chasing down rebounds and firing those patented low-trajectory jumpers en route to the league’s Rookie of the Year Award. The capstone of that dream season came in Game 7 of the 1957 NBA Finals. With Cousy and Sharman both ice cold from the field, Heinsohn scored 37 points and grabbed 23 rebounds in Boston’s thrilling 125-123 double-overtime win over Bob Petit and the St. Louis Hawks. It would prove to be the defining moment for Boston Celtic basketball, and in many ways the foundation of Celtic Pride: That win not only established Boston as a perennial NBA power, but it also stamped the Celtics as clutch performers obsessed with the bottom line, an unselfish team far greater than the sum of its individual parts.
Born on August 26th, 1934, in Jersey City, New Jersey, Tommy Heinsohn spent most of his early years playing traditional street games with the neighborhood children. Just across the river, Babe Ruth had transformed himself into a national icon – and the New York Yankees into an American institution – but Heinsohn was too young to be fully consumed by the Bambino’s greatness. He attended Saint Paul of the Cross School through the fifth grade, and then transferred to Saint Joseph’s when his family moved to nearby Union City. Raw, but eager, the determined preteen made his sixth grade team and wasted little time standing out. He was also a great listener, a trait that impressed his coaches and enabled him to close the gap on the more experienced kids. Two years later he was the leading scorer on his junior high team.
Never satisfied, the young Tommy Heinsohn continually worked hard to improve his game. He practiced with the team during the season and then practiced alone after the last game on the schedule had been played. Foul shots. Jump shots. Hook shots. He played in neighborhood pickup games and, after all of the other boys had gone home, he played in imaginary games against the collegiate giants of the day.
Heinsohn flourished at St. Michael’s High School, earning all-county and all-state honors as a junior, and then earning national All-America honors as a senior. The four-year letter winner averaged an eye-popping 28 ppg during that 1951-52 season, drawing national attention and prompting an avalanche of scholarship offers. He ultimately decided on Holy Cross, then one of the preeminent basketball programs in the country, following in the collegiate footsteps of another hoops legend, Bob Cousy.
Heinsohn proved himself every bit as good as his advance billing. After spending his freshman year acclimating himself to college life (freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity ball under the rules of the day), Heinsohn went onto become a three-year letter-winner, as well as a three-time All-Conference performer. As a junior he averaged 23.3. ppg, and as a senior he set a school scoring record by averaging 27.4 ppg. The numbers could be downright spectacular – on March 1, 1956, Heinsohn scored a school-record 51 points against Boston College – or they could simply be amazing, such as the eighteen consecutive free throws made in a game against Georgetown University earlier that same season. Not surprisingly, Heinsohn finished his senior season by being honored as a consensus All-American, but perhaps even more impressive was his making the dean’s list (four times in two years) and being named Holy Cross’ top student-athlete.
While Heinsohn was busy graduating with honors, team owner Walter Brown and head coach Red Auerbach were preparing the Boston Celtics for a quantum leap into the NBA’s elite. The plan was simple – acquire the draft rights to Bill Russell at any cost. Negotiations between the Celtics and the St. Louis Hawks resulted in Boston parting with, among other things, All-Star forward “Easy” Ed Macauley, a terrific scorer who also happened to be rail-thin and anemic on the glass. With Russell in the fold, Auerbach was convinced that his team had the dominant defensive presence that it had so sorely lacked in the paint. That the Celtics had to wait 24 games to get their prized big man in uniform was of little consequence; Brown and Auerbach both knew that Russell would be busy in Melbourne, representing the United States in the 1956 Olympic Games. The more pressing matter was finding a way to replace Macauley’s offensive production. Selecting Heinsohn with a territorial pick in the 1956 NBA Draft made perfect sense, and Auerbach did just that, although he was initially skeptical about Heinsohn’s ability to produce in the pros.
Heinsohn reported to camp that fall in terrific shape, perhaps the best in his life, but nothing prepared him for Auerbach’s torturous practices. Nor had he ever found himself so consistently on the brunt end of a coach’s wrath; Auerbach, it seemed, couldn’t scream at Heinsohn enough. The rookie shrugged off the constant berating time and again, the way a private in the Army might tune out his drill instructor. Heinsohn intuitively sensed Auerbach’s psychology at work; his coach knew which players responded well to fiery rhetoric, and which players needed to handled with a more gentle touch. Auerbach, for his part, could bank on his words rolling off the back of his rookie forward, that nothing personal was meant and that no offense was taken.
Tough as nails and unafraid to take the big shot, Heinsohn quickly filled the scoring void left by Macauley’s departure. He averaged 16 ppg during his rookie season, proving to Auerbach that he could play exceptional basketball at the NBA level. The Celtics were once again rolling offensively, just as they had through much of the 1950s – and then things only got better when Russell joined the fold. Blocking shots and ripping down rebounds, the defensive phenom from San Francisco brought a dimension to the team that had been sorely lacking since its inception in 1946. Together, Heinsohn and Russell proved to be the missing ingredients to a championship mix, defeating the Hawks in that dramatic 1957 NBA Finals and staking claim as professional basketball’s team of the future.
Heinsohn’s scoring averaging increased during the 1957-58 season, to 17.8 ppg, but the Celtics failed to repeat as champions. An ankle injury to Bill Russell in the ’58 Finals allowed Pettit and the Hawks to claim the title. Still, the Celtics were laying the foundation of a dynasty. Auerbach tapped future hall-of-famer Sam Jones in the first round of the 1957 NBA Draft, giving Boston another offensive weapon, and defensive stopper Satch Sanders was added three years later. The Celtics would reclaim the title in 1959, the team’s second banner in three seasons, touching off an unprecedented run of eight consecutive championships. Heinsohn’s 18.8 ppg average during that ’58-59 season was third on the team behind Sharman and Cousy, and firmly established him as a threat to score on any possession.
