Boston Legends series: Tommy Heinsohn

Editor’s note: In the latest of an occasional series of interviews with Boston sports legends, Jamie Most goes one-on-one with Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn, who draws comparison between this Celtics team and the NBA in general with teams from generations past. Click the video above for the interview and follow the jump for a complete transcript of Heinsohn’s comments (interview conducted earlier this postseason).

Jamie Most: Tommy, today people know you as a great broadcaster, but you were also a great player in your day. You were the 1957 Rookie of the year. You were a six time NBA All-Star and you played on eight championship teams. What was the best year for you as a player?

Tommy Heinsohn: Well, the most fun year for me was the first championship the Celtics ever won and I was a rookie, Bill Russell was a rookie, and we got down to the seventh game (of the Finals) at the Boston Garden against the St. Louis Hawks and it ended up a double overtime game and we ended up winning. And I had one of the best games that I ever had and the most meaningful game because it produced a championship so I’d have to answer that one with that game

JM: So that was a double overtime.


JM: Game 7 against the Hawks, which you guys won. And in that game you scored 37 points, you had 16 rebounds, you were a rookie, how did you accomplish that in that game?

TH:I had 37 points and they tell me 23 rebounds

JM: What did I say, 16? 23 rebounds.

TH:See, now that’s been imprinted on me for so many years because people keep asking me about that game. I never was a stats guy so I didn’t consider that to be something that I was shooting for all the time. I was like everybody else on the team we just wanted to win. And we played together and my job was to do certain things and that’s what I was really out there to do. For instance, when I was at Holy Cross I led the team in assists, but I was playing in the pros with the great Bob Cousy so my idea wasn’t to pass to Cousy, my idea was to take Cousy’s passes and make it meaningful. A lot of people didn’t understand what the roles were of that team so we just had a great time, my first year I was introduced to all these players and Red was so great at selecting winning type personalities and he had a little knack of making sure that a guy played for some type of championship team so they knew what it would take to win. And that was part of the essentials when he went to draft a guy if he had that kind of background.

JM: You had some other great playoff moments, and we are in the playoffs right now with the Celtics, I was reminded about a 1960 playoff game (deciding game of Eastern Conference Finals) against Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia Warriors where you had a game winning basket, can you describe that a little bit?

TH:Well, if the fans nowadays don’t remember Convention Hall. Convention Hall was a pit, and it was a snake pit, and what would happen in that place is that they would get on a player for an entire season. And it happened to be my season one year and we ended up playing the Warriors with the great Wilt Chamberlain and we ended up where the game was tied and I tipped in the winning basket at the buzzer (to win the series) and they went “it’s good” and 11,000 Philadelphians shut up all at once and that’s the fun moment of all time for me.

JM: (Laugh) Silencing the crowd

TH:That’s it.

JM: Now after your first championship, the team, you know, went on to win many more, as we all know, and you were part of 8 total championships, did you guys know after that first championship that you had something special, that you were going to go on and have one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports?

TH:What I knew was a little more than the fans here in Boston knew and a little more than even my teammates knew about Bill Russell cause I had played against him in college in the Holiday Festival and they beat my Holy Cross team and he did it with his great athletic ability so when I was drafted and signing my contract a lot of people talked to me about what kind of player Russell was going to be because people didn’t believe that he could play in the NBA at the time and I said “you will be surprised, he will make this team (better), he is a terrific rebounder and a shot blocker.” So I knew how important he would be because Cousy was a one-man offense. If you kept cutting to the basket if you ran off picks whatever you did in an aggressive way and you were a threat to score he would get you the ball if you had half a step on your man. As soon as you were no longer a threat he’d turn to somebody else. So you put that great offensive player and chef of the offense, who’d stir everybody into the mix, and you put Bill Russell who protected everybody’s gambling type defense and we ended up, and you could tell it even in our first year, with the best offense, best potential offense, and best potential defense and I didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t keep that going.

JM: Now Rajon Rondo is a very, very good point guard in the NBA and he keeps getting better and he just broke a record that Bob Cousy held for 50 years and you played with Bob Cousy, a great point guard. How does it feel, as a scorer to be playing with a guy like Bob Cousy and what do you think Rajon Rondo is going to do for some of the guys on his team?

TH:Well we ran, when he was chasing the record, Cousy’s record, we started running some split screen iso’s on Cooz from his heyday and Rondo currently, and believe it or not, they imitated each other the same type of passes the same recognition of what the defense was doing so he is a modern day Bob Cousy. And he is a one-man offense and without him the Celtics would not be the team that they are right now. He creates the whole system, he creates the pace of the game, he’s the rabbit for the greyhounds and they’ll chase him pretty good, and they have been, and he’ll rewards them when they catch up.

