NBA Hall of Famer and legendary commentator for the Boston Celtics, Tommy Heinsohn died at the age of 86 on Nov. 9. Heinsohn was one of four people elected into the NBA Hall of Fame as both a coach and a player, and is the only person to have been associated with 17 NBA championships.
Heinsohn was drafted from the College of Holy Cross in 1956 by the Boston Celtics, a franchise he would stay with for the rest of his life. That same year, Heinsohn beat out fellow Celtic great Bill Russell for rookie of the year. Although Russell and Heinsohn were in competition for the rookie of the year, they were teammates first and foremost. “In life there are a limited number of true friends, today I lost one.” Russell wrote on Twitter on Nov. 10.
In the nine years that Heinsohn played in the NBA, he was selected as an All-Star six times and won eight championships with the Celtics. He had 12,194 points and 5,749 rebounds in his career. For his tremendous effort and dedication to the franchise, the Celtics retired his number 15 in 1965.
After finishing his playing career, Heinsohn became the Celtics’ head coach in 1969 and held the position until 1978. During his time as a Celtics head coach, he won two NBA championships (1974 and 1976) and was named coach of the year in 1973.
Heinsohn’s legacy was further cemented when he took on the role of color commentator in 1981 alongside play-by-play analyst Mike Gorman. The two developed a fraternal relationship that lasted nearly 40 years, perhaps the longest tenure for any duo in American sports broadcasting history. “Roughly 2800 times I sat down with Tommy to broadcast a game,” Gorman said on Twitter. Every time it was special. … Celtics Nation has lost its finest voice. Rest In Peace my friend. It has been the privilege of my professional life to be the Mike in Mike & Tommy.”
Most fans remember Heinson’s candidness as a broadcaster. “When a call went against Boston, Heinsohn sounded less like a suit in the broadcasting booth and more like a fan in Section 323,” New York Times writer Jack Nicas said.
Broadcasters are expected to remain impartial when discussing gameplay. However, Heinsohn often ignored broadcasting norms. He would root for the Celtics and criticize the referees’ calls.
“I think there’s a lot of us that are envious, in that we wish we could call a game the way Tommy did,” Mike Breen, ESPN’s lead NBA announcer, said. “[He] was himself on the air, all the time, every single night. And there’s such a beauty to that.”
Heinsohn was critical of using statistics as a tool to evaluate players’ impact on the game. He once chucked Gorman’s notes out of the broadcast booth. Instead, he came up with what he called a “Tommy Point,” which he awarded to players he believed had put in extra effort to make a play on the court.
With all the tributes pouring in, Basketball Reference updated the Tommy Heinsohn statistics page to list him as first in “Tommy Points Awarded.” That is a perfect way to sum up the extraordinary life of Tommy Heinsohn.