The media proved far less complimentary of Heinsohn’s offensive prowess. He was often skewered in print for taking too many shots, especially those considered to be low-percentage. Nicknamed “Tommy Gun” and “Ack-Ack” by his teammates, both in reference to the trigger-happy side of his game, Heinsohn nonetheless possessed a true shooter’s mentality – quick to dismiss any errant field goal attempt, and confident that the next shot was going to drop. Auerbach tolerated Heinsohn’s shooting binges. His team needed a gunner who wouldn’t shrink away with the game on the line. Heinsohn happily obliged. He was agile enough to take his man outside, and yet he was big enough operate close to the basket. Getting off a shot was a big part of his game.
The 1959-60 NBA season brought another championship to Boston. His scoring average increased for the fourth consecutive year, to 21.7 ppg, this to go along with a career-high 10.6 rpg. Battling Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia Warriors in the Eastern Division Finals, Heinsohn was there when the team needed him most, tipping in a shot at the buzzer to win Game 6 and send the Celtics back to the NBA Finals. For Heinsohn, that play remains one of his biggest thrills.
“Wilt didn’t like me to begin with,” Heinsohn recalls with a smile. “He was pretty easy-going, but for some reason I seemed to get under his skin. I scored twenty-two points in that game, including that tap-in at the buzzer. It was a great feeling to score like that.”
Another seven game win over the Hawks gave Boston its second consecutive championship, and its third in four years. The team was beginning to display an aura known today as the “Celtic Mystique”. Through it all,
Heinsohn relished his roll as Auerbach’s whipping boy. He knew that Auerbach couldn’t lash out at players like Cousy and Sam Jones. They were wired differently, and they simply weren’t going to respond well to that type of treatment. He also knew that Auerbach couldn’t keep his frustration bottled in. And when Auerbach needed to vent, Heinsohn was the primary target.
“Red knew the egos involved,” Heinsohn says. “He was a master at understanding how to deal with people. He knew who he could ride and who didn’t like to be called out verbally. So instead of blasting this guy, or getting on that guy, he knew that he could take it out on me and get his point across. I knew what he was doing, so it just rolled off. I was fine with it.”
Heinsohn was named to his second All-Star Game the following season, and the Celtics were once again world champions. It was a delicious pattern that would repeat for the next four seasons. He would retire following the 1964-65 campaign, his mind willing but his ailing knees unable to carry him further as a professional basketball player. Still, there were no regrets; his nine years in the league had produced eight championships and six All-Star selections. Auerbach would retire a year later, bowing out with a record ninth banner and committing himself to working in the Celtics’ front office. In the ultimate show of respect, he approached Heinsohn about taking his place on the bench. Heinsohn didn’t have to think long about the offer – he pretty much refused on the spot.
“I was flattered, but I knew that Russell still had a few years left,” he says. “I couldn’t accept the job because, aside from Red, there was only one other person who could coach and motivate Bill Russell – and that was Bill Russell.”
Auerbach agreed, and Russell was named player-coach. He would win two more championships over the next three seasons and then bow out a winner. The final tally for the Russell Dynasty would be eleven titles in thirteen years, including eight in a row.
Russell and Sam Jones would retire following that 1969 title run, and the Celtics were clearly in rebuilding mode. Auerbach once again approached Heinsohn about the head coaching job. This time he eagerly agreed. He wanted to see if he could help Boston rise again, and he knew that the team would struggle along the way. Auerbach, drafting smartly, grabbed point guard Jo Jo White from Kansas in the 1969 NBA Draft. One year later he selected Dave Cowens from Florida State. The choices proved pivotal in Boston’s speedy resurgence; after finishing 34-48 during Heinsohn’s rookie campaign as head coach, the team rebounded with a 44-38 record the following season. A 56-26 record ended a two-year playoff drought, and then the Celtics rolled to a 68-14 record during the 1972-73 regular season. The 68 wins were a team record. Heinsohn was named the NBA Coach of the Year. In the playoffs, however, the New York Knicks refused to be intimidated by Boston’s .829 winning percentage. With John Havlicek nursing a shoulder injury, the Celtics fell into a 3-1 hole before rallying to even the series. New York won Game 7 of the ’73 Eastern Division Finals, and the Celtics were sent home to ponder what might have been.
The next season would prove magical, as Heinsohn’s Celtics dropped to 56-26 but advanced to the 1974 NBA Finals. Considered an underdog to Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the Milwaukee Bucks, the undersized Celtics played a frenetic brand of basketball to forge a 3-2 series lead. In Boston for what would a the penultimate Game 6, Jabbar’s buzzer-beating skyhook forced Game 7 back in Milwaukee. The media proclaimed the new-look Celtics dead, that they had squandered their best chance to claim the title. Privately, Heinsohn had a different take on things. He saw an old Oscar Robertson, his legs weary from a long season and a difficult playoff push, and he knew that his players were fresh and ready to atone for that Game 6 loss. And atone they did: Cowens scored 28 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, outplaying the bigger Jabbar. Jo Jo White and Don Chaney forced Robertson to work hard on both ends of the court. Paul Silas was a beast on the glass. And when it was over, the Celtics were once again world champions – the first of the post-Russell era.
“We were able to dictate the style of play,” Heinsohn says, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player on May 6th, 1986. “We forced them to play our way, and we wore them down over those seven games.”
