The Homer In Winter

In Defense of Tommy Heinsohn
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The guy loves Walter.

Illustration by Jacob Weinstein.

Tommy Heinsohn looks much larger in person than on television. I’d been in the presence of larger men, but no one has ever made me feel as physically small. The first time I saw him up close, in the TD Garden pressroom, the 6-foot-7-inch Heinsohn was wearing the biggest, most profoundly beige sports coat I’d ever laid my eyes on. This was late 2006, in the middle of one of the worst seasons in Boston Celtics history. Heinsohn, who played for the team from 1956 to 1965, coached it from 1969 to 1978, and settled into the broadcast booth by the early 1980s, was smiling. Yet I was afraid to say hello.

When the Celtics were in the post-Larry Bird doldrums, Heinsohn was there for me. He ripped referees, demonized seemingly harmless opponents, and talked up mediocre players like Kenny Anderson. (“I think this team can average 110 points per game with Kenny at the point,” he said on air in 1999) Prone to both unbridled joy and rage, Heinsohn was, and still is, Boston’s id. And despite what people born west of Hartford may think, there’s beauty in his delusions. No human being is, or ever will be, as blindly loyal to a sports franchise as Heinsohn is to the Celtics.

“Tommy doesn’t really do color,” Mike Gorman, the team’s play-by-play man, told Shira Springer of the Boston Globe back in 2005. “In his heart, he’s still coaching the Celtics, and he always will be. It doesn’t matter who the coach is, and it’s no disrespect to the coach. This always will be Tommy’s team. Tommy will be coaching this team till he takes his final breath. If it was possible to still be playing for this team, he would be.”

As the lockout dragged on this fall, I began to worry about Heinsohn. “The last lockout,” Heinsohn, 77, told me last month, “my wife and I were going to [then Celtics coach] Rick Pitino’s kid’s high school games.” Since then, 13 years have passed. In that span, the Celtics returned to prominence and won another championship, and in November 2008, Heinsohn’s wife Helen passed away. “It’s quite a bit different now,” Heinsohn said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. Vacations are welcomed.”

As a Tommyphile, I didn’t have the heart to tell him I disagreed with that last part.

***

If you’ve watched a single local Celtics broadcast since the Reagan era, you know Gorman’s description is apt. If you haven’t, please refer to the events of Dec. 11, 2002. Phoenix beat Boston 103-94 that night, but the outcome is less important than the performance of officials Ken Mauer, Scott Wall, and Sean Corbin. The visiting Suns attempted 24 more free throws than the Celtics. And, in the third quarter, Paul Pierce had to leave the game after Amar’e Stoudemire smashed him in the face. No foul was called on the play, despite the fact that Pierce chipped two front teeth. At that point, Heinsohn began to unravel.

“This is getting ridiculous! This is absolutely ridiculous! This is absolutely ridiculous!” he said. “This is ridiculous. And you could sense this from the very beginning of the ballgame that these guys are not with the program tonight. And I will tell you this, Paul Pierce, who is an upper-echelon player in this league, has been treated like a rookie.”

In the world of sports punditry, everybody has a bugaboo. Don Cherry thinks French Canadians and Europeans are pansies. Mark Schlereth hates kickers. Howard Cosell used to rail against networks gifting broadcast gigs to ex-athletes. And Heinsohn? He’s always complained about the referees. (He once starred in a “Tastes Great/Less Filling” Miller Lite commercial in which he engaged in a mock shouting match with former NBA official Mendy Rudolph.)

He still has some gripes. First off, there are too many technical fouls called. “Drives me up the wall,” Heinsohn said. Then there’s the selective enforcement of rules. “They call three seconds on defense, but not on offense. It’s counting, ‘1-2-3.’ They can’t seem to do it.” And too often, the league obsesses over certain points of emphasis. “I call it the ‘call du jour.’”

