One of the more harrowing moments of Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn’s career did not even take place on a basketball court. It took place in Poland, in 1964, when two men who had identified themselves as secret police led him down a dark alley, leaving Heinsohn to wonder if his best chance was to try to flee.
That May, long before basketball had truly become the global game that it is today, the NBA assembled a star-studded team to visit Europe on a mission that was part goodwill tour and part a muscle flex.
The previous year, the USSR had defeated a US team comprised of amateurs in the bronze medal game of the World Championships. The Americans had also lost to Yugoslavia, and there was some unrest about the defeats to Communist countries amid the Cold War. There was a global perception that those teams comprised of American amateurs were the best the nation had to offer.
“The Russians were beating up on the college kids and really making a big deal out of it,” Heinsohn said in a recent phone interview. “So Red [Auerbach] said, ‘We’ve got to send the best. Send the pros.’”
Auerbach, the Celtics head coach, helped assemble the most powerful collection of basketball players ever, a dream team before its time.
Fans crammed into gyms in Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and Egypt to watch future Hall of Famers Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Bob Cousy play against opponents that were at once overmatched and overjoyed.
Heinsohn said that Auerbach had set up the tour with help of a friend in the US State Department. Before departing, the players traveled to Washington, met President Lyndon B. Johnson, and were briefed about what they should expect in their unfamiliar role as ambassadors. A government official told the players about anti-German sentiment in Poland, one of their main stops of the 21-game tour. Heinsohn, with his unmistakably German last name, was a bit wary, but he didn’t think much of it. He was just going to play basketball anyway.
Then one day between games in Poland, Heinsohn was in his hotel room when he heard a knock on the door. When he opened it, two men with trench coats on their backs and serious looks on their faces were standing there. They flashed some kind of badge and said they were police, but Heinsohn was skeptical.
“One of them says to me, ‘Heinsohn, get passport. Come with us,’” Heinsohn recalled. “And I’m going holy [cow], what’s this about? They take me out of the hotel, and there’s an alley right to the left of the hotel. So they walked me to the alley and I’m looking. I’m walking down the alley thinking, ‘This son of a [gun] is going to shoot me.’”
Heinsohn said the two men spoke to each other in Polish as they walked. When they reached the end of the alley, one of the men opened a door to an empty night club. They brought him inside and told him to sit down. They said they would be back soon.
“So I’m sitting here and thinking, ‘Why the hell am I waiting? I’m gonna try to get back to Auerbach and get this squared away,’” Heinsohn said. “But then realized I can’t go back down the alley. Who knows [what] they’d do to me if I tried to escape? I’ve got all these damn pictures in my head.”
The players had been told not to exchange currency on the black market—where the rate was considerably better—and Heinsohn and several others had done so anyway. Maybe he was being arrested for that?
Then, at last, his worries subsided. But his relief quickly turned into a thirst for revenge.
“Just as I was getting ready to make a move, Auerbach walks in with the two guys, and they’re all laughing their [butts] off,” Heinsohn recalled with a chuckle, softened by the moment some 56 years later.
The men were coaches from one of the Polish professional teams that the NBA stars were facing. Heinsohn could just tip his cap at the well-orchestrated prank by his Hall of Fame head coach.
“It was the perfect setup, especially because we’d black-marketed some money even though they’d told us not to,” Heinsohn said. “They’d come in your room and give you the money and put their finger up to their mouth to basically say, ‘Don’t say anything.’ That’d kind of created the idea in our heads that they were watching us. The State department had even told us our rooms could be wired.”
Heinsohn spent a year looking for the perfect opportunity to get revenge on Auerbach.
Auerbach had been told by a member of the State Department to put his purchases from Europe in their “diplomatic pouch” so that he would not have to pay taxes on the goods when he returned. But about a year later, the diplomat had yet to bring him the items.
One day the following season, the Celtics were in San Francisco on a road trip when Heinsohn found an old purse on the ground. He asked a waitress at the hotel to call up to Auerbach’s room and pretend to be the diplomat, and to tell him that his “diplomatic pouch” had made it to San Francisco. She said she was running late to the airport, but would be able to deliver it to him outside his hotel.
“So Cousy, [Bill] Sharman and I had rented a car, and we have this old purse and we’re driving around,” Heinsohn said. “Auerbach never sees us. He’s looking around for this woman. Finally I pull over and say, ‘Hey, some lady from Egypt gave me this.’ And I throw the ratty purse at him. We were always having some fun.”
. . .
Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) took part in Thursday’s practice but will not play in Friday night’s scrimmage against the Thunder.