October 26th, 1964


Tom Heinsohn: Of Charley Horses And Little Old Ladies


With their seven basic plays and the most basic bench in years, the Boston Celtics start chasing their seventh consecutive title. Here Star Forward Tommy Heinsohn (see cover) talks about a side of pro ball that the spectators can never see


Tommy Heinsohn, Bob Ottum



I don't know what it is about me: I am no Rock. Hudson, but I absolutely wow all the little old white-haired ladies. They stop me and talk to me all over the country, on the street, in restaurants, in elevators. Let the entire team be sitting around a hotel lobby—we spend a great deal of time sitting in hotel lobbies—and I'm the guy they always approach. They always say exactly the same thing. "My golly, but you are a big one," they say, and then most often they will reach out and pat me. "I have got a brother [or a nephew, or uncle] who is big, too." So I just stand there and nod politely; as a matter of fact, I really like little old ladies. Then they say, "Just how tall are you?" I tell them 6 foot 7 and 225 pounds, and they always reply: "'Oh, my. Well, Harry isn't that big. Gollies." That ought to give you an idea of the crazy, wild, recklessly exciting times professional basketball players have on the road.


It's funny, because I am not one of the real big monster guys in basketball, by far. There are days when everybody is bigger than me. The other members of the crew kid me about this magic with the little women in their lace shawls, and sometimes in the locker room a teammate will tweak me on the cheek and say, "Gollies, thweetie pie, but you thure are big and cute." If you have ever been tweaked on the cheek by someone like K. C. Jones, your whole face can hurt for a month.


Now it is that time of year again. It is time for 80 games of basketball under pressure that starts plenty high and gets a lot higher, time for all the little old ladies and those hotel lobbies and then catnaps with our legs sticking out into the aisles of airplanes and nights of physical and mental exhaustion. This is my 19th year playing the game, counting my kid years and the years I was an All-America at Holy Cross, and when you get to be a grown-up man 30 years old playing this game, there has got to be a good reason. I have two: I play basketball for love and money, and they come in interchangeable order, depending on how things are going when you ask the question.


I'm wide and strong but, like everybody else who plays the game professionally, I am also a physical mess: it's a paradox of the sport. I've got loose ligaments all over the place, on my legs and elbows, and I've really got weak ankles. I once had eight sprained ankles in one season. I have had four ankle sprains in the last six years, and that is a tribute to our trainer Buddy LeRoux, who could build a basketball player out of tape, splints and liniment. My left knee hasn't got the outside lateral ligaments it came with originally, and now I wear a special brace with steel sides so the knee won't wobble the way it shouldn't wobble.


When I joined the Celtics eight years ago I was stronger than Jack the Bear, and the first thing I did was run into Ray Felix. He played center for the New York Knickerbockers then. Basketball centers are a lot more agile now than Felix was then, but he had his ways about him. Players cutting for the basket around Felix would stop short because Felix used to impulsively raise up one bony knee and catch them right across the giant muscle in the thigh. In my first game in New York, Felix hauled off and gave me one of America's alltime great charley horses. We played the next night in Boston, and I limped around him from the other side and he hooked me again. I knew right then what kind of career it was going to be. "Ye gods," I said to Coach Red Auerbach, "I have played two games of professional basketball in my whole life, and already I have run out of legs."


But charley horses heal—slowly—and they are nothing like the feeling we get starting each season. I dread it. But I keep doing it. There comes that autumn morning when I throw that first leg out of bed and a shooting pain runs all the way up to my ears, which is a considerable distance for pain to shoot, and I feel like I am all charley horse. The ironic thing about it is that we get this feeling when we are in shape, and I would hate to think what it would be like out of condition. The Celtics are the toughest team in an extremely tough league, and we are expected to report to camp ready to run where other teams train into shape. I can remember when Carl Braun joined us from the Knicks, and that second morning he sat on the edge of his bed and groaned as sunbursts of aches and hurts ran through him. He recalled wistfully that "on the Knicks during the first couple of weeks of the season all we did was get to know each other."