The Celtics were unable to repeat the next season, but they were able to reclaim the title one year later, following the 1973-74 regular season. It was Boston’s second title in three seasons. That series will forever be remembered for Game 5 in the Boston Garden, a three-overtime thriller against the Phoenix Suns that the league now bills as ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’. As a coach, Heinsohn compiled a 416-240 record over eight full seasons, won five consecutive Eastern Division titles, and two world championships. He would resign midway through the 1977-78 regular season, but his passion for the Boston Celtics has kept him in the game as a television broadcaster.
By all accounts, Heinsohn proved himself a winner on all levels. As a player, he may have been overshadowed by players such as Russell, Cousy, Sharman and Havlicek, but those who were there can attest to his value as a player.
“Tom Heinsohn was one of the greatest forwards to play the game,” says Harold Furash, a close friend to many of the players on those championship teams, and someone who knew Russell’s Boston Celtics perhaps better than anyone. “Sure, he was overshadowed by Russell and the rest of those guys. But had he played on another team, Heinsohn would have piled up his statistics and gotten a lot more attention for his accomplishments. However, those things weren’t important to him. He wanted to win. He wanted to be known as a champion. In Boston, he was able to do that.”
Celtic Nation is honored to bring you this interview.
You were born on August 26, 1934 in Jersey City, New Jersey. Please tell me a little about your childhood – your family life, the sports that you played, and some of the things that led you to the basketball court.
I grew up during the Depression and World War II. In 1944, my family moved to Union City, New Jersey, and that’s when I first started playing basketball. All sports, for that matter. Somebody took an interest in me in the schoolyard – he played at the University of Villanova with Paul Arizin. He was like a sophomore going into his junior year, and he would come home and practice at night, and one night I just happened to be there. He asked me to shag the balls, and we became friends. And I did that every night, and he taught me how to play basketball. His name was Perry Del Purgatorio. That’s how I started playing basketball, and by the time I got to the eighth grade I was pretty good. I got a scholarship to high school, which allowed me to play basketball at a little Catholic school. So that’s how I started playing. I tried out for the football team, but never made it. I played a little bit of baseball. But basketball was my game.
You were a two-time all-state basketball player at St. Michael's High School in Union City. Please take me back to this period in your life; what memories remain with you after all of these years?
I had a terrific high school coach. His name was Pat Finnegan. He was a World War II veteran, and he was a Fordham grad. He was in the Air Force, and his brother was a Seton Hall graduate – and a marine. The two of them would come up on Saturdays, particularly the brother. His name was John. We would scrimmage with all kinds of people, so by the time I was a sophomore in high school I was playing against very, very good basketball players. Both Pat Finnegan and John Finnegan played college basketball. Pat played with Johnny Bach at Fordham, and John with Pep Saul at Seton Hall. So these were accomplished college players, and from my sophomore year on we had a pretty good basketball team. Pat arrived St. Michael’s as my high school coach just prior to my sophomore year. By the time we got to be seniors we had a very good team. We won the Metropolitan Catholic Championship – all of the Catholic schools in and around the New York metropolitan area competed. Teams from New York and New Jersey. I made All-State as you said, and I made the All-American team. We played the game down in Murray, Kentucky, for the Converse Rubber Company. You’d go down there for a week. You’d have two-a-days and scrimmages, and then you would play the game. So after the coaches spent that week of looking at everybody, I was selected to the All-America team.
I played semi-pro ball. I played practically every night, from my sophomore year on. I played under another name for the Jewish Y. I played PIL basketball for a semi-pro team, which was really the best experience I could have gotten. The league was more talented, and more competitive than my high school league at the time, which in itself was pretty good at the time. I played against some pros, and I played against some All-Americans. A lot of college players. In one tournament at the end of my sophomore year, against this kind of competition, I was selected as the MVP of the tournament., which was quite a thing for a kid that age.
So we had a good basketball team by the time I got to my senior year in high school. I played with two guys who ended up going to college on basketball scholarships. We went up to Eastern States Catholic Invitation Tournament in Newport, Rhode Island, which at that time was a big deal. We played well and ended up in the final game, but we lost that one.
You were an All-American at Holy Cross. Please take me back to this period in your life - what was it like to play basketball at Holy Cross, and what was it like to follow the path of the great Bob Cousy?
I selected Holy Cross because I wanted to go to a Jesuit school. Of course, my high school coach went to Fordham, and Johnny Bach was coaching there at the time. Georgetown was also interested in me. In fact, I had over 350 offers after making the All-America team, which was the only high school All-America team at that time. I selected Holy Cross because it had the best basketball program at the time. Holy Cross was number one in New England, and I knew several of the players. Togo Palazzi, who also played for the Celtics and who was two years ahead of me, was a Union City guy. I had played against him in high school, and he was a terrific player. Another guy by the name of Earl Markey – he was a senior when I was a freshman in high school, and he had played in the same league that I had played in. I knew his brother, and I played semi-pro basketball with his brother. So I knew some of the people, I liked the school, and I liked the coach. So I went to Holy Cross.
They had a freshman team in those days. We were an undefeated freshman team, and we used to battle the varsity to a standstill in practice. My sophomore year we won the Sugar Bowl, and we won the NIT, which was the premiere tournament at the time. We were ranked number one or two in the country, depending upon which ranking you wanted to use. But we were a terrific team. There were three sophomores on the starting team that won the NIT, which at the time was the bigger of the two tournaments. The NIT was bigger, more renowned.
