Tommy Heinsohn Was the Ultimate Celtic [OPINION]
One of the most recognizable presences in Boston Celtics history, and one of its most recognizable voices, is now gone. Tommy Heinsohn passed away today at his home at the age of 86, after six decades associated with the franchise for which he won eight NBA championships as a player and two as a coach.
Most Celtics fans of the modern era know Tommy as a bombastic color analyst on Celtics games, or as a sage commentator on pre and post-game shows. But Heinsohn, who was drafted by Boston as a territorial pick out of Holy Cross back in 1956, meant so much more to the franchise.
While Johnny Most was calling Celtics championships from the radio booth, Tommy was winning them on the court. But between Heinsohn’s time as a player and a coach, he spent three seasons as Most’s radio partner on Celtics broadcasts. It was there that Heinsohn picked up some of his later over-the-top pro-Celtics schtick from Most, although Tommy’s love for the Green was 100 percent legit.
As much as Tommy Heinsohn was a larger than life presence on television broadcasts, he was even more so in person – not only because of his 6-7 frame, but because he could command attention even as he just sat in a room, not saying a word. Which, believe it or not, was more often than not. In my experiences, Tommy was far more reserved when he wasn’t on the air, but no less of a personality.
When I first began covering the Boston Celtics for the Standard-Times in the fall of 2001, the team was just on the verge of a return to the playoffs. Rick Pitino had quit the previous season, and the only real star power for the Green was in the young duo of Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker.
But for a lifelong Celtics fan suddenly allowed into the bowels of the then-FleetCenter, I was more starstruck when I saw Tommy Heinsohn in the media dining room before my first game.
There he was, sitting at a table, holding court with a number of the older sportswriters. I chose a seat nearby, listening to his stories from a table over. He was a man who could exist in many different eras of Celtics basketball simultaneously, easily talking about Pierce and Walker and the matchups of the night while bringing up player tendencies from both his playing and coaching days. I don’t think Tommy ever forgot a single minute of NBA basketball that he experienced.
If there is solace in Tommy’s passing, it’s that he’s now reunited with his beloved “Redhead in Needham,” his wife Helen, who passed away in 2008 after a six-year battle with brain and lung cancer.
Helen was a frequent presence at Celtics home games, and I would often see her in the dining room before the game or in the halls of the Garden. She was a beautiful woman, with a smile that was as bright as the lights above the court, and you never saw her alone; no matter where she went, Tommy was always by her side, even before her illness weakened her. He pulled out chairs for her, he carried bags for her, brought her food to the table. Tommy may have bled green, but his heart belonged to Helen.
It was during a playoff game – I don’t remember which season – when I first had the chance to sit for a pre-game meal with Tommy and Helen. With so much extra media converging upon Boston, finding a seat in the dining area wasn’t easy. It was Helen who saw me looking for a place to sit and motioned for me to join the Heinsohns at their table. I sat there in awkward silence until finally Tommy spoke up and asked me, “So, what do you think tonight?”
I didn’t know what to say. I started to speak, unsure of the words coming out of my mouth, certainly saying something bland and obvious until I realized Heinsohn’s question was more to set up himself to start talking about the impending game more than it was to hear my thoughts. And so I just sat for the next 20 minutes or so, just listening to a legend speak while Helen smiled at me.
I had the chance to sit with Tommy a few more times, both before and after Helen’s passing, and although I know he recognized me – I spent about a decade covering the team – I don’t know if he ever even knew my name. I interviewed him on multiple occasions, for stories mostly about the early days of the Celtics’ dynasty, but I think he mostly remembered the fact that I’d always say, “Hello, Mrs. Heinsohn” each time I saw Helen following that first invitation to sit at their table.
I remember when Tommy was recognized at The Tradition, the annual fundraiser for the Boston Sports Museum, and at the end of his speech, he told everyone in the audience, “You all get a Tommy Point.” It may have just been a cute way of ending his speech, but I still count that Tommy Point as one of the true honors of my sports writing career.
When Red Auerbach passed away in 2006, Tommy took his place as the face of Celtics history around what is now known as TD Garden. He was both NBA royalty and also the most affable everyman to ever be in a Hall of Fame – twice over, as a player and coach, one of only four men so honored. He talked frequently about how the players barely made any money in the 1950s and had to work regular jobs in the off-season to make ends meet. He was one of the men who helped to create the NBA Players Union and served as its second president, following the tenure of his longtime friend and teammate Bob Cousy. His mark on the game was left not only on the court, in the record books and in the Hall of Fame, but also in every time a player cashes his game check.
Tommy Heinsohn loved the Boston Celtics, but he loved the players throughout the years just as much as the franchise. He loved the opposing players as well, even if he had to pretend not to during the games. And although he’d portray them as villains on the broadcast and yell “THESE GUYS ARE RIDICULOUS!” whenever a call went against Boston, he loved the officials, too.
Cousy, Bill Russell, KC Jones, Sam Jones, Satch Sanders, and Frank Ramsey are all still alive, and positions aside, that’s still one hell of a starting five – with Ramsey as the sixth man, of course. But without Tommy Heinsohn, it feels as if the heart and soul of the Celtics franchise is gone.
Somewhere up in basketball heaven, Tommy, Red, Johnny, Loscy, Bill Sharman, John Havlicek and all the other Celtics who have passed on are now reuniting on the Great Parquet Floor in the Sky. And I bet God is standing nearby, listening to the stories, and hoping for a Tommy Point.
Tim Weisberg is the Digital Managing Editor for WBSM and Fun 107. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TimWeisberg. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.