Now we're off again, and this is the year, everybody says, that the Celtics will blow it. Well, let me admit right now that winning this year will be harder than any year I can remember, but win we will. There is one way—and only one way—that the Celtics can be beat this season. Later, I'll even go further and tell you 1) how the Boston Celtics can be beat this season, and 2) don't bet on it. Basketball the way we play it is a frightening, basic game.


You may find this a surprise, but the Celtics have only seven plays. All the rest of it we make up as we go along. There are a hundred options to be run off the basic seven. In college basketball 90% of the play is directed by the coach. "Fellas," he will say, "we'll play a zone defense or a man-to-man." In pro ball it is all different: we play the basics and think. Take any one of our seven plays. If worked properly it cannot be stopped. Our opponents have scouted us all over the place, but they still haven't seen the plays as many times as we have run them.

 What most always happens is that we will start one going (sometimes Auerbach will hand-signal us from the bench; it may or may not mean anything), and the defensive team will recognize it. Which means they will rush to our normal shooting spot and get there before the offensive player arrives. Then we slip into an option, and sometimes they will know that one, too, and stampede over to the No. 1 option spot. And then we start playing good old fundamental basketball. And how can you scout a thing as unmysterious as old-fashioned fundamentals?


This is how secret our plays are: Durin this spring we toured Europe on a goodwill mission for the U.S. State Department. There were four Celtics: Bill Russell, K. C. Jones, Bob Cousy (he's retired and came along to provide commentary) and me. Then we had Bob Pettit from the St. Louis Hawks, Tom Gola of the New York Knickerbockers, Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson of the Cincinnati Royals—with Coach Auerbach handling us all. As the trip went along we would stage basketball clinics in each city to spread the American hoop gospel. Red would run us through some pretty routine plays and visiting coaches would take notes, and things went fine until we got to Warsaw. That's when one of the coaches said, "Now show us some of the Boston Celtics' plays. They're the ones we want to see."


"Gentlemen," said Auerbach, "I'd love to, truly. But I cannot, because I don't have my whole team here."


"It's O.K., I know them all anyway," said Gola. "Let's run the old No. 6 for them."


"The hm?" said Auerbach.


"The 6," said Gola, and we ran it, with just three Celtics on the floor. Gola played guard and dribbled in over the half-court, then passed to me at forward. He came bursting in close behind me, and I set up the pick on Gola's imaginary man by flipping the ball back to Gola and dashing toward the free-throw line. Thus Gola had, in effect, become the forward and I had become a guard. He took the ball into the corner, and Bill Russell came into position in the pivot area, his back to the basket. Gola fed the ball to Russell on a quick pass; Russell half-turned and hooked it in with a rolling move. Even Lucas, who was a rookie then, knew the play by heart.


Then we tried to trip them up with our No. 22, and they ran through it smoothly. "Now," said Gola, "let's run the No. 1." About that time Auerbach shrugged and smiled and gave up.


Auerbach is good that way; in fact, he is such a great basketball coach that this sort of thing doesn't shatter him. He knows we can win on fundamentals. Red is sometimes pictured by the press as the Leo Durocher of hoop—what with all that jumping around and screaming—but that is all part of his routine. Under the facade of whoopdedo he knows exactly what is going on. Sending Red Auerbach abroad to represent America was a good move. That is, it was a grand move for the U.S. and a terrible move for me. I almost didn't come back.


We were in Cracow, Poland, and this time I was in my hotel room, not sitting in the lobby. My luggage had been searched once and the little battery for my Accutron watch had been taken; I guess the Poles thought it was microfilm of the master plan to capture Europe. Then, suddenly, two official-looking Poles burst in—official-looking and mean-looking—and one of them flashed a badge at me.


"Get your passport," he said, "and come with us."


The little one was wearing a trench coat with the collar up (wouldn't you know he'd be wearing a trench coat?), and he sort of lounged there on the edge of my vision with one hand in a pocket as though he had a gun. I protested something about being an American and demanded to see someone from the Embassy, and they nodded curtly. "You are wanted for questioning," the first one said. "Come with us."


When we got outside the hotel I had one of them on either side of me, and I began to get scared. For one thing, Germans are not exactly welcome in Poland, and I look so much like a German I could have come from Central Casting. And about the time I was worrying about that angle, Cousy leaned out of an upstairs window and saw them taking me away.


