Tommy “Gun” Heinsohn, 1960s

[Here’s a brief chapter on the late Boston Celtics great. There’s definitely better stuff out there on Heinsohn, not counting his own self=penned books about his career. But I wanted to add something on the blog about Heinsohn, since there was nothing, and this chapter offers a good overview and sense of how he was viewed by his teammates and contemporaries back in the day.. It includes the claim that Heinsohn was “as good as” Elgin Baylor. The chapter, which was published in the early 1960s and has no byline, comes from Putnam’s Sports Shelf’s book series, and this installment is titled Basketball’s Greatest Stars.]

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If Tommy Heinsohn had played for any team other than the Boston Celtics, he would have been hailed as a superstar long ago. But the Celtics were already knee-deep in stars when Heinsohn joined them in 1956. Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman were at the peak of their careers. Ed Macauley had just been traded to St. Louis, but Bill Russell was about to take place. With that kind of talent on the premises, even a Heinsohn could get lost in the shuffle. 

Which is exactly what happened to him. He once led both teams in scoring in a Celtics victory over the Minneapolis Lakers at Seattle and earned only a single line of newspaper type for his trouble. Seattle fans, who don’t get much chance to see big league basketball, flocked out to watch Russell, Cousy, and Sharman, as well as Elgin Baylor of the Lakers. Before the game, all four were busy signing autographs, while everyone else on the two teams, including Heinsohn, was ignored. 

The morning after the game, Heinsohn had breakfast with teammate Gene Conley. As the two sat unnoticed in the hotel coffee shop, Conley opened the paper to the sports page to read the account of the game. 

“Anything interesting?” asked Heinsohn.

“Just the usual,” Conley replied. “The guy writes all about Russell’s rebounding, Cousy’s ballhandling, Sharman’s shooting, and Baylor’s all-round play. Oh yes—and you’re mentioned right at the end.”

“What does it say?” Heinsohn asked. 

“’Heinsohn scored 38 points,’” Conley read.

 “That,” Tommy remarked, “is the story of my life.”

Heinsohn’s teammates resented his treatment at the hands of the press and public more than Tommy did himself. “One of my pet peeves,” said Sharman, “is that Heinsohn doesn’t get more recognition. He’s as good as Baylor, but the only people who seem to know it are the basketball players.”

Cousy agreed. “Heinsohn can do everything Baylor can do,” he said one day. “On top of that, he’s the best offensive rebounder in the business.”

Even the league was forced to overlook him several times. An NBA rule sets a limit of three men from any one team to participate in the All-Star game. Heinsohn missed three in a row because Russell, Cousy, and Sharman ranked ahead of him. Until 1961, when Tommy replaced the fading Sharman, the only All-Star game he had played was in 1957, when he was the league’s Rookie of the Year. 

Heinsohn never really minded playing second fiddle.  After the Celtics won their first championship in 1957, he said, “I’d rather be on a winner with a dozen stars than on a loser with none.”

As far as the Celtics are concerned, there never has been a question about Heinsohn’s status as a star. Tommy gave them muscle when he joined them after graduating from Holy Cross in 1956, and muscle was just what they needed.

Until Heinsohn came along, they never had had a great rebound man. Tommy, 6-feet-7 and 220 pounds, was a match for anyone in the league in the bruising battles under the boards. 

Thanks partly to him, the Celtics, who had never won a title before, got off to their fastest start. Hardly a month after the season began, they led the Eastern Division by 10 games. Then they slipped a bit, but Russell came in late December and they went on to the  championship. Without the rebounds of Heinsohn and Russell, the Celtics were only a mediocre team defensively; with the two newcomers, they were the best in the league, as, in fact, they still are. 

Only their most-rabid followers realize that Heinsohn has led the team in scoring every year since the 1959-60 season. The Celtics are not noted for individual scoring fireworks, another factor which has rubbed some of the luster off Heinsohn’s achievements. But Tommy’s consistency is remarkable. He was 11th among the league’s scorers in 1962, and he has never been lower than 13th. Most of the men ahead of him are centers; Heinsohn ranks with the best cornermen in the league.

Because he is still a little basket-happy, his mates call him “Gunner” and “Ack-Ack.” He can shoot many different ways, but his most spectacular is a line drive throw which he can pour in from practically any angle and from as far out as 30 feet when he’s on the beam. He rifles the ball off his ear like a baseball player, and he’s so accurate that he usually puts it through the hoop without its touching the rim.

Heinsohn has more scoring shots than anyone else in the league, including the fabulous Wilt Chamberlain. He’s big enough to tip the ball in during scrimmages under the basket or to pour in on a layup. He can score by driving in with both hands, and he can also hook the ball in with either hand. He has a good set shot and sometimes even collects points on one-handed set shots.

With all this equipment, Heinsohn averages almost exactly 21 points a game. But he has the most-spectacular ups and downs of anyone in the NBA. He tries so many shots from so many angles that he has to miss a good many of them. He can be ice cold for half a game, then suddenly get red hot. “The worst nightmares I have,” said a rival coach, “are dreams about Heinsohn with a hot hand. He can absolutely kill you.”

