Tom Heinsohn, 8-time championship-winning player, two-time champion coach, and 40-year legend of the broadcast booth, has died. He was 86.
Reports say that Heinsohn, upon seeing the Grim Reaper come to take him to the afterlife, said “THIS IS RIDICULOUS! TERRIBLE CALL! GET OUTTA HERE!”
The man was a civic icon for 64 years, from his Rookie of the Year season in 1956-57, where he beat out teammate Bill Russell, all the way to the cantankerous blatant homer beloved by TV viewers in Boston and always affectionately mocked by non-Celtics fans. Even if you’re a believer in the notion that Bostonians are uniquely insufferable in our relationship with our sports teams (and everything else; it comes with the territory when you grow up there), you’ve got to tip your cap to anyone who loves anything as much as Tommy loved the Celtics.
How long is 64 years, really? As long as Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire. Longer than the reign of any of the seven kings of Rome and longer than the lifespan of Romulus himself (772-716 BCE, according to the historical record.) Heinsohn had already retired as a player—with eight rings!—when the original series of Star Trek premiered in 1966.
Every generation of Celtics fans knows Tommy for something a little bit different. The very oldest fans remember his playing days. Older Gen-Xers, who were kids in the ’70s, remember him yelling at referees while outfoxing a couple of pretty good NBA coaches in their own right in Larry Costello (of the ’74 Bucks) and longtime Suns coach John MacLeod in 1976.
Heinsohn was part of an unbroken line of Celtics from the golden years who either played for or coached the team; he and Russell spanned in some capacity the era between 1957 and 1969, then Heinsohn coached the team until he was fired during the 1977-78 season, after which Tom Sanders coached the team for the rest of 1978 and into 1979 before being replaced by Dave Cowens in a player-coach role to close out a wretched 29-53 campaign.
The next year, the Celtics finally cleaned house and cut the last remaining ties to the 11 titles in 13 years era. Bill Fitch was the coach, Larry Bird was a rookie, and the Celtics went 61-21 to start a new era and new timeline for the franchise…
…one that Heinsohn, a year later, would once again be part of, as he joined the broadcast team with Mike Gorman starting in 1981.
It is perhaps supremely ironic that a guy from Jersey City, New Jersey, who grew up in Union City and had ties to the greater New York City media market, ended up a Boston institution.
After all, mention New York to a born-and-raised Bostonian, and even if the conversation has nothing to do with sports, the Bostonian will be tempted, reflexively, to say “Yankees suck.” This is one of Boston’s most endearing civic verbal tics, as the city’s denizens are known to chant it even when they attend games of a sport other than baseball and shout it at anyone brave or stupid enough to wear any New York Yankees merchandise out in public.
Mike Gorman’s from Dawchestah—ahem, Dorchester—and yet the guy from New Jersey managed to sound more Bostonian than Gorman himself does.
That’s not to say Gorman wasn’t more than willing to come along for the ride with Heinsohn’s mad homerism; Gorman himself outright said in interviews that “Tommy and I are Celtics fans, of course we want them to win every game.”
Most folks who aren’t from Boston don’t get that intimacy the city has with its own institutions, that jingoism for a nation-within-a-nation that New England is often like relative to the rest of America. Bostonians, and by that I mean anyone who still calls the I-95 beltway around the city “128” (pronounced “wun-twunny-ate”), may be as cosmopolitan as the city’s education rate—fully half of Bostonians have at least a four-year college degree, compared with 36 percent of Americans as a whole—but still manage a provincialism that gives the city its “wicked awesome charactah.”
And yes, that includes me—Mystery Ship Studios and Pace and Space are proudly based in Seattle (just like Bill Russell, who lives on Mercer Island), and I’m a die-hard Indiana Pacers fan for reasons that are a story for another day, but I grew up in Wakefield watching the Larry Bird-era Celtics and listening to Mike and Tommy on the call.
Tommy Heinsohn understood Boston. He played there and connected with the city in a way that sports heroes from somewhere else have a habit of doing when they spend time in Boston, and he embraced his place as a civic icon.
Like David Ortiz, native of the Dominican Republic, who was the face of “Boston Strong” after the Marathon bombing and during the Red Sox’s worst-to-first run to a World Series title in 2013.
Like Cam Neely, who is from Comox, British Columbia, Canada, but whose heart, it seems, belongs to Boston after his playing career with the Bruins.
Or speaking of Canadian-Bostonians, just think of Bobby Orr’s place in Boston long after his playing career.
Boston has a way of making civic icons out of folks from other places through sports.
And they didn’t get much more Boston icon than Tommy Heinsohn, the Grand Paterfamilias of the Boston sports family.
Rest in peace, Tommy. I’m sure St. Peter’s got plenty of Tommy Points to give you at the Pearly Gates.