Born: August 26, 1934
Position: Power Forward
Boston Celtics (NBA): 1956-’65
Tom Heinsohn’s influence in today’s NBA has boiled down to how many Tommy Points he hands out on a given night to the Boston Celtics. Or how many vitriolic rants he aims toward incompetent referees.
Back in the day, though, Heinsohn still dished out points, but they were the ones that actually counted on the court. As the Boston Celtics’ official gunner, he shot so much and so often that he was nicknamed “Tommy Gun” and “Ack-Ack.” You know, “Ack-Ack” as in the sound a tommy guns made in those old black-and-white gangster movies.
On many teams having a man flinging hook shots nearly 20 feet from the basket would result in discord and ill-feelings. The Boston Celtics, though, could subsume Heinsohn’s free-shooting ways and turn it into a strength. The Celtics would look to score easily on the break, but if that failed Heinsohn could always work his way into a good shoot… or at least a shot… that no other Celtic could manage in the half-court as time ran low on the shot clock.
Compared to his contemporaries, only Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain could outmatch Heinsohn’s propensity to shoot:
Player – Shots per minute 1956 – 1965
Wilt Chamberlain (Warriors/76ers) – 0.69 shots
Elgin Baylor (Lakers) – 0.63
Heinsohn – 0.61
Bob Pettit (Hawks) – 0.56
Sam Jones (Celtics) – 0.55
Cliff Hagan (Hawks) – 0.54
Jack Twyman (Royals) – 0.54
Jerry West (Lakers) – 0.53
Oscar Robertson (Royals) – 0.49
Hal Greer (Nationals/76ers) – 0.48
Richie Guerin (Knicks/Hawks) – 0.47
That’s a lot of shots per minute, but Heinsohn’s unremarkable conditioning limited him to barely 30 minutes a night in his career. However he possessed a natural agility that made him hard to handle for defenses when he was in the game. He could score on his vaunted hook shots, a sweet jump shot, and strong driving moves.
Heinsohn also served as the resident whipping boy for Red Auerbach. When other players were too sensitive for critique, Auerbach would lay into Heinsohn’s conditioning or some other issue release stress. That Heinsohn absorbed such insult with more or less good nature was of emotional import to the Celtics.
His finest moment may have come in his very first season as he scored 37 points and hauled in 23 rebounds in Game 7 of the 1957 NBA Finals to clinch Boston its first NBA title. Teammate Bill Sharman gushed over Heinsohn’s superb performance: “What a show Tommy put on. I never saw anyone play like that under pressure, let alone a rookie.”
The glory continued for Heinsohn through the years.
In 1959, as Boston cruised to its second title in a four-game sweep of Minneapolis, Heinsohn was absolute dynamite averaging 24.3 points and 8.8 rebounds in the series. The Lakers defense proved powerless to hold him down as a he also shot .475 FG% and .808 FT% in the series.
In 1961, despite playing just 26 minutes a game, Heinsohn led the Celtics in points scored with 22 a game in the Finals as they brushed off the St. Louis Hawks in five games. Playing relatively few minutes while still leading the team in scoring was Heinsohn’s M.O.
Indeed, in Boston’s first seven Finals appearances (1957-’63), Heinsohn was their leading scorer in four of the series, before tailing off in their final two appearances (1964-’65) in the NBA championship. In those first seven Finals, Heinsohn averaged a robust 21.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in a relatively scant 32 minutes.
His shots per minute? 0.64.
Before retiring in 1965 due to chronic knee problems, Heinsohn won six NBA titles helping (and being helped by) teammates like Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Jim Loscutoff and, of course, Bill Russell. As coach of the Celtics in the 1970s he led them to two more titles in 1974 and 1976 giving Heinsohn a personal total of 10 NBA titles.
That’s a pretty good haul for Boston’s vaunted gunner.
Before we close this out, though, it would be remiss to not bring up Heinsohn’s instrumental role in the labor strife of ’64. Taking over from teammate Bob Cousy, Heinsohn led the NBPA during the early and mid-1960s. Here’s Heinsohn in his 1976 autobiography describing the events that unfolded:
It was unanimously agreed that there would be no All-Star game unless we received a written commitment on a pension plan. We had been turned down in the morning by [NBA Commissioner] Walter Kennedy and [Pistons owner] Fred Zollner, representing the Board of Governors and the pension committee.
We knew Zollner’s attitude toward the Association, which gave us a fair idea of the result. Walter Kennedy was new at the game but knew we had tried to talk with the Board of Governors in New York in October of that season and had been ignored. We left humiliated, angry, and determined to establish our dignity, at the least.
At six o’clock the night of the All-Star game, after we had met with all the players, Bob Pettit and I went to Commissioner Kennedy’s hotel room and informed him we would not play without a pension guarantee. We asked for a meeting with the owners before the game or else. We were not militant people by nature or background but were forced to challenge the owners’ one-way attitude in some way.
And thus began the standoff. Owners refused to budge, as did the players. Commissioner Kennedy pleaded with both sides as the ABC cameras prepared to broadcast the event, a rarity for the NBA then. Five minutes before shootaround, Kennedy gave his word to the Heinsohn and the players that he’d set up a meeting to work out a pension deal. Heinsohn accepted Kennedy’s word and suggested players vote to participate in the game. They did so and the NBA was saved from extreme embarrassment.
True to his word, Kennedy was able to cajole owners into formulating a pension plan for players. Give it up for Mr. Heinsohn in helping lead the way for the first major player’s union victory in NBA history.
8x Champion (1957, 1959-’65)
4x All-NBA 2nd Team (1961-’64)
6x All-Star (1957, 1961-’65)
Rookie of the Year (1957)
Regular Season Career Averages (654 games):
Playoff Career Averages (104 games):