"Don't forget, you guys," the Cooz yelled. "He is a dirty German." A great help to me, that Cousy. But before I could call back for help they hustled me off into an alley. That's where I really began to choke.


The smaller guy, the one with the gun in his pocket, began arguing hotly in Polish with the official guy. I couldn't understand any of it, but it sounded a lot like, "Why don't we shoot this bum now and get it over with?" to me. In the darkest part of the alley I began to get desperate. I'll fake to my left and then swing right and take out the little one first, I figured, and hope that the other one doesn't have a gun, too. If I can get one of them down, maybe I can lick the other one. Another 25 yards of this, and they pushed me through a doorway into some kind of coffeehouse full of Alfred Hitchcock types. "Wait here," the big one said. "Do not move. You are being watched." Then they walked off into the smoke and darkness.


I sat there all emotionally untied and figuring, "Wait here, hell. I'm off to the Embassy like a flash of light," when the alley door swung open again. In came that big cigar, with Red Auerbach right behind it. grinning like crazy, and Cousy and the rest of the crew laughing themselves sick. The two Poles came back, and it turned out they were basketball coaches and Red had been rehearsing them for three days in this routine. About the only English one knew was, "Get your passport and come with us," which will not do him a great deal of good if he ever comes to this country. And my hands shook for three weeks.


Now I owe that Auerbach one. I really owe him one, and I promise you things will happen. I once waited a whole season to give him a loaded cigar; I spent a modest fortune faking him out by giving him good cigars, and I'll get him this time, too.


Anyway, after that "goodwill ambassador" treatment the State Department had given us, I hadn't been expecting it. It was supposed to be a serious trip. We had started out with an ominous briefing in Washington, where Nick Rodis, the athletic affairs attaché, had warned us all. "Beware of spies," he said. "Some Communist countries employ beautiful young girls as agents. They try to get you into compromising situations, secretly photograph you, and then they can blackmail you. I want you to be on the lookout at all times."


We had gone all through Europe, playing a lot of basketball and sort of looking over our shoulders at every gorgeous girl as if she were a spy. None of them so much as looked cross-eyed at us. It got to the point that, finally, as we were standing around the airport waiting to fly back to the States, Pettit stood there and yelled, "Yoo-hoo. Here I am, girls. I am full of U.S. secrets and like that. Won't someone please come and compromise me?" Nobody did.


The next time I see these men everything will have changed. We'll be back in competition again. And basketball competition is my whole life. It is the sweet science. At the risk of sounding like a character out of Louisa May Alcott or like a boy Hayley Mills—basketball has everything I want. Color, action and challenge. It is the big ballet—with muscles. Play it and you find out what "the real kicks are in life. Let me put it another way. In basketball a man can become the master of himself. That is why I would recommend it for any youngster today. You learn about yourself as you learn the game. Perhaps at first your motives are selfish: you simply want to be known as the greatest scorer in the world. Teamwork be damned, full me ahead. When I first came to the Celtics eight seasons ago I was an All-America—and suddenly I found myself with a whole team of All-Americas. Cousy and Sharman were getting all the headlines. Why not me or why not all of us? I thought. And then it began to come through to me: If I'm being compensated fairly for what I'm doing, how big a shot can I be? Will headlines give me satisfaction? After a while they . Take Sam Jones and Frank Ramsey—positively great players. But they never got the individual praise on the Celtics they could have gotten had they played on another team. They could have been top dogs. But they came to grips with reality, and so did I. They learned to be part of a team and—never mind if it sounds seedy—teamwork is the name of life's game. And with all that behind me, basketball began to pay its big personal rewards. There is all the intellectual challenge of chess—played on the run—and I am involved in a thinking man's game.


It is not like football, where the players have that moment for sober reflection in the huddle, a brief break where they can think things through. We have got to think in motion, in terms of split seconds, when everything around us is a blur of changing colors.