He is working on getting over all of this, he says. “I’m backing off,” Heinsohn claimed when we spoke. “Officiating now is really difficult.” He may say otherwise, but it's hard to escape the feeling that perceived officiating wrongs infuriate him as much as ever. During Boston’s blowout loss to New Orleans last week, he was on the refs. To Heinsohn, a defeat brought on by poor officiating isn’t just a defeat. It’s an unnecessary tragedy.

Which brings us back to Dec. 11, 2002. By the end of the evening, Heinsohn had seen enough of Mauer. So, in a thick Boston accent that belies his New Jersey roots, he unleashed this: “This Kenny Mauer should go home to his wife, ’cause nobody here loves him.”

After the game, Mauer wished Heinsohn a Merry Christmas. Heinsohn wasn’t amused.

A few hours later, ESPN replayed various portions of the rant. “That makes Johnny Most,” said the host, name checking the Celtics’ late radio broadcaster, “look like Edward R. Murrow.”

Heinsohn doesn’t claim to be objective. Nor is he expected to be. When things go wrong for their teams, local announcers are supposed to lose their shit. From time to time, the job even requires it. If that weren't the case, Hawk Harrelson, John Sterling and many, many others would be unemployed. Heinsohn is a Celtics fan, a homer. But that’s not what makes him unique. It’s how he’s a homer that warrants segments on SportsCenter. His explosions can be so over the top, so oddly genuine, that they occasionally go viral. (The YouTube clip of Heinsohn bashing Mauer has been viewed 200,000 times.)

Over the years, it’s become clear that Heinsohn has no intention of toning down his on-air persona. In other words, he hasn’t learned his lesson. To Celtics fans, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

***

That Thomas William Heinsohn is emotionally attached to the Celtics isn’t news. He has, after all, been associated with the organization for six of his eight decades on earth. The team used its territorial draft pick in 1956 on the Holy Cross star, who quickly became Red Auerbach’s favorite target. “Red would chew Heinsohn out for every conceivable sin,” Frank Deford noted in 1969, “and then conclude amiably, ‘And that goes for the rest of you guys, too.’” Auerbach also once said that the pack-a-day smoker had “the oldest 27-year-old body in the history of sports.” But Heinsohn had skills.

His buzz cut-flat jumper was deadly. So was his right-handed hook. “Tommy Gun” (he liked to shoot, a lot) wasn’t as celebrated as some of his teammates, but he put together a Hall of Fame career. Heinsohn won Rookie of the Year over Bill Russell in 1957, made six All-Star teams, and helped the Celtics win eight titles. Also, women loved him. At least according to this first-person Sports Illustrated cover story:

I don't know what it is about me: I am no Rock Hudson, but I absolutely wow all the little old white-haired ladies. They stop me and talk to me all over the country, on the street, in restaurants, in elevators. Let the entire team be sitting around a hotel lobby—we spend a great deal of time sitting in hotel lobbies—and I'm the guy they always approach. … That ought to give you an idea of the crazy, wild, recklessly exciting times professional basketball players have on the road.

Before Charles Barkley came along, Heinsohn was the NBA’s most efficient quip machine. By my count, he made SI’s “They Said It” section six times. (Seven if you include this year-end compilation.) One gem, about why he picked basketball over football—“If I was going to get beat up. I wanted to be indoors where it was warm.”—showed up in both the Dec. 3, 1973 and Sept. 29, 1980 issues. Another “They Said It” section, in the Dec. 20, 1976 issue, featured a Paul Westphal quote about Heinsohn: “I'll always remember Tom Heinsohn’s pep talks when I was with the Celtics. One time there were 72 bleeps in it—and it was Christmas Day.”

