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Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn Left an Indelible Legacy as a Player, Coach, and Broadcaster

Tommy Heinsohn, who lived a remarkable and highly decorated basketball life, passed away today at the age of 86. He joined John Wooden, Bill Sharman, and Lenny Wilkens as the only people inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player (1986) and a coach (2015). Heinsohn won the 1957 NBA Rookie of the Year award, made the All-Star team six times in nine seasons, and earned the 1973 NBA Coach of the Year award. 

How you remember or think about Heinsohn is very much a generational consideration, which is a testament to his longevity and versatility. If you are at least 70 years old, you may remember Tommy Heinsohn most as a great player who played a key role for eight of Boston's NBA championship teams. If you are at least 60 years old, you may remember Tommy Heinsohn most as a great coach who led the Boston Celtics to NBA championships in 1974 and 1976. If you are younger than 60 years old, you probably remember Tommy Heinsohn most as a colorful broadcaster who did not hide that he bled Celtic green but who also had great insight about the game from both a playing and coaching perspective.  

My earliest memories of Heinsohn date back to his days as a color commentator for CBS' national NBA coverage in the 1980s. I did not think that he was an overt Celtic partisan during those broadcasts, but some observers did. Heinsohn spent nearly 40 years working as a color commentator for the Celtics' local coverage, and during those broadcasts his rooting preferences were quite evident--and there is nothing wrong with that.

I did a phone interview with Heinsohn on June 10, 2004, and we spoke about many basketball topics, ranging from his playing career to the modern game. I quoted Heinsohn in my December 2004 Basketball Digest article about Sam Jones. I also interviewed Bob Cousy and K.C. Jones during that period, and I later interviewed John Havlicek, Satch Sanders, and Dave Cowens. All of those legendary Celtics were a joy to interview. I believe that I first met Heinsohn when Indiana played Boston during the 2005 NBA playoffs. I recall that he was very approachable and friendly; he did not put on any airs, or act like he was a legend who should get special consideration.

Bill Russell was the defensive anchor for the dynasty Celtics, Cousy was the playmaker who could also score, Bill Sharman was the sharpshooter who was also a scrappy defender, and Heinsohn was known as "Ack-Ack" and "Tommy Gun" because he loved to shoot. In each of Heinsohn's first six seasons he averaged at least 16.2 ppg and at least 9.5 rpg for Boston's balanced attack. In his first couple seasons he was the third option behind Cousy and Sharman but in 1959-60 he led Boston in scoring (21.7 ppg). Heinsohn led the team in scoring for three straight seasons before Sam Jones and Havlicek emerged as the team's top scorers. Heinsohn was Boston's leading playoff scorer during four championship seasons (22.9 ppg in 1957; 21.8 ppg in 1960; 19.7 ppg in 1961; 24.7 ppg in 1963). He was Boston's second leading playoff scorer in 1962 (20.7 ppg) when Russell put up this incredible playoff stat line: 22.4 ppg, 26.4 rpg, 5.0 apg, 48.0 mpg. 

Heinsohn retired in 1965 before returning to coach the Celtics four years later, succeeding Russell, who retired as player-coach after leading the team to the 1969 title. Heinsohn compiled a 427-263 regular season record (.619 winning percentage) as Boston's head coach from 1969-78. The Celtics missed the playoffs in the first two years of the post-Russell era before winning at least 54 games in each of the next five seasons. Heinsohn's best team went 68-14 in 1973 but did not win the title after Havlicek injured his shoulder versus the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston won two of the next three titles before declining in the late 1970s.

After Heinsohn was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach in 2015, I wrote about Heinsohn's perspective on the enduring greatness of the Boston Celtics teams that he played for and coached. Coach Red Auerbach set the tone:

Heinsohn declares, "Red’s style of play: the philosophy was to destroy the will of the other team to beat you and his strategy was to put you to the supreme mental and physical test. We had this uptempo game called the fast break. This put you, including the big guys, to the ultimate physical test of sprinting on every possession. He also implemented an aggressive defense and we had the ultimate stopper in Bill Russell." 

So much is made now of "analytics" and the value of pushing the pace and spreading the court but Auerbach figured all of this out decades ago without using a spreadsheet. Heinsohn states simply, "The secret weapon of the Boston Celtics for over 30 years" was "the pace of the game." This made the other team pay a physical price by forcing the other team to play faster than they were comfortable playing and making them "think fast while running backwards." Heinsohn compares this to racing against the world's best marathoner by using a relay team.

Heinsohn has worked as a broadcaster for decades now and he says that when he meets with coaches before games they will often say that they want to push the pace but Heinsohn believes that most coaches do not understand what that means. Heinsohn is appalled when he sees a big guy retrieve the ball after a made basket and walk out of bounds to pass the ball into play; he trained all of his players--even his big guys--to be able to bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense. The point was to get the ball in play and up the court as fast as possible before the defense can get set.

Heinsohn admits that when he became a coach he did not see a reason to deviate much from Auerbach's approach. The Boston teams that Heinsohn coached were small but they were tough, they rebounded ferociously and they ran the court relentlessly. His 1972-73 team went 68-14 in the regular season featuring a lineup of 6-9 center Dave Cowens, 6-7 power forward Paul Silas, 6-5 small forward John Havlicek, 6-5 shooting guard Don Chaney and 6-3 point guard Jo Jo White. The undersized Celtics led the league in rebounding and might have won the championship if Havlicek had not injured his shoulder during the playoffs. In 1973-74, that same group posted a 56-26 record (second best in the NBA), led the league in rebounding and beat the 59-23 Milwaukee Bucks in seven games to win the Celtics' first championship of the post-Bill Russell era. The 1974-75 Celtics tied with the Washington Bullets for the best record in the NBA (60-22), finished second in the league in rebounding and lost to the Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 1975-76, the Celtics replaced Chaney with Charlie Scott, a 6-5 shooting guard who won the 1972 ABA scoring championship (34.6 ppg) before making the All-Star team three years in a row as a Phoenix Sun. The Celtics went 54-28--the second best record in the NBA behind only the defending champion Golden State Warriors--and led the league in rebounding en route to claiming their second title in three years.

The sound, fundamental principles of winning basketball have not changed in the past 60 years, and they likely will not change in the next 60 years: be mentally and physically strong, push the pace to wear down the other team, and attack on offense before the defense has time to get set. Heinsohn learned and applied those principles well, so it is not an accident that he won eight championships in nine seasons as a player before winning two championships in nine seasons as Boston's head coach.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:54 PM



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