You know him as the color man on Celtics television broadcasts. You know him as Fred Flintstone barking about referees. You know him as a booming, opinionated guy who loves the Celtics and has no use for the lugs running up and down the floor in visitors uniforms.
He is Tommy Heinsohn, Mr. Celtics, an institution on Causeway Street.
What too many of you don’t know is that Heinsohn was one of the greatest Celtics of all time, and that he coached more Celtic seasons than any man other than Red Auerbach. In one way or another, Heinsohn has been part of the Celtics for 57 years.
He played when Johnny Most honked for the Celtics. And now he has become a hulking, ex-jock version of Most. Heinsohn is the ultimate homer and we love him for it. But there is so much more about him that you need to know.
“I think my broadcast partner Mike Gorman said it best,’’ Heinsohn said before the Celtics defeated the Wizards, 100-94, in overtime at the Garden Wednesday night. “He said there’s a generation of fans who know me as a player and there’s a generation of fans who know me as a coach and now there’s a generation of fans who think I’m Shrek!’’
Now 78, but still a threat to throw an elbow under the boards, Heinsohn came to us from New Jersey as an oddly dressed freshman at Holy Cross in Worcester in the autumn of 1952.
“My mother bought me a brand new suit for going away to college,’’ he remembered. “We were poor, but she wanted me to have that. It was a powder blue suit with peg pants — you know, skinny at the bottom. I think I made quite an impression with that.’’
At Holy Cross, he lived in Alumni Hall, O’Kane Hall, and Hanselman. He dined at Kimball. He was a first-team All-American and played on a Crusaders team (with Ronnie Perry and Togo Palazzi) that won the National Invitation Tournament when it was a bigger deal than the NCAA Tournament.
A rugged, 6-foot-7-inch shooting forward, Heinsohn was NBA Rookie of the Year in 1956-57. Another rookie on that Boston team was a guy named Bill Russell. Busy winning a gold medal for the United States at the Melbourne Olympics in the latter part of 1956, Russell didn’t join the Celtics until December.
Which guy would have been Rookie of the Year if Russell had played a full season?
“I don’t know,’’ said Heinsohn. “But we were eight games up and in first place by the time he showed up.’’
The rookie Heinsohn scored 37 points and snatched 23 rebounds in the seventh game of the 1957 NBA Finals, a 125-123 double-overtime victory over the St. Louis Hawks.
Think about that for a second. Thirty-seven and 23 in Game 7. As a rookie. Think of what the Worldwide Leader would do with that today.
“I was just able to play footloose and fancy-free,’’ said Heinsohn. “The guys who had been here all that time trying to win a championship, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, they were so anxious they couldn’t get out of their own way that day. I just went out and played.’’
Three years later, when mastodon Wilt Chamberlain came into the league, Heinsohn was selected as the guy who would “get in Wilt’s way,’’ after free throws, allowing Russell to streak down the court and take a long pass from Cousy for a breakaway score.
“It worked for a while, but Wilt caught on and he didn’t like it,’’ said Heinsohn. “Finally he said, ‘You do that again, I’m going to knock you on your ass,’ and I said, ‘Bring your lunch,’ and sure enough, the next time he knocked me across the floor.
“Tom Gola came between us and Wilt threw a punch and hit Gola in the head and broke his hand. He played anyway. In the next game, I threw the ball hard off his broken hand and he just stared at me. I stared back.
“I said to myself, ‘If I don’t outstare this guy, the rest of my career is going to be hell.’ I stuck my chin out further and stared at him. Finally, he turned away, and I never had another problem. He thought I was crazy.’’
It was a crazy time in the NBA, an era when a lot of players lit up cigarettes and cigars after the games.
“Everybody smoked,’’ said Heinsohn. “The only ones not smoking with us then were [Frank] Ramsey and Sharman. Somewhere along the line, people stopped.’’
Heinsohn played nine NBA seasons and retired with eight championship rings. He was only 30 years old when he played his last NBA game.
“I ripped up my foot,’’ he recalled. “I had trouble walking.’’
When Russell and Sam Jones retired after winning their last championship in 1969, Auerbach turned to Heinsohn to coach the Celtics. With Hank Finkel at center, the Celtics went 34-48 in Heinsohn’s first year on the bench. In Heinsohn’s fourth year, the Celtics went 68-14, still a franchise best. They fell out of the playoffs when John Havlicek hurt his shoulder.
Led by Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, and Paul Silas, Heinsohn’s Celtics outran everybody.
“We had to change everything all around,’’ said Heinsohn. “We played small-man basketball. With Cowens, a lot of times we had a point center. He’d be the main ballhandler against certain teams.
“It’s not just that I love teams that love to run. What I know is that if you’re going to play half-court, you’d better have the greatest executioners of half-court basketball. If you run, you test the stamina and willpower of the other team. That’s what I learned as a player. That’s how we did what we did.’’
With Heinsohn as coach, the Celtics won championships in 1974 and 1976. It was the bridge between the Russell Era and the Bird Era, and it is too often forgotten.
“The team before us won 11 of 13, and then Larry captivated everybody,’’ said Heinsohn. “But those two generations before Larry Bird really set it up for people to appreciate Larry Bird.
“Basketball hadn’t been played around here before us and we had to develop the fans. Cooz and I used to drive in from Worcester and we knew we were successful when we started seeing basketball hoops in driveways in Newton.’’
Heinsohn has three children and seven grandchildren. His sweetheart Helen, “the redhead from Needham,” died in 2008.
He is a true renaissance man, an accomplished painter specializing in water colors and oils.
You can see some of Heinsohn’s work at the Mosher Gallery in Rockport.
Heinsohn makes no apologies for his boosterism of all things Celtics.
“In every game, there’s three teams out there,’’ he said. “There’s the two basketball teams and the team of officials. If the two teams are evenly matched, it can come down to number of possessions. If one out-of-bounds call goes the wrong way, that can be the difference.
“I’m very aware. I see officials intimidated by the crowd, holding grudges, becoming personal. When I sense that, I convey.’’
“He is the keeper of the tradition and pride,” said Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck. “There is nothing better than hearing once again how they had to bail Red out of jail, how terrible a bus driver Red was, and on and on.
“When you get to know Tommy, you understand exactly what made the Celtics the greatest example of teamwork and pride there has ever been.’’