Then I played the next two years at Holy Cross. Because we lost Togo Palazzi to graduation and the NBA, where he played for Red Auerbach and the Celtics, and because we lost Ronnie Perry, our captain, we really didn’t have the same team. By the end of my junior year, my coach had a falling out with the school and he left. My senior year brought a brand new coach and a new philosophy and everything else. But I ended up making All-American both years. I played against the Harlem Globetrotters, I played in All-Star games, and I was selected as a territorial pick by the Boston Celtics.
Right. You were a territorial selection in the 1956 NBA Draft, joining a Celtic team on the verge of a dynasty. What was your first training camp like, and what was it like to play with two of the greatest guards in the league, Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy?
Well, I watched the Celtics play. I really didn’t know Bob Cousy until I joined the Celtics, even though he lived in Worcester, where Holy Cross is located. He was busy playing basketball for the Celtics and I was still in school at the time. So I never really got to meet him. But, as I said, I did get to see Cousy and the Celtics play. They were an up-tempo team.
So, I was a territorial pick by the Celtics. Back then, the territorial process was really the first round of the NBA Draft. You had the exclusive rights to a player if you wanted him, regardless of where you finished in the standings. It was based on a player’s proximity to the team, and it allowed teams to showcase players that were popular in that team’s market. So the Celtics executed the territorial rights to me, and they also made a deal to get Bill Russell, after St. Louis selected him with the third overall pick in the 1956 NBA Draft. The Celtics also got KC Jones in the second round of that draft, so they got three hall-of-fame players in the same draft. Russell went to the Olympics, so he didn’t join us until midyear. In the meantime, I learned to play with Cousy. And the reason we were so successful was because of the rebounding. Prior to my being there, and Russell being there, they really had a terrific offense but no rebounding. “Easy” Ed Macauley played underneath the basket for them – he was the key player that Boston packaged in order to get Russell from the Hawks – and he was too thin to really compete against the big guys inside. He was 6’8”, but he didn’t weigh 200 pounds. He was terrific scorer, though. He just wasn’t a rebounder. Russell and I provided that. Plus, I was a scorer. Russell came in around the middle of the season on. We were eight games out of first place by the time Russell came back from the Olympics and started playing with us.
We played well in the postseason, and we made it to our first NBA Finals. We beat St. Louis in double-overtime of Game 7, which I still consider to be the most thrilling game that I was ever involved in – and I’ve been involved in a lot of Finals series, broadcasting, coaching or playing. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been another seventh game that has gone into double-overtime.
Anyway, Cousy and Sharman, who were established pros at the time, were the experienced players on that 1956-57 team. Jack Nichols was a forward on that team. Arnie Risen was the center until Bill Russell showed up. There was Jim Loscutoff, who had been a rookie the year before. Andy Phillip, who ended up being a hall-of-fame player, was a part of that team. He was a great playmaker, and very steady. So it added up to a pretty savvy basketball team, and as the younger group started to mesh – KC Jones actually didn’t play that year, because he had to go into the service for two years – we became a legitimate championship contender. Later we added Sam Jones and Satch Sanders, and the Boston Celtics was well on its way to becoming a dynasty.
Team founder Walter Brown was clearly the heart-and-soul of the Boston Celtics, his faith in the success of his team never flagging, even during the lean years in the late 40s and early 50s. Please tell me about the relationship between Walter Brown and Tom Heinsohn.
Well, I was the president of the NBA Players Association, and in 1964 the All-Star Game was going to be held in the Boston Garden. And a really difficult situation developed between the Player’s Association and the league with regards to playing conditions – there were no trainers at that time – pension plans, and playing games on Saturday night and then traveling all night to try and play a game on television on Sunday. Those were some of the things that we were trying to address. Well, the owners wouldn’t talk to us when they promised that they were going to talk to us, and it all came to a head at the 1964 NBA All-Star Game. I had told Walter Brown that I didn’t know what was going to happen, but unless something was done with regards to these issues, then something was going to transpire at the All-Star Game. So I told him this maybe a month before the game was to be played. The days passed, and the closer it got to playing the All-Star Game the more it looked as if the players were going to boycott. You have to understand, back then the All-Star Game was the most important national exposure for the league. It was vitally important to both the players and the owners, but especially for the owners because they were trying to grow professional basketball in a big way. Well, minutes before game time, NBA President Walter Kennedy gave his personal guarantee that adoption of a pension plan would occur at the next owners meeting, that coming May. And he was true to his word. The owners approved a plan in which they would contribute 50% toward the purchase of a $2,000 endowment policy. That’s how the NBA pension plan was started.
And after it all happened, Walter Brown called me the biggest heel in sports. He said that if the league had a team in Hawaii he’d send me to the team in Hawaii. He eventually calmed down, and by the end of the season we won the title. At the team’s breakup dinner he stood up, and he said that I was the main reason why the Celtics had won the title that year.
Believe it or not, at the same time all of this was going on, I was in the insurance business and I was handling the insurance side of Walter Brown’s estate planning. So I had a somewhat of a mixed relationship with Walter. He was a terrific human being, and a man of his word. Frank Ramsey used to send his contract signed completely blank, and he would have Walter fill in his figures. I can remember negotiating my contract standing in the bathroom at the urinal, and before I zipped up we had a deal [laughs].
Red Auerbach often took the Celtics on preseason barnstorming tours throughout New England. Do you have an amusing story that stands out, and what was it like to ride in the car with Red?
