The voice of Tom Heinsohn as a basketball commentator was unmistakable. And I was quite familiar with him long before I joined the Globe to cover the Celtics in 2009.
Heinsohn carried a unique role in my childhood. As a kid growing up near the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., I was a rabid Lakers fan and was fortunate enough to have grown up during their Showtime years.
I had no recollection of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 1960s; it was before my time. For me, the Lakers' biggest rival was the Philadelphia 76ers, as they clashed in the Lakers' first two titles of my recollection: 1980 and 1982.
When the Celtics returned to basketball prominence with the arrival of Larry Bird and CBS began telecasting more NBA games, especially those Sunday afternoon classics against the Lakers, I learned of the great Tom Heinsohn.
Now, I knew he was a former Celtics player and coach, and so did all of my family members, who questioned Heinsohn’s impartiality when he and Dick Stockton called those games as the Celtics and Lakers played in three NBA Finals in four years, as well as two regular-season clashes per year.
Heinsohn’s style and, well, reverence for the Celtics players were evident, and I’m not only talking about Bird, but also Kevin McHale, Scott Wedman, Cedric Maxwell, and even M.L. Carr, who drew disdain from many Lakers fans for his towel-waving at the end of the bench.
Heinsohn wasn’t popular in my household. Understandably, he wanted the Celtics to win. Why wouldn’t he? He had immense respect for the Lakers, but it was apparent he was a Celtic calling Celtics games, and Lakers fans took strong notice of that.
But honestly, he made those Celtics-Lakers matchups special. It was sort of like the Lakers were playing the Celtics as well as Heinsohn in those Finals. But he couldn’t hide, nor did he try to disguise, his admiration for Magic Johnson, who during those times was unlike any other player the NBA had ever seen.
When I accepted the job at the Globe, there was disbelief that I would actually be covering the Celtics, who gave my younger self so many disheartening sports memories. Before the days of the Internet, I found out the Lakers lost Game 5 of the 1984 Finals to the Celtics from our bus driver after he finished our middle school Grad Night at Disneyland. I was crushed on the one-hour ride back to Audubon Junior High School.
So when I arrived in Boston, I expected Tommy to be different than he was. He couldn’t have been nicer. When you deal with sports legends in this business, the ones who you remember dominating in your youth or watched on those grainy black-and-white videos, it can be a mixed bag. Some are approachable and, honestly, some aren’t.
Tommy Heinsohn could not have been more approachable. He realized his greatness, he understood his impact on the organization and the city, but he was able to adjust to the current game. He respected the current players. He didn’t belabor his accomplishments to the young guys. He offered strong, effective advice. He knew the game.
My memories of Tommy Heinsohn weren’t as much about his longtime partnership with Mike Gorman. For those of us who grew up on the West Coast, Gorman was the voice of Big Monday on ESPN. I knew Gorman more for Boston College-Pittsburgh or Georgetown-St. John’s than for Celtics-76ers.
But both gentlemen were so gracious with their time. Tommy was a difficult person not to like because he embraced everything that he was and was unapologetic about his style or his admonishment of game officials. The reason Lakers fans loathed Heinsohn during those Lakers-Celtics CBS games was the same reason that New England and Celtics faithful adored him.
These 11 years around the Celtics have allowed me to meet and befriend several all-time great players and people: Maxwell, John Havlicek, Satch Sanders, Jo Jo White, Dave Cowens, and Nate Archibald. You understand the history of the organization and how significant these figures are.
I soon understood Tommy’s importance and influence on the organization. And that cannot be understated. You didn’t have to particularly like the way he chastised officials or lamented every call that went against the Celtics, but you had to respect his knowledge and passion.
And in watching those old Lakers-Celtics games whenever they are rebroadcast, I appreciate Heinsohn’s passion for the game. He was rooting for the Celtics, and he should have. But you could hear the respect he had for the Lakers and the event as a whole. One of my fondest memories of Tommy was when I worked on a story about the 1974 and ’76 Celtic title teams before he was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame for a second time in 2015. Forty years later, an 81-year-old Heinsohn knew all the names, games, and special moments from those runs. It was impressive. He hadn’t lost a step. And he was gracious with his time.
So when I returned home to Los Angeles to visit after my first few years covering the Celtics, I had to deliver the disheartening news to my family members and friends that Heinsohn could not have been more affable and congenial.
You learned to appreciate the man the more you were around him. He was a fixture on that Celtics bench before games until nearly the end of his life. You’d walk by, wave, and say, “Hey, Tommy,” and he’d always wave back. That’s what I will remember most.