It's an absolute wonder I discovered basketball in the first place. I was the clumsiest kid in town when we lived in Union City, N.J. In fact, I'm the only kid I ever knew who fell upstairs, and I did it regularly. We lived in a second-floor apartment, and I can remember crashing upstairs after school and my mother coming out to look over the banister, saying, "You all right down there, Tommy?" Finally, after so much of that—it got pretty noisy—she took me aside and said, "All right, now. I'm going to teach you to dance." She did, and I didn't learn much about dancing, but I began to get the hang of moving around like normal people. When we moved to Jersey City I was in the sixth grade and better-coordinated.


In those days if you wanted to play on the school grounds after school you played basketball, and that was all. There were crowds of kids standing around in smelly sneakers waiting to play, and everyone played neighborhood rules: if your team lost it had to step aside—or else move to another playground and wait for another chance to get on the court. It got to be life's biggest goal to stay in there. By the eighth grade I was playing for both CYO and PAL leagues and drew a scholarship to St. Michael's High.


The summer before I went to St. Michael's was the first turning point in my life. (There were two.) At that time the neighborhood hero was Perry Del Purgatorio. He had played for Villanova, and he was more of an idol to the kids than the Green Hornet. Perry spent practically every summer evening that year teaching the playground gang how to play the game, and we got to be buddies. I learned more about basketball fundamentals in those two months than players now get in college. Perry is now the basketball coach at Weehauken High, and players coming out of that school are luckier than they realize.


About the time you think you are getting to know the moves in this game, someone comes along and does everything but undress you on the basketball floor. Standing there under the basket with your hands cupped—and finding that you don't have the ball in them—is a great little old leveler. You can't just stand there and casually whistle; you've got to look around with that unmistakable where-did-the-ball-go expression, which can be spotted in any arena from way up in the general admission seats. In my sophomore year at St. Michael's it happened to me so much that I got to be a master of the double take and could have gone into two-reel comedies. The famous Pat Finnegan of Fordham was the coach at the school, and he was good. So good it wasn't enough for him just to coach the team; he would bring in his grown-up buddies from Hoboken, and we would scrimmage on Saturdays. Pat's brother, John Finnegan, was one of the adults. I was rebounding furiously in those days and regarded every ball as my personal property. But with John in the game I would go up on the backboard, snatch the ball—and I would come down and it would disappear. Poof. I would look around to find out who had it. John Finnegan had it, that's who had it. Finally I had to appeal.


"Mr. Finnegan," I said. "Please show me what you're doing. I'm getting pretty tired of playing with my pants down around my knees. Uh, sir." And Finnegan taught me how to steal a rebound. It is a seldom-used move. Right now I'm about the only guy in the NBA who can do it just this way, and in 1963 it was the move that won the final game for the Celtics in the playoff against the Lakers.


The secret is in the timing. Most rebounders come off the boards in a certain stance. First they have got to find the floor with their feet, and then they bring the ball down sharply. They hold their elbows out to ward everyone off. But then they bring the ball down fast and plant it for just a second against their stomach. It is a lightninglike moment of truth; in another second the ball has been passed off, or else the rebounder has a better grip and you couldn't get the ball away from him with a can opener. But in the moment when he is coming down you catch him on his blind side. Since he swivels his head around, the blind side is the side where he's not looking. You lean in, get your forearm roughly between his arms and your hand close to his stomach. When he swings down with that confident, I've-got-it motion you catch the ball in your palm. He keeps bringing his hands down, but now they're empty; he hasn't got the ball and you have. And the next thing to do is to get out of there as fast as you can.


I practiced this sneaky thing for years and years. In the playoffs at Los Angeles last year—just at the end of the game—Gene Wiley came down off the backboard in just the correct position, feet reaching down for the floor and elbows out. He swung his head away from me, and I leaned in and got the ball. In the next blurring instant everybody was standing there looking up in the air with that where'd-it-go look, and I was looking down because I was the only guy who knew it was on the floor. Shades of John Finnegan! I jumped on it, then figured I'd better shoot, because in a minute everybody was going to be a little teensy bit mad and conk me. Wiley spotted me first, and as I was straightening up he came down on me like a falling building. It was just right: he drew the foul and I got one aching back and two free throws. I sank them both and we won game, match and title. After the flurry was over I discovered I had made 10 points in the last 10 minutes of the game.