JM: So you were the recipient of a great point guard and your nickname was “Tommy Gun,” Talk about that a little bit.

TH:Well, my job with the Celtics was to rebound, fill the lane and because I was, I might have been the best one-on-one player at that time on the team, I could get a shot off from anywhere, I had the tweener shots and I had a little running hook shot, and that was a bail out shot so a lot of my offense came from bailing out the plays that broke down and they’d get the ball to me and I would end up having to take the last second shot. There was only one play for the forwards they were all for the guards, Cousy, Sharman, one play for Russell, one play for me and we had to get it the hard way off the boards, running hard on the break I only got the ball when I was going to score, like I said, if you had a half a step on your man you would get the ball and you were expected to make it pay off. So my job was to shoot the ball and rebound and it wasn’t to be the great passer I think I mentioned before that at Holy Cross I led my team in assists and I thought I was a very good passer but that’s not what they needed from me.

JM: You shot well from the corner and from the top of the key, and you also shot both lefthanded and righthanded hook shots, you don’t see so much of that in today’s game, are there players out there who take advantage of the hook shot and should more players do that?

TH:Well, anybody that shoots a hook shot, whatever hand, I jump up and cheer because it’s the easiest shot, it’s the best tweener shot. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, if you drive to the basket and you can’t get all the way and you stop to shoot a jump shot that allows that extra count for the defense to catch up to you. But if you shoot a hook shot and you keep going and you beat your guy, he never can get back in the play, so it’s a cleaner attempt at the basket. Just recently in the playoffs we had Big Baby Davis really do a terrific job in a game that Garnett was suspended and he ended up shooting a running old time hook shot over two people and they didn’t know where it was coming from.

JM: Do you think that more guys should be using it and why aren’t they teaching it?

TH: Ninety percent of the coaches in the NBA are guards, and there aren’t very many big men people coaching, I happen to be one of them and when I coached everybody on my team, including the guards had a hook shot, so that it was their bail out shot. And I think it’s an invaluable weapon. I think if Kevin Garnettt had a little swooping to the middle hook shot instead of a turn fall away jump shot he would come close to doubling his average.

JM: Wow. Now, you did play with Russell, you did play with Cousy, you did play with Sharman, did you ever feel overshadowed by those great players?

TH: Well, I’m going to tell you that you kind of come to grips with your ego somewhere along the line. And I can remember we were out playing in Seattle and they were experimenting to see if the NBA would be able to have a franchise in Seattle. So we played the Lakers up in Seattle and Elgin Baylor had played there in college, and the day we got there the newspapers were heralding the Celtics were coming to play the great Lakers, and it was like a four page spread and it was Bill Russell who was from the west coast and Bill Sharman who was from the West Coast and Cousy who was Mr. Houdini and everything else. So we played the game and I ended up scoring 42 points and I had 26 rebounds. So the next day I come down with Gene Conley, my roommate, for breakfast and I’m expecting to read all about myself, you know, how great I was. And I pick up the paper and there’s a two page spread, and it goes on about Bill Russell, and it goes like four paragraphs about Elgin Baylor, a full page on Cousy and all the rest to follow and I get down to the last paragraph and it says, “Tommy Heinsohn also scored 42 points, and had 26 rebounds”. So I closed the paper and I said Gene, I don’t think I’m ever going to be a star in this league and I went to find other reasons to play.

JM: Tommy, this year’s team has lost many games at home and in fact some games the Celtics have been booed. I’m not sure that’s something I’m use to, and I wonder about you, are you use to seeing a Boston Garden fan booing a Celtics team.

TH: It’s unusual, but there were many occasions over the last 15 years that the Celtics team has been booed. I mean, I can remember coming back from a road trip and the team being 0 for January and I was telling my wife that I can’t believe I watched this team go 0 for January and the people would boo. But this particular team being booed, I thought was really not deserved at all because this team gave them a championship two years ago, last year they were in the hunt until a significant player got hurt and didn’t play in the playoffs. This team this year survived illnesses and injuries to two of the key players, managed to stay in the fight, end up fourth to where they got at least one home court advantage at least in the 1st round. And they started off the season like they were going win the title in November until the injuries started. So talk radio around Boston is brutal, and I think that’s part of what goes on is that people as they’re driving to and from work start listening to these jerks and I say jerks, because I don’t think they know what they’re talking about and they’re just serving some things up as controversy so they can sell the show to sponsors.

JM: Are there any current Celtics that remind you of some of the teammates you had back in the 1950s and 60s?

TH: Well, every one of the Celtic players that are playing now on the team, have the same attitude of the teams I played on. I remarked about that the first year they won the title. It’s a total team effort. Egos have been sublimated, they must have all read the same story where they got 42 points and 26 rebounds and ended up in the last sentence of the story. So they forgot about all of that, they were stars they had scoring titles, MVP awards and yet never won a title. They saw the opportunity to achieve greatness as a team and they took it and they did what every great team has to do is take the “I” out of what they’re doing.

