No. 15 in the rafters. No. 1 in the heart of every Celtics fan.
Tommy Heinsohn. Boston Celtics. Impossible to separate, one and the same. He was a Hall of Fame player, coach, and broadcaster. If you are a New England sports fan under the age of 75, you have no memory of a time when Tommy Heinsohn was not part of the Celtics.
Tommy died Monday at the age of 86. It’s a huge loss. Bet he had some NBA draft tips he was ready to share with Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens. Tommy always had an opinion and never lost his fastball. Ask those smart young folks at NBC Sports Boston who remember a huge man in his mid-80s still driving himself to Burlington two or three times a week for lively, late-night analysis duty. Who does that at that age?
If you are a Celtics fan, Tommy’s career frames the timeline of your own life. You remember him as a hook-shooting forward, a foot-stomping coach, and a Fred Flintstone-esque broadcaster.
Those of us who grew up in Massachusetts in the 1950s and 1960s remember Tommy as part of a team that won the championship every spring. It was an April-May ritual. Take down the storm windows, watch the forsythia bloom, and listen to Johnny Most tell us that the Celtics had beaten the Lakers in the Finals again.
The Celtics won the championship when I was in first grade in 1959 — and every subsequent year until I entered high school in 1967.
Tommy was a mainstay of that dynasty, starting alongside Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Satch Sanders, and Sam Jones. Tommy was the gunning forward with the flattop haircut who rarely looked to pass. He played nine NBA seasons, and the Celtics won the championship in eight of those seasons.
It always bothered me that so many young fans who came to love Tommy’s green-bleeding TV work had no idea how good he was as a player. A native of Union City, N.J., Tommy was an All-American and NIT champion at Holy Cross. He was NBA Rookie of the Year in Russell’s rookie season (in fairness, Russell didn’t arrive until December because of his Olympics commitment).
When the Celtics won their first championship in double overtime against the St. Louis Hawks, it was rookie Tommy — not Russell or Cooz — who led the way with 37 points and 23 rebounds before fouling out.
Tommy retired from playing in 1965 when he was only 30 years old. He was a big smoker back then, and some of us believed that shortened his career. When Russell retired after the 1969 championship, Red Auerbach turned to Tommy to lead the team through a quick rebuilding period. By 1974, the Celtics were world champs again with Tommy as head coach.
If you went to Holy Cross in the 1970s, you bragged about two graduates: Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn. When I got to know Tommy in the 1980s, I was ecstatic to learn that I’d lived in two of the same dorms where he lived in the 1950s.
We swapped stories about the food at Kimball Dining Hall, which magically made me feel at one with the Celtic universe. I felt it again Tuesday when Cooz returned a call and officially confirmed the sad news of Tommy’s passing.
Tommy had the perfect grasp on all things Celtics. He understood the brilliance of Red because he was brilliant himself. He explained Red’s crafty psychology, telling us, “Red respected our intellect as players. In timeouts, he would ask, ‘Anybody got anything?’ That was smart. He knew that if one of us suggested something, we would work like hell to make that play work because we had pride of authorship.”
All of us who covered the Celtics are indebted to Tommy. He would hold court in the press dining room before every game. Tommy was a guy who stood up to Wilt Chamberlain and coached against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He could talk about brawls in Philadelphia and Syracuse. He was the ultimate go-to guy if you wanted to know LeBron James’s place in NBA history. He had the stories.
Here’s Tommy on “negotiating” his contract in the early 1960s: “You went in to talk contract with Walter Brown. You’d walk into the men’s room, and he’d say, ‘What you do want?’ And you’d say, ‘What do you want to give me?’ And it would be back and forth, and by the time you zipped up, you had a deal.”
He was a husband, father, grandfather, artist, and insurance salesman. He loved the running game and occasionally hated the officials. He rocked plaid jackets and wide ties in the 1970s. He feuded with young Bob Ryan when our hoop scribe covered the team in the ’70s.
Tommy inspired Dennis Johnson with some rare critical commentary while covering the epic Celtics-Lakers Finals for CBS in 1984. DJ was officially hurt when Tommy questioned his play, and he responded with four stellar 20-point games to close out the series.
Late in life, of course, he treated us to Tommy Points.
Tommy’s fans flooded my inbox with e-mails Tuesday afternoon.
“This is officially the most horrible year,” one wrote. “Basketball will never be the same for me.”
A lot of folks feel that way. Tommy Heinsohn is gone and the Celtics will never be the same.