All these years later, Tommy Heinsohn doesn’t know exactly how close he came to playing for a team other than the Celtics — just that in months leading up to the 1956 NBA Draft, Red Auerbach was sending him mixed signals.
“Red was playing games with me,” Heinsohn told me on Thursday over the phone, two days after his 80th birthday. “He was a game player at times. He’d call Bob Cousy the local yokel. And he didn’t draft Cousy either so his history with Holy Cross guys was a little sketchy. And he made a couple comments in the paper that made it sound like he didn’t want to draft me.”
Those comments were made at the annual basketball writers’ meeting in January 1956. Heinsohn was in the middle of his senior season at Holy Cross (relatively speaking, in the Celtics backyard). He was the nation’s sixth leading scorer and considered one of the best big men in the country.
"Let's face it," Auerbach told reporters, "[Bill] Russell is the best big man in the country today. I'm not saying Heinsohn would not be a great corner man. He could very well be. But we need the great player who has the size to cope with the giants that the Knicks, Warriors, and [Syracuse] Nats have.”
He trekked out to Peoria, Illinois, to inquire about a spot on an AAU team sponsored by the Caterpillar Tractor Company. Meanwhile, word of his trip got out, and as soon as Heinsohn returned, Bob Cousy called him with a message: “Come to Boston. Red wants to talk to you.”
Auerbach ultimately selected Heinsohn with Boston’s territorial pick that April and so began the longest and most decorated career in Celtics franchise history. One that now spans seven decades, has been associated with 17 NBA championships and — you know the deal. He’s Tommy Heinsohn. And in honor of his 80th birthday, I thought it might be fun to give him a call, reminisce about the good old days and just see where the conversation went from there. So . . .
You know, Tommy never planned on spending his whole life in basketball. When he was in school, the NBA wasn’t a career as much as something you did on the side. It was supplemental income.
“So I went to college and I got the best education that I could,” he told me. “Actually, over the course of my basketball career, I made more money in the life insurance business than I did playing basketball. Although it didn’t hurt my business that I played for the Celtics while we were winning all those championships.”
The championships came fast. Auerbach had already built a solid foundation with Cousy and Hall of Famer Bill Sharman. Along with drafting Heinsohn in 1956, Red also made a draft day trade that brought Bill Russell to Boston. Russell missed the first few months of his rookie season after leading the United States to a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Melbourne, but once he joined the fray, Tommy knew that the Celtics were on the way to great things.
“We were just in the formative stages of putting together a total team,” he said. “Before Russell arrived we had a fabulous offense. And they had a fabulous offense before I got there. But there was no defense and no rebounding to speak. I mean, at times Cousy might lead the ballclub in rebounding!
“But when Russell showed up in the middle of the season, by the time we finished the playoffs, we had an idea that we were pretty good.”
In this case, pretty good was winning nine of the next 10 NBA championships, and as Tommy is quick to point out “the only reason we lost in 1958 is because Russell got hurt in the Finals. But either way, we were good. We ended up, in my opinion, with the best offense and the best defense for years.”
The great defense was a product of Russell, “literally a stopper of any offense.” The team’s intensity and relentless killer instinct was a product of Russell and Cousy. (“Their life was dedicated to it and there was no fooling around. Their whole personality revolved around winning basketball games.”
The offense was more of a group effort, with Cousy at the helm and an abundance of players averaging double figures, and it was on offense where Heinsohn excelled. The up-tempo fast break Celtics style was perfect for Heinsohn’s personal offensive philosophy. It was responsible for him earning the nickname “Tommy Gun.” Believe it — the man liked to shoot. But he could score, too. Heinsohn was Boston’s leading scorer during three consecutive seasons on the championship run.
Heinsohn retired in 1965, at 30 years old, after nine seasons and eight championship rings — he also averaged 18.6 points and 8.8 rebounds a game and was a pioneer in the creation of a player’s union.
A year later, Red Auerbach retired, and reached out to Tommy — a former player whom Red was confident understood the tenants of Celtics tradition and the style of Celtics basketball — about becoming the next head coach. Heinsohn thought about it, looked at the Celtics roster and came to a quick decision.
“I was a teammate of Bill Russell’s and my comment to Red was that Russell would get more out of himself than anyone else could,” Heinsohn told me. “He was just so motivated. And he was so proud to also become the first black coach in professional sports. Russell just had a feel for it.”
Auerbach named Russell the head coach, and at the same time finalized the Celtics first TV contract. Heinsohn stepped in and called the games for a few seasons — often with Auerbach as his color man. But in 1969, after the Celtics beat the Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Russell criticized Wilt Chamberlain for not playing through an injury, and Heinsohn knew immediately that Russell wouldn’t be back. “He had too much respect for Wilt. He would have never provided that kind of motivation. So I said to Red, ‘If you still want me to be the coach. I’d be willing to do it.’”
