Tom Heinsohn has left the building … for the last time. Circulatory problems took one of the greatest people and one of the greatest personalities in the history of our sport yesterday at the age of 86. The 6’7” Heinsohn is one of just four people in the Hall of Fame both as a player (at Holy Cross) and as a coach (with the Boston Celtics). The other three are John Wooden, Lenny Wilkens and Bill Sharman. Heinsohn had been a high school All-American at St. Michael’s HS of Union City, New Jersey, before going to Holy Cross, where he won the NIT his sophomore year, 1953-54, back when the NIT was as important as the NCAA.
He then played 9 seasons with the Boston Celtics, all under coach Red Auerbach, winning 8 NBA titles and losing the other in the final. In his rookie year, 1956-57, in the 7th game of the NBA Final, against the St. Louis Hawks, he had 37 points and 23 rebounds in their 125-123 win in two overtimes. If that isn’t the greatest clutch performance in basketball history, I don’t know what is. Heinsohn had a great jump shot, a fine hook shot, a great series of one-on-one moves. He was also an excellent passer and, as seen, a great rebounder. He was also highly intelligent and had a competitive instinct second to none. He was a fighter, a true champion.
As I’ve mentioned before, our paths crossed. It was the 1979-80 season, my second with Olympia Milan. He was the unofficial coach of our cross-town rival, Pallacanestro Milano. Due to federation rules, he could not coach during the games, so Bruno Boero did that. But he directed every practice and I saw many of them. Sometimes a former player is only that: an ex-player. That was not the case with Tom Heinsohn. He had the worst personnel in Series A-1. They should have gone 0-26. But they finished 7-19, all due to his brilliant coaching. He had great plays, great teaching ability, great psychology, great charisma, great personality.
We went to dinner one night at ‘Il Torchietto.’ I’ve never met a greater guy! Never. It was a fun evening. I’d seen his practice that afternoon and I copied the sideline in-bounds play he taught that day. I said, “Coach, I want you to know I stole your in-bounds play today!” He loved this. He said, “It’s a good play.” It was like I’d known him all my life. He gave me insights on everyone: Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Bill Sharman. It was like taking a PhD in one evening. I also understood why he was such a great coach: he believed! That is, he had no doubts about anything. He KNEW his way was the best way.
Well, the world of basketball mourns his passing today. Former teammates have spoken of him and his ties to the Celtics, whom he coached to two NBA titles, in 1974 and 1976. Bob Cousy said, “He was the poster boy for the Boston Celtics.” After his coaching career ended, he was the color commentator for the Celtics’ TV broadcasts. No one was better at that job: information, insights, logic, humor, spirit. To say he was one of the most beloved figures in basketball history is no exaggeration. What a character, what a player, what a coach, what a person. He’ll be missed by everyone. He had an impact on everyone. That includes me.