I never rode in the car with Red Auerbach – you’d have to be crazy to ride in the car with Red Auerbach [laughs]. My funniest story? I don’t know if anyone ever told you this one, but it revolved around Jim Loscutoff, who had had back surgery and was trying to make the ball club again. Naturally, after back surgery Loscutoff was a little tentative. Now, Red had been in the Navy, and had done some work helping guys recuperate from injuries in the service, and what have you. Psychologically, he tried to get into Loscutoff’s head. He wanted to make him forget about the back and just play basketball. Anyway, he would have separate drills on these road trips up through New England. We’d go to play in a high school gym, and we’d all go to take a nap in some motel, and in the afternoon he would take Loscutoff to the gym for a separate workout. Loscutoff was my roommate, and he would come back to the motel and go, ‘I’m gonna get that little sucker, and I’m gonna kill him.’ And he kept saying this, you know, and finally I went to Red and said, ‘Red, what are you doing to Loscutoff?’ I said, ‘You better watch out, he wants to kill you.’ And Red said, ‘You and Ramsey, you two come and watch what I’m doing. Just don’t let him know that you’re there.’ So we sneaked into the high school gym and hid way up in the stands behind some seats, and we watched Red put Loscutoff through his paces. And he would throw the ball on the floor, and he would say, ‘Okay, doggie, go get it.’ Loscutoff was expected to dive on the floor and jump on the ball. And then Red would throw these long passes so that Loscutoff had one step and then he would crash into the wall. And after it was all over, I looked at Ramsey and I said, ‘If I were Red, I wouldn’t keep dong that to Loscutoff – he’s a little bit left of center anyway, and he’s just crazy enough to knock Red into next week.’ [Laughs]. But to give Red his due, he got Loscutoff’s head back into the game, and Loscutoff was an important part of the team for years to come.
Your relationship with Red Auerbach is clearly special – you were his initial choice as his coaching successor in 1966. As a player, you were often his self-proclaimed whipping boy – the one player who could handle Red’s criticisms without taking it personally. How were the two of you able to get along so well?
Before I became the coach, I spent four years in the management end of the insurance business, in which I was very successful. As I was going through the initial management course for the insurance company, all of a sudden I started to see how good Red really was as a manager of people. How he drafted certain players, and why. And how he made the acquisitions to get players in to help keep the team on top. All of the motivations he used, and everything else. And I thoroughly believed in the philosophy that we had about running and making the other team play twice as hard, and think twice as fast. The other thing was, unbeknownst to a lot of people at the time, every time we signed a rookie and something was wrong, he’d ask me questions. For example, he might say, ‘Tommy, what’s wrong with Mel Counts? Why can’t he rebound, and why can’t he hold onto the ball?’ And I might say, ‘Well, he’s not catching the ball off the board. He brings it down and it gets slapped out of his hands easily.’ And Red would respond, ‘Well, you work with him.’ So over the years I worked with a lot of players. As a consequence, Red saw me dealing with a lot of players. Larry Siegfried, for example. Red was going to cut him, and I used to play one-on-one with Siegfried. Nobody could beat me one-on-one until Siegfried showed up. He would beat me every time we played. So I said to Red, ‘Before you cut Siegfried, you should know that he’s the only guy on the team that can beat me one-on-one.’ Red looked at me curiously, and he said, ‘He does? Well, we’re going to have practice at the Garden. You play him one-on-one and let me watch.’ So, Red was way up in the stands where he couldn’t be seen. And he watched – Siegfried never knew this – and so we played and he beat me again. Red kept Siegfried.
After I had retired, he called me up that summer and said that he had a chance to get Don Nelson. He said, ‘What do you think of Don Nelson?’ And I said, ‘Red, Don Nelson is slow as shit. He cannot run. But he and Joe Holup are the only two guys that I played against in the NBA that I couldn’t get around. I don’t know how he does it, but he does it. He’s also a terrific shooter, so if you’ve got a shot at him I think it’s well worth the effort.’ So that was my contribution to Don Nelson landing in Boston. And I think Red saw something in me as a coach, and that’s why he approached me for the job.
You were very close to the late Johnny Most, and you recently provided the narration on Jamie Most’s Voice of the Celtics. What was it like to work on this project, and what memories did it bring back after all of these years?
Johnny Most and I were really good friends. I hung around Johnny from my rookie year on, because he was a very intelligent man, and he was a great storyteller. And he was a funny, funny guy. My favorite story about Johnny Most? If he took a liking to you, then he would try to promote you on the broadcast. At that time my roommate was Lou Tsioropoulos, which was my rookie year. So, he liked Louie. Loscutoff got hurt and couldn’t play in the playoffs, and Louie had to fill in for him. And his broadcast went something like this:
Editors Note: At this point, Mr. Heinsohn, who is famous for his voice impersonations, adopts the gravel-sounding delivery of Johnny Most. He nails it perfectly.
“I can’t believe the defensive job Lou Tsioropoulos is doing on Bob Pettit. I mean, he’s in his jersey, he’s in his sneakers, there’s no place that Pettit goes that Lou Tsioropoulos isn’t right there with him. Here we are in the middle of the second quarter and he’s only got….thirty-two points?” [Laughs].
So that was the type of guy Johnny Most was. He helped me after I started broadcasting the games in ’66. So I roomed with Johnny Most on the road when I did the game. We did twenty-five road games. I would room with him, and he helped me learn how to broadcast. After I became the coach of the Celtics, I started broadcasting at Sports Channel, and in the summer we used to have Johnny Most sound alike contests. So I would emcee the sound alike contest all over New England - at the hotel, a bar, whatever. And we had a lot of fun doing that.
Johnny Most was also a Pop Warner football coach, and the commissioner of a Pop Warner football league in his community. And he helped get my son involved in football. So, we were brought together in many different ways. I was friendly with him as a player, I would pal around with him as a coach, and we hung out in between during my time as a broadcaster. So I hung out with Johnny Most for well over twenty years.