He did it, and over eight-plus seasons, Heinsohn led the Celtics to two more championships, and three additional conference finals appearances. To this day, he’s second in franchise history with 427 wins, notching 11 more than Doc Rivers in 31 fewer games. And when I asked him how he did it — for the secrets to his coaching success — Heinsohn’s words took on a little more emphasis. A fire crept into his voice. You know that fire. The same one that brews after Paul Pierce gets his teeth knocked out and no one calls a foul.
“When I coached everyone would zip up the floor and if you talk to any of the players that played for me, that’s what they would tell you,” Heinsohn said. “But of course now everyone thinks that I’m crazy because I talk about up-tempo basketball.”
From here, the conversation got more pointed and intense — and fun. While Tommy would have been more than happy to spend the rest of the call getting nostalgic about the glory days, when the topic of coaching came up it was hard to steer away. It became clear that at 80 years old, this is the essence of Tommy Heinsohn. A gregarious, fun-loving broadcaster? Sure. But more than that he’s a coach. A guy who spends a lot of time thinking about basketball and is still incredibly passionate about basketball — what it used to be and what it is today. And on that note, the rest of our conversation is definitely best expressed in Q & A form:
RL: OK, let talk about up-tempo basketball, because I know it gets you riled up. The only thing that makes you angrier than the referees is when guys walk the ball up on offense. What is it about up-tempo basketball that’s so effective?
TH: Well, we won 11 championships in 13 years with that style of play. I rebuilt the team in a short period of time with that style. We were the smallest team in the league. The proof is kind of in the pudding. Let me put it to you this way: With all the videotapes they have and the six assistant coaches picking apart everything, now every other team knows exactly what you’re going to do when you go into a set offense. This is like Eisenhower calling up Hitler and saying ‘Hey, we’re gonna land on Normandy!” You know, it’s a full frontal assault against an established defense — what are you, crazy? Where are the parachute drops? The commando raids. You put the other team through the ringer mentally and physically when you play the up-tempo game. You make them think twice as fast. You make them execute twice as fast. You make them think as individuals on defense instead of organizing a team defense. Philosophically, the court is 94 feet – why can’t you play 94 feet of offense? Why does it have to be half court?
RL: Can you go a little deeper into the philosophical aspect of it?
TH: In the old days, teams weren’t conditioned to play up-tempo basketball. They might be a little better now, but I’ll tell you this. Big guys breakdown. So tell me, if you were going to run against the world’s best marathoner – you’d lose, right? But let’s say you were able to design a relay team to go against the world’s best marathoner: You’d up-tempo the game, right? You’d up-tempo the race and try to take his legs out from under him. And that was our secret weapon. All these big guys you were playing against; they would break down. If you push the tempo like you would in that race the big guys aren’t to be seen down the stretch.
When I was coaching, I’d substitute against the first big man on the other team that put his hands on his pants during a free throw. The first one I saw. And I’d own the substitution patterns after that. I’d always have a fresh guy coming in against a tired player.
RL: Have you spoken about this at all with Brad Stevens?
TH: We talked about it a little after the season was over. He called me to go to lunch, which was good because not many of these guys ever ask me to do anything. Over the years. Doc asked me to speak to the team one time at a practice and give them some “rah rah” stuff but I told Brad, ‘Look, I have a doctor’s degree in fast break basketball and there aren’t many people around who have that. So, if you ever want to pick my brain, I’d be delighted because I have a wealth of information and I’d like to see get back in the game some way shape or form.’ So we went to lunch and talked basketball and the theory of the fast break and some of the technical aspects, substitution patterns and all that stuff.
RL: Was he responsive? Did this make sense?
TH: Yeah. He seemed to get it. Doesn’t it make sense to you?
RL: And it especially makes sense with the team that Boston has now. It seems their best chance is to run and attack the more established teams the way that younger teams attacked the Celtics once Paul Pierce and KG started to slow down.
TH: If you’re going to play slow-down basketball, you better have some half-inch players who know how to take advantage of that half inch. If you’re going to play with younger players, who aren’t very experienced, you have to take advantage of their great athletic ability and youth – and when you do that, you play up-tempo basketball. And when you do that, there’s more room to make decisions. And then it doesn’t become a half-inch game – it becomes a stamina game.
RL: And it helps when you have one of the best decisions makers in the game with the ball in his hands.
TH: But Rondo doesn’t even need to have it the whole time. If you have an up-tempo system, everybody gets involved and can handle the ball. And that’s where this thing kind of went off base because you had “point guards” and “two guards” and “quick forwards” and “power forwards”. There was no such thing when we were playing and when I was coaching. We just played basketball. Everyone could pass. Everyone could dribble. Everyone could shoot. Cousy was a great ball handler. We set things up for him to get the ball in advantageous situations. But I didn’t have a Bob Cousy when I coached, so everyone became a little bit like Bob Cousy. I made them think like Bob Cousy.
RL: Tommy, I think you’ve converted me. Let’s push the tempo!