His personality serves him well in TV, where he’s been since soon after the Celtics relieved him of his coaching duties. Heinsohn has teamed with Gorman for the last 31 seasons. In that time, the former’s philosophy hasn’t changed much. (Heinsohn also worked for CBS part-time in the 1980s, pairing with announcer Dick Stockton. That’s right, he actually did color during national games featuring the Celtics. Somehow, he got through three L.A.-Boston finals without strangling Kurt Rambis.) He still preaches the kind of fast-break basketball the old Celtics used to play. “Walking the ball up the floor,” he said, “is like Eisenhower calling up Hitler and telling him we’re gonna land in Normandy.” Any Celtics fan older than 6 can rattle off his catch phrases. I was always fond of “Bing, bang, boom, Barros!” which he used to yell after long Dana Barros jumpers. In her definitive 2005 profile of Heinsohn, Springer called Heinsohn’s broadcast style “the sincerest kind of shtick.”

Sincere as it may be, his shtick occasionally produces cringe-worthy moments. During a Celtics-Rockets game last March, he channeled Harry Doyle in Major League, telling the audience that the officials were “going for every—every—goddamn flop.” He did add, “Excuse the language.” After Yao Ming injured his hand against Boston in March 2007, Heinsohn wondered if the Rockets center had hurt “his chopstick finger.” Then there was the time in 1997 when Heinsohn joked that Dikembe Mutombo was “going back to Africa for the weekend. He’s going to hunt him a lion or two.”

He can be uncouth. But any oafishness is usually drowned out by his unfailing love of the Celtics. Hell, every time former Celtic Walter McCarty hit a 3-pointer, Heinsohn bellowed, “I love Waltah!” Before we knew it, a very average forward had become a cult hero. “He was an infusion of power and enthusiasm,” Heinsohn said of McCarty, who played for Boston from 1997 to 2005. “I always thought Walter was misused to some degree. I thought he could’ve been one of the all-time great defensive players.” (Seven years after the Celtics traded McCarty, Heinsohn still loves Walter.)

Occasionally, I wonder what the hell Heinsohn is watching. During Monday night’s Celtics-Wizards game, he likened center Greg Stiemsma, who’s played in five NBA games, to Bill Russell. On the surface, the comparison is almost narcissistic. It’s as if Heinsohn refuses to believe that his Celtics no longer exist. But I don’t think that’s it at all. In reality, Heinsohn is so desperate for the current Celtics to win, so desperate for the team to carry the torch lit by his generation, that sometimes he comes off as unhinged. At heart, Heinsohn is an optimist.

As a friend recently pointed out, he rarely reverts to shaking his fist at today’s Celtics. When he links Paul Pierce to John Havlicek or Rajon Rondo to Bob Cousy, it’s less about nostalgia than it is about the prospect of future success. In Heinsohn’s world, the Celtics are always on the verge of greatness.

***

It’s unclear whether Boston will be a contender in 2012, but at this point, Heinsohn is just happy the lockout is over. “I truly didn’t think we were gonna have a season,” the former National Basketball Player’s Association president said. “I don’t know all the issues. I wasn’t part of the negotiations. I would’ve hated to see the game taking a step backward. What I was concerned about was the game losing its luster.”

To keep busy this fall, the self-proclaimed “avid amateur artist” painted landscapes around New England. (See some of his work here) “He prides himself on capturing what is rather than what is merely pretty,” Springer wrote. “An artist without artifice.”

These days, the artist without artifice is slowing down. Former NBA player Donny Marshall now works some road games for Comcast SportsNet New England, while Heinsohn remains in studio as an analyst. About three years ago, his wife Helen, who the TV audience knew as “The Redhead in Needham,” lost her fight with cancer.

“She was my buffer,” Heinsohn said.

But I already knew that.

When the allegations against crooked NBA referee Tim Donaghy surfaced in the summer of 2007, I phoned the Heinsohns in seek of comment. Helen picked up, I quickly explained why I was calling, and she laughed. “Tommy’s not home right now,” she said. “But I don’t think he’s going to talk to you about that.” Then I apologized. I was embarrassed. “It’s OK,” she said. “You’re just doing your job.”

I realize now that Helen was just doing hers. Sometimes, a man with many opinions needs protection from himself.

 


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