Johnny Most enjoyed writing poetry, while you were well-known as an artist. In many ways, Johnny viewed Tom Heinsohn as an artist on the basketball court. Did you view Johnny as a poet with a microphone?
Johnny Most – I would ask him questions about everything. He was in second World War, and I would meet all of his buddies. He was a gunner on a B-24. So, we’d go out somewhere and one of his buddies from that crew would meet up with us. I’d go out to dinner with them, or breakfast or lunch, or whatever, so I got to know all of his old-time buddies. Johnny had a tough time in the service. He was in Italy, and he was there with the Tuskegee Airmen, and he was one of the planes that they used to protect. So, he wrote about stuff like that. And it made him ultra-sensitive. He would tell stories about that period in his life.
He always had a slew of jokes – he’d sit down, and he’d just rattle off these jokes. You’d go out with him after a game, and sit at a bar, and he’d start telling jokes and everybody would be laughing their tails off. What else? He’d been up in the Borscht Belt in New York, which is up in the Catskills. He knew all of the comedians, and everything else. So, Johnny was a special person and a good friend of mine. And it was a shame that, ultimately, even when he knew what was going to happen he never stopped smoking.
You scored 37 points and grabbed 23 rebounds in the Celtics’ thrilling double-overtime Game 7 victory over the St. Louis Hawks in the 1957 NBA Championship. This game – and your performance – is often overlooked when discussing any “great” list. But those who were there, including your close friend Harold Furash, rank it as one of the greatest games of all time. Please take me back to that dramatic Game 7.
It was a championship game, winner-take-all. I got up for the game, and Russell got up for the game, and Cousy and Sharman were so nervous that they never really performed at their best. Now, Russell had a super game, but I had a super game, too. Frank Ramsey played very well, and so did Jim Loscutoff. Cousy and Sharman were like 4-for-40 from the field, or something like that. They really had a tough night scoring. But they played great defense, and they got the ball to other people when they needed to.
So, I remember the whole thing with Russell fouling out of the game. I remember how intense the game was, and the excitement in the Boston Garden. The two greatest plays that I ever saw in basketball happened in that game – one with Russell, who blocked a shot after going out-of-bounds and running the length of the court. He came out of nowhere to block Jack Coleman’s shot for a layup. It was breathtaking to watch. And then, Alex Hannum throwing the ball the length of the court pass off the backboard and into the hands of Bob Pettit, to get a shot with two seconds left. It was an eighteen footer, and it almost went in. I had never seen anybody ever do anything like that before or after. And now they’ve changed the rules, of course, so you don’t have to do that. But he threw it the length of the court, it hit the right corner of the backboard, and it rebounded all the way out to Bob Pettit [laughs]. He got the ball, and he almost made it.
You scored 22 points in Game 6 of the 1960 Eastern Conference Finals, including the game-winning tip-in at the buzzer. Please tell me a little about that classic battle with Wilt and the Philadelphia Warriors.
That was one of my more memorable games, because I tipped that shot in at the buzzer. That’s the only time that anybody has ever shut up 11,000 Philadelphians all at once [laughs]. Convention Hall went deathly silent.
Brawls were commonplace in the early days of the NBA. One such dust-up occurred between yourself and Wilt Chamberlain. Please take me back to some of those battles, such as your encounter with Wilt, and please tell me a little about Boston’s original tough men, Bob Brannum and Jim Loscutoff.
I never played with Brannum, but I certainly saw him play. I did play with Loscutoff, and Loscutoff was a tough guy. He was more-or-less the intimidator of our team. Wilt was a force to be reckoned with, and he took an immediate dislike to me during his rookie year in the league. He ripped off my jersey during one game in which we had a little altercation. We had a little play that we used to help us beat Philadelphia all the time, because Wilt got a little lazy at times. They would shoot a free throw, and make it, and Russell would run down the floor. Cousy would inbound the ball real fast, and Russell would outrun Wilt easily, and Russell would get a layup. So we were getting three or four baskets a game off of that. By the time we get to the series with the Sixers that year, Wilt has caught on. So before the series starts, Red said, ‘The play with Wilt is not working anymore, so we’re going to change it a little bit. We’re going to have somebody step in and block out the shooter once the ball goes through, go pick off Wilt Chamberlain, so Russell can get the step on him and beat him down the floor.’ So that sounded pretty good to me, because I was never the guy blocking out the shooter. I was always on the line, rebounding. So, for five games, I’ve gotta go and get in front of Wilt Chamberlain on every free throw. Finally, he gets wise to what I’m doing. And he says, ‘You do that one more time and I’m going to knock you on your ass.’ So, you know, you never back down. I looked him in the eye and I said, ‘Bring your lunch.’ So, they made the free throw, and I went over there, blocked him…I set a pick on him…and sure enough he knocked me on my ass. I went all the way out to half court. Whereupon he comes running down the floor, winds up, and he’s punching me as I’m getting up to my knee. And I’m looking at this fist coming at me, and all of a sudden Tom Gola walks in between us. And he hits Gola off of the back of the head – and Wilt breaks his hand! So I jump up immediately and start peppering him with rights and lefts. He doesn’t even know I’m hitting him.
So anyway, he plays the next game. It’s up in Boston. And what we would do with Wilt was use up all of our fouls when he had the ball. Exactly what they do today with the Hack-a-Shaq routine on Shaquille O’Neal. That started with Wilt. Russell would try to pressure the pass and make Wilt go out and get it. And Russell would three-quarter him, and if he could he’d pick it off. And if he didn’t get it, and Wilt was going to wheel to the basket, the weak side forward would come over and foul him. Well, we had a whole bunch of forwards, so we had a lot of fouls to give on Wilt [laughs].
