As time passed and their days leading the Celtics to championships together blurred further into the distance, the connection between Tommy Heinsohn and Bob Cousy endured. They talked every few weeks, and usually the conversation floated back to their former team.
“I’d be moaning about something I’d seen in the paper, or something that was happening on the floor, and I’d get his version of it,” Cousy said Tuesday night. “It was in-house between two guys who had lived the whole thing. We both had opinions, and my opinions were from 1,400 miles away, so Tommy would give me the local version.”
Their most recent chat took place about two weeks ago. Heinsohn had been in and out of the hospital several times with health issues and had just gotten over another bout of pneumonia. His voice was weak and he’d lost about 100 pounds. Cousy knew it wasn’t good.
At the end of the call, Heinsohn told Cousy he would see him soon for their annual lunch together at Worcester Country Club, even if both knew deep down that was unlikely.
“The fact that Tommy mentioned it, I said to him, ‘Well, I’m glad you’re thinking about the future,’ ” Cousy said. “Because listening to his voice, it didn’t sound that way. But he lived a good life. He had a hell of a career.”
What that rest of the world now sees in grainy black-and-white footage, Cousy remembers in vivid color, and he hopes fans today understand the impact Heinsohn had as a six-time All-Star and eight-time NBA champion.
“When a friend dies, you try to be as positive and complimentary as you can, so this may sound like an attempt to do that,” Cousy said. “But I believe it, at least. In terms of the Celtics dynasty, I think you could make a case that despite the higher-profile guys that may have been out there, Tommy is as symbolic a Celtic as we’ve had. Tommy personified it. I would put him up as our poster boy.”
Current fans will remember Heinsohn more for his enthusiastic, green-tinted work as the team’s color commentator. His longtime sidekick, play-by-play announcer Mike Gorman, will remember him for that, too, of course. But he said it is a mistake to pigeonhole him.
“I know he was the rabid Celtic guy that yelled at officials, but that was just a piece of who the man was,” Gorman said. “He was an accomplished artist. His stuff was really, really good. He was an avid reader. He liked music. There were a lot of sides to him. There were a lot of things to talk to Tommy about other than the Celtics, even though he did prefer to talk about the Celtics.”
Gorman, Cousy, and Celtics co-owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca are among those who have Heinsohn’s original artwork hanging in their homes.
Grousbeck recalled Tuesday how he used to sit in an office at TD Garden before Celtics games and listen to Heinsohn and Red Auerbach fill their air with stories and memories. It was like watching a documentary in real time.
“You sit there and you’re in awe,” Grousbeck said. “The stories were endless, and you never wanted them to end. Lots of people are connected to the Celtics, and then there are the very few who helped build it, and then built it to their dying day.”
Added Pagliuca: “He’s as special of a Celtic as there’s ever been. We’ll never see someone like him again.”
Before TD Garden was renovated last year, there was a small, nondescript room in the bowels of the arena where team executives and officials could get away from the din. Often, Celtics assistant manager Mike Zarren found himself there with Heinsohn.
Heinsohn won championships with the Celtics as a player and a coach, and he was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame for both roles. Zarren was a Harvard Law grad whose only connection to the NBA was that he helped build teams.
“It would be easy for Tommy to look at me and the work I do and sort of laugh at it and tell me all the things I don’t know,” Zarren said. “But he wanted to have conversations with me nearly every time about what the team was doing and what he saw that he liked and didn’t. I had hundreds of great little basketball conversations with Tommy. He just loved the Celtics.”
Heinsohn’s death led to an outpouring of condolences and memories from the basketball community on Tuesday. Hall of Famer Bill Russell posted a picture of himself on Twitter sitting with his former Celtics teammate.
“We were rookies together and friends for life,” Russell wrote. “In life there are a limited number of true friends. Today I lost one. RIP Heiny.”
Celtics forward Jaylen Brown posted a message on Twitter, too, along with former Celtics such as Isaiah Thomas, Evan Turner, and Leon Powe. NBA commissioner Adam Silver offered his condolences to the franchise privately before issuing a public statement later in the day.
Governor Charlie Baker expressed shock Tuesday when informed during his COVID-19 briefing at the State House of Heinsohn’s passing. Baker recalled Heinsohn’s remarkable career as a player and memorable run as a broadcaster.
“The thing I would say most about Tommy Heinsohn is the guy was all heart,” Baker said. “Whatever it was, whatever the cause, and he did tons and tons of charitable work, the guy was all heart and I’m really sorry to hear that. I mean, 2020 has just been a crummy year all the way around, and there’s one more great example of that.”
Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.