At St. Michael's I developed a soft, one-handed jump shot, and at Holy Cross I started throwing picture-book hooks. That big, looping hook shot is great for college, and it looks fine in photographs for program covers. But try something like that in the pros, and the defense will disassemble you. Since joining the Celtics I've had to develop one new shot every season; one year's specialty is never any good the next year because they're on to it. I shoot a lot of flat-trajectory hookers now on the dead run coming across the basket. It is not exactly the stylized sort of thing that will win any awards for prettiness, but who needs it? I'm hitting about 40% with it, and that's fine for me.


The way the pros in general, and now the Celtics in particular, play the game it is more than basketball. It is head-'em-off-at-the-pass-and-defense-'em-to-death ball. It is the tight, dogged kind of play that won us eight straight Eastern Division titles and seven of the last eight world championships. The seventh one last year tops anything else ever done in professional sport, including the five straight titles won by the New York Yankees (they play a thing called baseball) in their 1949-to-1953 heyday. In April the Celtics beat Cincinnati four games to one in the semifinals and then beat San Francisco four to one for the title, and that is playing defense. Look at it this way: Cincinnati last season was the best offensive team in the Eastern Division. It finished second. Baltimore was the best offensive team in the Western. It finished fourth in that division.


It wasn't always this way with us. In the Cousy years we were also fast-break offensive specialists under the hand of the greatest playmaker of them all. Cousy was the perfect all-round player. Under the Cooz all you had to do was get into position, and he would hit you with that ball. I learned to run with one hand in the air; Cousy taught me that because he wanted to see where I was at all times. And he could see around corners, up and down, in and out and right through the belly buttons of opposing players. It got me the reputation of being a ball hog and the nickname of "'The Gunner," but we won games. When Cousy left after the 1962-63 season everyone said the Celtics would go to ruin. But, conversely, it strengthened us as a team.


Nobody replaced Cousy. K. C. Jones is coming on fast and will replace him in time. But we all had to take a little piece of his leadership, and it welded us together as a stronger team. Everyone felt the added pressure. In fact, we got so fired up we actually looked forward to playing ball without Cousy; we all suddenly had to give more. I had to change my whole style of play—from a shooter and offensive rebounder to a passer and setter-upper of plays. And contrary to what you may have read in the papers, I do like to pass the ball. Last season was my best. Not my highest-scoring season but better in all-round play. I've scored more than 10,000 points in my professional career, but I also have 1,161 assists, which reflects our team thinking.


The way the Celtics play ball now isn't complicated. Auerbach took the plot right out of Zane Grey and cowboys and Indians. The idea is to make the offense run the gantlet; everybody takes a whack at him along the way—and waiting there at the end of the gantlet is Bill Russell. That always loosens them up pretty good. We play to our strength. The offensive man is usually so harassed by the time he's made it through the gantlet—I've never seen a college player who had to beat three men to the basket—that when he gets there he figures he has it made. And then he looks straight up into Russell's defensive rib cage, and all his peripheral vision can see is long arms and clawlike fingers curving in toward him, and he knows that what he has made is trouble for himself.


Nowadays we have to play all the angles: steer the ball to the rookies and reserves. Keep it away from the hotshot regulars. The kids are more nervous and liable to get away a bad shot under the pressure. And Russell gets all the rebounds anyway. Occasionally one of these kids will haul off and win a game, but that is one of the gambles we take.


The league stars give us trouble. Take Pettit: he uses the other members of his team as pawns. You have to watch him and then also watch where he is taking you, because he will very craftily scrub you off on someone and go his way alone. Avoid that trap and catch him as he is going in for a layup—and Pettit is so strong he'll carry you right up with him. He can't be caught with the old John Finnegan on rebounds because he doesn't bring them down; he flicks them off with his fingertips while he is still up there somewhere. Then you solve all those problems, and Pettit will set up a little blockade of Hawks and shoot a little 20-foot jumper from behind them.


In Los Angeles, Elgin Baylor can beat a team all by himself. He has discovered that 20-foot outside shot now—we were afraid sometime someone would tell him about that move—and now he is the compleat hoopster. If we can hold him below his average, even by two points, we figure we've had a good night of it with him.