In this particular game, after he breaks his hand, the ball gets by Russell and Wilt turns to the basket. I’m the guy coming over to help. I try to punch the ball out of his hand. Instead, I punch him on the broken hand. He looks at me, and he’s going to kill me. And I said to myself, ‘If I play chicken with this guy right now, he’s going to own me.’ So he got to the foul line, and he kept looking at me. He was giving me a stare down. I kept looking him right in the eye. I put my hands on my hips and I just kept staring at him [laughs]. Finally, he said out loud to himself, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ And he took the free throws and I never had another moment of trouble with Wilt [laughs]. It was the ultimate stare-down at the O.K. Corral [laughs].
Game 7 in the '62 Finals went into overtime, and Bill Russell responded with a 30-point, 40-rebound performance that ranks as one of the NBA’s best-ever. Please take me back to that series in general, and to Russell’s performance in particular.
I don’t remember this game, because this was when I was sick as a dog. I had the flu three times in the course of about six weeks. I kept coming back, and I lost a whole bunch of weight, and I was weak and everything else. I fouled out of this game in fifteen minutes. Cousy would throw me the ball and I couldn’t catch it. I was out of it.
Kevin McHale was famous for his practical jokes, many of which helped diffuse the tension prior to big games, but the Celtics original jester may have been Tom Heinsohn. Please tell me about the exploding cigar prank that you once played on Red Auerbach.
I call it my worst day, because that morning I woke up – I was in the insurance business, and I would look at the mail with breakfast, and I’d just lost a big, half-million dollar insurance case. I went to my car, and drove down to the radio station in Worcester to do my radio show. I came out afterwards and had a parking ticket. I was a little bit late. I hopped in the car to go to practice, and ended up getting a speeding ticket. Got to practice, and was late because of the ticket, and I got fined by Red. So I go to practice, and I don’t particularly have a good practice. I go downstairs afterwards to get dressed, and I reach into my pocket and somebody had stolen my wallet. My credit cards are gone, and my draft card is gone – which was pretty important in those days – and I’m sitting there very despondent, of course, and Red says, ‘What’s the matter?’ So I tell him about the worst day I’ve ever had, and he says, ‘You know, Tommy, when things aren’t going well, I always like to have a cigar. Just sit back and smoke a cigar.’ He reaches into his pocket and says, ‘On the way home, here, take this cigar and smoke it. You’ll feel better.’ I said, ‘Red, I’m not a cigar smoker.’ He said, ‘Take it anyway and try it.’ So I’m driving home, and about halfway I say to myself, ‘What a nice gesture on Red’s part to give me the cigar and calm me down a little bit.’ So I unwrap the cigar and I put it in my mouth. I get the cigarette lighter going, I take two puffs, and the damned thing explodes in my face [laughs]. So the great, consoling Red Auerbach fed me a cigar.
So the next day he says to me, ‘Tommy, did you smoke the cigar?’ Well I wasn’t going to let him know that I smoked the cigar. I said, ‘No, you know that I don’t smoke cigars. I had to go speak at a thing last night, and I gave it to the monsignor.’ He said, ‘You gave it to the monsignor?’ And I said, ‘Yes I did.’ Well he looked at me dumbfounded, but he didn’t say anything.
So, every couple of weeks I’d give him a cigar. I’d say something like, ‘Red, I was just at this thing, and they gave me a couple of cigars. Here. You have them.’ And I’d buy the cigars. I’d feed him the cigars like that, every couple of weeks. The first few, he kept looking at them to see if they were loaded. He’d inspect either end. Finally, I’d given him so many cigars, that he stops looking to see if they’re loaded. Now we’re going into the playoffs. We had practice, and I give him this loaded cigar. All of the newspaper guys are standing around, waiting to hear his pearls of wisdom. He used to sit there, at the bench, and unwrap a cigar, light it up and talk to the press. On this particular occasion he didn’t have a match. I had a cigarette lighter, so I went over and I lit it for him. And he took two puffs, right in front of the press, and it exploded right in his face [laughs]. Let me tell you – he literally chased me out of that place…up the stairs, on the court, everywhere [laughs].
Bill Russell and Sam Jones retired in 1969, and the Celtic Dynasty was officially at an end. What was it like to take over the reins as head coach, and how were you able to temper the fan’s expectations regarding the new starting center, Hank Finkel?
Needless to say, Hank Finkel was no Bill Russell. Here I am, I’m going to take over, and I’m going to try to win a championship without Russell, Mr. Defense, of the last thirteen years. And without Sam Jones, one of the greatest offensive players in the history of the game. I gotta do something with this team. After Cousy retired, the Celtics didn’t run quite as much, and things slowed down toward the end of the dynasty because Russell had reached an advanced age. I always believed that running was the way to win, so I tried to get this team to run a little bit. Really, what the first year was all about, was an elongated tryout camp. Trying to fit the pieces together. Actually, if I’m not mistaken, we didn’t make the playoffs in either of my first two years coaching. But if you look at the team’s record that second year, it was a good enough record to make the playoffs most any other year. We had Finkel, we had Richie Johnson, and we had to devise a way to win. It wasn’t easy. I had to become a coach, have them listen to me, and establish my credentials as a person capable of doing the job. It wasn’t easy, especially when you’re losing and the fans are used to winning championships.