JM: So Is there any specific Celtic team from the past that you would liken to this current team?

TH: As far as abilities are concerned, I think the teams I played on were much more balanced, much more fundamentally sound, there’s still guys coming in, that, for instance a Nate Robinson, would have trouble playing back in my year, as good as he is, they would have been running him in the post every single time, and taking advantage of him. So some players in this 30 team league would not be playing in the era that I played in, because there were only 80 players that made a living at it. So they were the very, very best and intelligent players, not necessarily the most gifted physical players and that’s what we have more of now, than the latter.

JM: In the ‘70s I remember you as a coach. You coached two championship teams for the Boston Celtics. Did you learn how to coach from Red or from somewhere else?

TH: I learned how to coach and manage people from four years of working as a general manager, general agent for a life insurance company. I took all the management courses and I found out as I was going through them, just how much of a management genius Red Auerbach really was. Now, I always considered myself to be a smart basketball player and I had a lot of input into what the team was doing in the years that I played, as did some of these other players, but I would break players down for Red, and he’d say what does this guy need to work on and we would break him down and we’d end up working on what I suggested. So when I became the coach and Red knew me as a businessman too, so people saw me as the clown of the team, because I could make people laugh when he named me the coach, I think people fell over and said, well Red is going to have to sit there and coach this team and keep him on the ball. He didn’t, I coached the team and I took his principals, because I believed in his philosophy and I updated it to what was happening defensively in the league at the time, and utilized the fast break even more than he did, because we were the smallest team and ended up winning two titles.

JM: You coached some of your former teammates, was that difficult to do?

TH: Initially no. What happens though is somewhere along the line as careers draw to a close, some of the players take offense to not being part of the mix and that’s understandable. It’s like a great female movie star finding out she’s got wrinkles now, and doesn’t look good in the camera. So breaking the news to some of these guys was a difficult task, some of them took it really well, like Satch Sanders who became an inspiration for the guys when he was on the bench and he was cheering for everybody and guys like Don Nelson who squawked about it and tried to undermine me as a coach, so there were reactions pro and con. And as you go along you also have to have, if you’re going have a good organization, it has to start from the top and permeate all the way through. Like I’m in the middle, but the owner is there, Red Auerbach’s there, then it was me, then it was the players, and that whole thing with the owner and the relationship Red had with some of these owners, really changed the ability for me to be able to coach.

JM: Moving on to your broadcasting career, you have a tremendous fan base and people love to listen to your broadcast, but you have been criticized from time to time as being a homer.

TH: Wow! (Laugh)

JM: (Laugh)

TH:You of all people should be asking me that question. You know why, because when I first started broadcasting, it was four years between when I played and coached and Red came to me and asked me if I wanted to do the games for him and I had done a radio show in Worcester and so I had the most broadcast experience of anybody. He said well get Marty Glickman to teach you how to broadcast, he’ll work with you then off you go. So, when I started broadcasting, I go on the road and I end up rooming with your father, so he gave me the Johnny Most short course in broadcasting, white hats and black hats. So I learned that there are villains in the game of basketball and there are knights in shinning armor and he polished them off just the best you could polish it off. A funny story is when I first went on television they had to have a loop antenna in order to get the game, so there weren’t a lot of people rushing out to buy loop antennas at the time. So, as I was talking to your dad, he said, “don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it.” Your dad was a fabulous broadcaster, he was the voice of the Celtics and (he said), “don’t worry about it” and I said, “well why not” and he said, “well nobody is listening to you anyway.” (Laugh) They were listening to him!

JM: So basically what you’re saying is, Johnny Most rubbed off on you a little bit.

TH: Johnny Most proved to me, and I did national broadcast, your dad I don’t think ever did national broadcast and the approach is completely different. When I did national broadcast, I entered into it like a coach, and I would search out the weaknesses of both teams and then I would describe the possibilities of how to exploit those weaknesses, and I became a guy that everybody thought I was only rooting for the Celtics, because the Lakers found out they had some weaknesses at that time that the Celtics were going to try to exploit. Then the people in Boston were getting upset with me too because they never knew their team had weaknesses. So, it was a fun thing, and there was controversy during those years when I’d do the local broadcast of which the fan base were all Celtic fans as opposed to a national broadcast. And the writers here would tar me up and down, one way or the other, and the people in LA were all over my case. So broadcasting has been a fun thing, I ended up working with a terrific guy, whose style fits my style and it’s gone on for 30 years now and we’re still a happy couple.

JM: Tommy you’ve been a great Celtic in many different capacities, thank you very much.

TH: You’re welcome.