Happily, we gobble up Wilt Chamberlain. He complains about being roughed up—but we would a lot rather make him shoot fouls than field goals. The percentages are better for us from 15 feet than two feet. We wouldn't do the same to the league hot shots in foul shooting, say Tom Meschery of the Warriors, or Larry Costello and Hal Greer of Philadelphia.


Finally, there is Detroit's Terry Dischinger. It's funny—he's not big, not strong and he is a picture-book shooter. But he has all the moves of Baylor and one thing more: absolute speed. Terry can beat any big human and probably a pack of greyhounds. If I could stop Pettit cold, if I was the greatest defender in the league against Baylor, I couldn't stop Dischinger. Our solution: send a little man out there to harry him and bark at his heels; try to keep him out of the gantlet and make him shoot from outside. It doesn't work, but that's the solution anyway.


So that is what the Celtics face this season. We are all getting old—not tired, just old. Out of 12 men who won the title last year, Clyde Lovellette, Jack McCarthy, Jim Loscutoff and Frank Ramsey are gone. We're going in with Bill Russell, the Jones boys (K. C. and Sam), Willie Naulls, Larry Siegfried, Tom Sanders, John Havlicek and Heinsohn. We've got one draftee, Oregon State's Mel Counts, off playing in the Olympics. If our plans work out, he's our big man to draw the defense out and take some of the pressure off Russell.


In the old days when things got tough we could go to the bench and open up a new can of players. We haven't got that advantage anymore.


And that's how the Celtics can be beat this year. This is the year, for example, that Cincinnati could run us ragged with Oscar Robertson and all those reserves. When we played them last season, we figured they were just a couple of good men away from being perfect—and now this year they've got them. Watch the Royals this season. Don't bet on them against the Celtics; just watch them.


As the wonderful agony begins for 1964-65, I sometimes wonder why I do it. I've got an insurance business going on the side, and it is starting to grow nicely. Selling insurance fulfills me, in a way, like basketball. But basketball keeps calling me back. I suppose I'll play until I can't keep up with the kids any longer. I've been embroiled in interleague fights as the player-spokesman, and I had a running war with the late Walter Brown over player pensions, and there was a time when we weren't even speaking. Yet he was the fairest man I ever knew on contracts. I asked for, and got, a raise every year, and there were never any holdouts on the Celtics. I don't think Walter Brown ever took more than 10 minutes to sign a player. Frank Ramsey used to sign a blank contract at the end of the season and leave it in Brown's office—"Brown knows how much I'm worth," he would say. Brown would fill in the blanks and send it to Ramsey in Kentucky. All the others signed as easily.


"Mr. Brown," I used to say as an opener, "you have always been more than fair with me...."


"Dammit, Heinsohn," Brown would bark, "how much do you want?" We always came to terms quickly—once while standing side by side in the men's room of a downtown Boston restaurant.


It gets harder and harder to get up for each game. The surge and sound of the crowd and the splash of color and the familiar smells of the dressing rooms aren't enough anymore. Every game night during the season I sit there on the training table with all my torn and ripped ligaments, and while Buddy is taping me back together I think about what I am going to do. Across the room, behind the swinging door, Bill Russell is hunched over and is throwing up in the toilet. He has himself keyed to the pitch that when he throws up before a game he is really ready.


"Who are you playing tonight?" I ask myself. "Wilt Chamberlain? That Wilt. Remember the last time. He outfaked me and embarrassed me in front of all those people. Remember?" And then I pretend to get madder and madder at Wilt until I start to feel pretty ferocious. But a cooler, portioned-off section inside my head says, "Come on, Heinsohn. Who do you think you are kidding? You're not mad. Not really. You know what you are doing to yourself." But I manage to block off that sensible section and go on and on getting myself fired up until we run out on the court and I look like I've got one eyebrow growing right across the top of my forehead and my face is a storm.


"That Heinsohn," they say in the stands. "Now, there is one mean guy. The meanest you ever saw."


But really, Heinsohn is not all that mean. I am intent. I am caught up in the swirl of basketball, and I am a man feeding on it because it fires me full of pride and satisfaction. To me it is science—my kind of science—on a dead run, and I am learning to be master of myself. Mean? Not me.


After all, ask any little old white-haired lady.

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