We got through the first year, and then we got Cowens. In the meantime, I had worked with Don Chaney that whole first season, bringing him along. And Jo Jo White was the pick that first season. So I worked with him. The next year I established the style of play, and how to do it. We started in training camp, and we really, really developed an up-tempo game without the likes of a Bob Cousy. And I put together a way of running, so that everybody played a little bit like Bob Cousy. Because I’d run up the floor so many times with him, and I saw how he reacted to the fast break situations. So I devised tactics to do exactly the same thing with different personnel. So we didn’t have to rely on one particular player to deliver the ball, like we did when Cousy was playing. That allowed us to maintain the pace, and win with pace. Because I believed that that’s how the Celtics, when I played, really won. A lot of those games we paced the other team completely out of the game, we’d run so much. But this team I had, with Cowens, was very small. That’s how we had to win games, or not win at all. It succeeded. I put the offense in one year, and then I worked on augmenting it with a pressure defense. The goal was to have a pressure offense and a pressure defense. The pressure offense was to beat them up the floor, make them hustle back, and the pressure defense was to make them work the ball up the floor, and to force them into mistakes. We utilized a lot of people. We changed the morale of the team a little bit, because we used a lot of people, and we started to win.
The following season the Celtics drafted Dave Cowens. How long did it take for you to realize he would be special?
I had never seen him play – Red was the guy that had seen him play. So, when we got him, I had gone down and I’d seen a couple of other centers, and I didn’t like any of them. Red kept telling me about Cowens, who he’d seen at Florida State, and so he said that he was going to draft him. So I said, ‘Fine.’ I didn’t know what the heck he was capable of until I finally go to see him play. And I immediately said, ‘Wow, this guy is a bundle of energy and ferocity.’ So, we used that on the fast break. He really wasn’t a good offensive player at that time. We spent a couple of years working with him on his offense. And we also put in a system to bring him along, to where when we played the big centers like Wilt, Bob Lanier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed, and all of those guys – the big seven-footers – we really had a no-center offense. We would pull Cowens out from under the basket, and we’d rotate people all over the place. So in addition to becoming a rebounder, Cowens also became a playmaker. He had the ball, and he would make Wilt come out, and it was a style that became very, very successful for us. Cowens fit into it beautifully, and it was one of the main reasons we were able to win so many games. We really played two different styles of basketball – against the big teams we ran, and then we’d use this offense if we had to slow down. It forced the opponent’s big guys to come out of the middle and play defense on the outside, on the perimeter, which they didn’t know how to do, nor want to do. Cowens gave us a terrific advantage.
What was it like for you to win your first NBA Championship as head coach of the Boston Celtics?
It ranks right up there with winning my first championship as a player. It was something that I’ll never forget, and it was a great thrill just to be a part of it. The year before, we had won a team-record 68 regular season games, but John Havlicek hurt his shoulder in the playoffs and we got into a 3-1 hole in the Eastern Conference Finals. We tied that series up at 3-3, and then lost that seventh game. So, even though we had a great year, we were left with a very empty feeling to win 68 games and then fall short of a championship.
We came back wiser, healthier, and more mature the next year. We only won 56 games, but we had learned that winning in the playoffs is far more important – you have to win during the regular season, sure, but we wanted to peak at the right time. And that’s what we did. We battled Kareem and Oscar Robertson in that series, and neither team could maintain control of homecourt advantage. In fact, we were up by a point in Game 6, and had a 3-2 series lead, and all we had to do was make one more stop to win the championship. And then Kareem hits that big shot from the corner. It was one of his patented skyhooks, and it sent the series back to Milwaukee for the seventh game.
We knew we were the better team, and going into that final game we wanted to prove it. We also knew that our pace had taken a toll on Oscar. He was at the end of his career, and all series long he had been forced to hustle on both sides of the ball. He was tired. So we turned up the pressure on him even more. We picked him up earlier on defense. We pushed the ball every chance we got. And we were able to win that game decisively. It was a great thrill, and one of the best basketball experiences that I’ve ever had.
Nineteen years removed from your incredible double-overtime performance against the St. Louis Hawks, your Boston Celtics took the court in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals. In your mind, what stands out most about that triple-overtime thriller?
Fainting in the locker room after it was all over [laughs]. I’d gotten dehydrated during that thing, so they’d brought me into the trainer’s room and I fainted. Somebody asked me a question and I just keeled right over. I ended up with a touch of high blood pressure, and they weren’t going to let me go out to Phoenix and let me coach the next game. It wasn’t until the next day that they changed their minds. They looked me over, and allowed me go out and coach.
That game was such a draining experience. It was a terrific game. We got up big, and then Paul Westphal starting making these whirling-dervish moves. He was the only guy in the league that I’d ever seen go into the paint for a layup, and do a three-sixty at full speed, in the air, and make the shot. And he made about four of those in the second half of that game. And then, of course, Gar Heard hit that big shot. The next game, the sixth game, was in Phoenix. And whoever was able to bend over, tie their sneakers and walk out onto the floor was going to win that game [laughs]. That’s how debilitating that triple-overtime game was back in Boston.
If your athletic career were a play, it would contain three acts: Your sensational collegiate career at Holy Cross, your hall-of-fame career as a player for the Celtics, and your equally impressive job as head coach. If you had to choose a signature Heinsohn moment from each of these acts, what would they be?
At Holy Cross, it was winning the NIT and being named MVP of the Sugar Bowl. As a player, it would be the seventh game of that first championship in 1957. As a coach, it would be wining my first championship against the Bucks in ’74.
Final Question: You’ve achieved great success in your life. You are universally respected and admired by many people, both inside and outside of the NBA. If you could offer one piece of advice on life to others, what would that be?
I told my kids this – you don’t do things because people will like you. Because I’ve found out playing basketball that forty percent of the people with hate you no matter what. Forty percent of the people will love you no matter what. And twenty percent of the people will actually be influenced by what you truly do. So you’ve got to find something that you like to do, that you have fun doing, and then do it.