TH: Fast-break offense won all the championships Russell was involved with and all the championships that I was involved with. Bird’s team was not a running team but the running team of that generation was the Lakers, with Magic. Kurt Rambis would take the ball out of the net and advance it as fast as he could! That was the last real fast break team. You can say that Phoenix was and whatever, but Phoenix was just a bombs away team.
RL: So what’s the difference that Phoenix team and the style that you’re suggesting the Celtics — or any team — should adopt?
TH: Phoenix didn’t even have a concept on defense. I mean, I don’t know what the hell they were doing on defense. They were just concerned with scoring points. You’ve got to play SOME defense.
RL: OK, not to change the subject but I want to get this out there, because it drives me nuts: Why don’t more players shoot the hook shot?
TH: (sighs) You’ve got me.
RL: I mean, the all time leading scorer in basketball made a killing off this one shot. There has to be a reason it’s disappeared.
TH: OK, here are two reasons. First, 95 percent of the coaches are small guys. So they don’t have a clue how to do it to begin with. Years ago, I watched Yao Ming and one of their assistant coaches who’s about 5-9 was teaching Yao Ming low post moves. And I’m laughing my ass off watching this. Yao Ming could’ve taught this guy low-post basketball.
Second of all, the whole game as trended towards the three-pointer or driving strong to the basket. So there are very few tweener shots that players have. They don’t coach it anymore because they’re going for threes and drives. And believe me, right now, anyone who got a hook shot could make a career out of it. One dribble into the paint and up. It’s just a matter of getting your shot off. And I’ll tell you, the guy right now on the Celtics who knows how to get his shot off is Sullinger. He’s not a leaper but he knows how to use his body.
RL: What’s your opinion on his body type? Couldn’t he stand to lose a few pounds?
TH: Well, offensively, he’s among the elite. Defensively, he’s among the un-elite. They play him as a protector of the rim against the pick and roll and everyone’s exploiting him because he’s not a shot blocker and they have him drop off and cut the guy off getting to the rim and they’re just pulling up and shooting jumpers on him. He’s just not big enough and quick enough to play in the middle, and the next thing is – can he bend his knees and play some defense on the perimeter? That’s going to be the biggest challenge.
RL: Right, but couldn’t that improve if he dropped like 10-15 pounds and he’s a little quicker – wouldn’t that help him?
TH: Well, it may. He knows how to use his body, and would he lose that if he lost a little weight? I don’t think so. He’d improve his quickness.
RL: As long as we’re talking about current guys, let me ask you about Jeff Green, because he kind of drives me nuts.
TH: To me, the team is not playing to Jeff Green’s strength.
RL: OK, so what’s his strength? I’ve been very frustrated with the Jeff Green experience; I don’t quite get who he’s supposed to be, and why next year will be any different than the last few.
TH: The problem is that he’s playing 80 percent of his game on the perimeter. And that’s by design. His game should be one-dribble drives, but right now, the only drives he makes are on the fast break or the occasional time when someone breaks down and he up fakes and then takes it to the rim. I talked to him about it at the end of the season. I said, ‘Jeff you’re not using the best advantage you have. You’re one of the best athletes to ever play this game.”
RL: That seems like a crazy statement, but in terms of pure athleticism, I can’t disagree.
TH: I told him that he can jump and he’s quick. I said, “If I were you, I’d get a hold of old Paul Pierce and Reggie Lewis tapes and watch what they did when they were 15 feet from the basket and how they got a step. I told him, ‘Every time they get you the ball at 15-17 feet, you catch it and you have your back to the basket, and you’re palming the ball over your shoulder. You never face up. You never put a quick move on somebody.’ But part of the problem is that they’re not going to get him the ball 15 feet from the hoop all the time.
RL: Real quick, before I let you go – Can you give me your all-time Celtics starting five?
TH: Well, Russell’s got to be there at No. 1. Period. Cousy would be my No. 2. Bird would be my No. 3. Havlicek would be my No. 4. And after that, ahh, take your pick. Jo Jo White, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones, Dennis Johnson – Pierce has got to be in there. It’s four guys who have to be in there and after that you know...
At this point, after sort of getting lost in the depth of our conversation, I remembered who I was talking to — not just another basketball fan but a Hall of Famer; a guy who actually played with Russell, Cousy and Havlicek. A player with eight rings. A coach with two more rings and an NBA Coach of the Year award. A guy who’s been right there, in some capacity, for every great moment in Boston Celtics history.
So I asked Tommy, at 80 years old, nearly 60 years after Red Auerbach played his games and finally brought Heinsohn to Boston — how does it feel to be a Celtic? What has that meant to you? What goes through your mind when you walk onto the court, ready to see broadcast another game, and see that Celtics logo shining on the floor?
The answer wasn’t quite as deep as expected, but packed a certain punch that pretty much says it all.
“When I look at the logo,” Heinsohn said laughing. ”I think of Red’s brother Zang Auerbach, because I remember when he first came up with the idea and drew the leprechaun for Red.”
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine