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Bob Ryan

More than anyone you can think of, Tom Heinsohn was Mr. Celtic

The word that best describes the playing style of Tom Heinsohn (right) is "swashbuckling."
The word that best describes the playing style of Tom Heinsohn (right) is "swashbuckling."Paul Connell, Globe Staff

“Inculcate.”

Who uses the word “inculcate”? Tom Heinsohn; that’s who.

Back in those innocent days of the 1960s and ’70s, press luncheons were an important part of NBA life. We had them for years in Boston, the purpose to secure a little newspaper attention (nothing else mattered) for what was far from the most important sporting event in town. One of the most sought-after guests on the NBA circuit was Boston Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn, a man never at a loss for words.

Good words. Big words. Words such as “inculcate,” one of his favorites. The word means to “instill (an attitude, idea of habit) by persistent instruction,” and the thing Tom Heinsohn was “inculcating” was a fast-break concept into his team. Modern fans of his broadcasting will have no trouble believing that since he spent a large portion of his air time imploring every Celtics team of the past four decades to run, run, and run some more.

Red Auerbach had done his best to inculcate a fast-break philosophy into Tom Heinsohn, and he, in turn, felt it was his sacred duty to inculcate it into generations of new Celtics. I would go to those luncheons with him and there was never a time he wouldn’t come out with that word.

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More than anyone you can think of, Tom Heinsohn was Mr. Celtic. Red Auerbach was the acknowledged patriarch, yes. Bob Cousy? Larry Bird? They both coached other teams, for God’s sake. Tommy Heinsohn joined the team in 1956 and remained a Celtic until his death at age 86 on Monday.

Heinsohn coached the Celtics after winning eight titles as a player.
Heinsohn coached the Celtics after winning eight titles as a player.Frank O'Brien/Globe Staff

Yes, he earned a living as an insurance salesman — make that a champion insurance salesman — in the first few years after retiring as a player in 1965, but he was a broadcaster on the side until becoming the team’s head coach in 1969. For sheer longevity, I will take the liberty of assuming there is no comparable figure in any other team’s history.

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There are a dwindling number of us who remember Tom Heinsohn, No. 15, the Hall of Fame player. The basic facts testify to his greatness. Six-time All-Star. Four-time second-team All-NBA (each time behind only legends Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettit). Eight championship rings. But that’s not the fun part.

The word that best describes his playing style was “swashbuckling.” The game has changed dramatically. There are no more Tommy Heinsohns. He was a 6-foot-7-inch forward with a line-drive jump shot, for starters. The folklore was that the shot trajectory was developed when he played in a high school gym with a low ceiling. Whatever, the shot was uniquely his.

In addition, he had inculcated — what else? — a second go-to offensive weapon into his game. He was a college center at Holy Cross, and a center couldn’t be a proper center in those days without a hook shot.

He, of course, did not play center in the NBA. But he did not abandon his hook shot. As a Celtic, it became a running hook, and he was particularly deadly from the corner. Oh, how he loved that hook. For years afterward, it was not uncommon to see him showing off that hook before games while wearing a sportcoat and dress shoes.

A third weapon was offensive rebounding. He was a master. He would lead the Celtics in scoring three times during his nine-year career and would be the team’s No. 2 scorer twice.

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Heinsohn and Bill Russell were in the same rookie class. Heinsohn won Rookie of the Year.
Heinsohn and Bill Russell were in the same rookie class. Heinsohn won Rookie of the Year.Associated Press/The Boston Globe

He, not Bill Russell, was the official NBA Rookie of the Year during their mutual inaugural campaign of 1956-57 (Russell joined the team fresh from the Melbourne Olympics after 24 games). And he saved his best that season for last. In the thrilling, exhausting, 125-123 double-overtime Game 7 win over St. Louis in the Finals, he had 37 points and 23 rebounds before fouling out in the second OT. Imagine the accolades if a rookie came up with a performance like that in a comparable Game 7 today.

Why only nine years? Why retire at age 30? It’s simple. He had bad knees. The heavy smoking didn’t help, either, but it was his knees that brought a premature end to his Hall of Fame career.

Our paths crossed in 1969. He was the rookie coach of the Celtics and I was the 23-year-old rookie beat man for the Boston Globe. I loved basketball, but my primary orientation had always been college. I needed someone to instruct me in the whys, wherefores, and nuances of the NBA. That someone was Tom Heinsohn.

At the same time, I also was absorbing the wisdom of the Havliceks, Nelsons, Silases, and Sanderses of the world, and the time would come when Tommy would take issue with some of my writing when the thoughts expressed differed with his. But all that was resolved in time and I want to make it clear I am very happy Tom Heinsohn came into my life.

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We more than got along these past 40-odd years. He was one of the few people to call me “Bobby,” and I would consider him to have been a friend. What’s more, Tom Heinsohn was an accomplished painter, and we are proud to have a Heinsohn hanging in our living room.

John Havlicek, Don Nelson, and Satch Sanders really didn’t need a coach at that point in their careers. But younger players such as Jo Jo White, Don Chaney, and Dave Cowens did. Heinsohn’s approach to Jo Jo rankled some of the vets, who felt Tommy was allowing him to be too offensively oriented at the expense of other aspects of his game.

What he does not get enough credit for is the way he brought the best out of Cowens, by installing a 3-2 offense that exploited Cowens’s quickness and shooting ability.

He also worked diligently on a one-on-one basis to fix Chaney’s shaky shooting mechanics. You might say he inculcated some good habits into Chaney. There is no way Chaney would ever have averaged as many as 13 points a game for a season without Tom Heinsohn’s expert post-practice individual instruction.

He coached with passion, and there is no question he spent too much time worrying about the officials. But he won two titles and he coached another team that won 68 games and would have won it all had Havlicek not gotten hurt. That 68-14 team ran as beautifully orchestrated a fast break as the league has ever seen. All that inculcation — have I just coined a word? — kicked in to the nth degree.

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The career was enough to make him one of only four people to make the Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.

He carried that passion for the game and the organization through more than four decades of broadcasting. He bled green and his fans loved him for it. Sadly, there will be no more “Tommy Points.” Mr. Celtic has left us.


Bob Ryan can be reached at robert.ryan@globe.com. Follow Bob on Boston.com at Globe 10.0.