In the 1957 All-Star game, Tommy took 17 shots in 23 minutes while scoring five baskets. Andy Phillip later remarked, “That’s more than I took in my all-star games combined.” In the 10 playoff games the Celtics had that year, Heinsohn shot 90 baskets in 231 tries. Only Bob Pettit, the St. Louis Hawks’ center, took more shots and scored more points.

Tommy was the star of the pressure-packed final playoff game, which went into two overtime periods before the Celtics won it. Heinsohn poured in 37 points that day, and he was so exhausted when he was taken out that he left the game in tears.

Tense and emotional on the court, Heinsohn is a different man off it. Relaxed and good-natured, he goes around with a perpetual grin on his handsome face. He’s the club comedian, a ribber, a perpetrator of practical jokes.

His sense of humor buoyed him up on what he still describes as the “worst day of my life.” Heinsohn sells life insurance, and the day started with an early-morning telephone call canceling a $150,000 policy. He drove to his office in downtown Worcester, Massachusetts, where he lives, and found a parking tag on his car when he came out. He got stopped for speeding on the road to Boston, then was late for Celtics’ practice and had to pay a fine. While the team was working out, a sneak thief broke into the locker room and, among other things, stole Heinsohn’s wallet with $150 in it.

As he got ready to leave for home, Tommy told his troubles to Red Auerbach. The coach, a prime practical joker himself, was so sympathetic that he gave Heinsohn a cigar which Tommy lit just before starting his car for the drive home. It exploded. So did Tommy. The ridiculous dénouement to the dreary day tickled him so much he couldn’t drive for 15 minutes.

He once startled everyone at a costume party by going dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy, encasing his huge frame in rompers and his head in a bonnet with a long ribbon trailing from it and carrying a lollipop. He’s a magnificent mimic and can effectively imitate almost everyone he  knows.

While it happens rarely, there are times when he can provide a little comic relief in the heat of a basketball game. Once knocked flat on his back on the floor, Heinsohn replied, “Well, I’ll try to continue.” With that, he jumped up and scored five quick baskets.

Once with the Celtics far ahead of the Knickerbockers at Madison Square Garden, he leaped up for the ball, missed, grabbed the basket, and started swinging on it. The Celtics spent the rest of the evening shooting at a bent rim, and Heinsohn spent the rest of the week explaining his bizarre performance to an angry league president. The NBA then put in a rule prohibiting basket swinging.

Heinsohn is amazingly versatile. He amuses himself and his teammates by drawing caricatures and cartoons. He spends many hours in the attic of his Worcester home, which his wife fixed up as a studio for him. The house is full of his oil paintings, some of them unusually good.

He ran a sports show on a local radio station for four years, but had to give it up because of business pressure. As an agent for the Worcester State Mutual, Heinsohn sells nearly a million dollars of life insurance a year, even though he can devote full attention to it only during the basketball offseason. Among other things, he is also the player representative of the Celtics, and was one of the planners for the pension program installed by the league in 1961.

Heinsohn, born in Newark and brought up in Union City, New Jersey, started playing basketball in the sixth grade. At St. Michael’s High School, he was so outstanding that he made the All-American schoolboy team in his junior year. His high school sweetheart, Diane Regenhard, was as crazy about basketball as he. She captained the St. Michael’s girls’ team and played in a national tournament in Kansas City.

Scouts from nearly 50 colleges, promising everything from tuition to the moon, camped at Tommy’s doorstep his senior year. He had ideas about taking pre-medical courses and was given encouragement at some of the colleges that wanted him. But at Holy Cross he was told that if he took a pre-med course, he’d be too busy to play basketball. “They were the only ones who leveled with me,” he said later. “That’s why I went there.”

As a sophomore, Heinsohn played on the same team with Togo Palazzi, then one of the outstanding college basketball players in the country. The two teamed up to give Holy Cross a glittering record of 26 victories in 28 games that year. After Palazzi left, Heinsohn carried the Crusaders to a 19-7 record in 1955 and a 22-5 mark in 1956.

In the meantime, he and Bob Cousy, another Holy Cross boy, became close friends. At Cousy’s urging, Heinsohn decided to make his home in Worcester, and the two now live within a few blocks of each other.

As outstanding in the classroom as on the basketball court, Heinsohn made the dean’s list four years in a row. As a senior, he won the Varsity Club award for being the best student-athlete in college. He also made All-American that year.

The Celtics signed him on schedule, but gave him a good scare first. With the entire Holy Cross team depending on him, Heinsohn had to pace himself in college, and Auerbach was afraid he might loaf as a pro. So just before calling Tommy in to sign a contract, Auerbach announced at a sports luncheon that Heinsohn would never make it with the Celtics if he took it as easy as he had at Holy Cross.

Heinsohn, determined to show Auerbach that he could go at top speed as long as he was on the court, turned out to be one of the hardest workers on the team. The only thing Auerbach has to warn him about today is a tendency to get careless on defense, usually the result of anxiety to score.

When Russell joined the team in December 1956, he and Heinsohn delightedly recalled their only previous meeting. They had played against each other in a Madison Square Garden tournament when Russell was at the University of San Francisco. USF won the game, but when it was over, Russell asked Heinsohn, “Man, how do you sink those 40-foot hook shots?”

There are times when he still asks. So does everyone else in the NBA.

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