Known for his hard-nosed style of play, yet possessing a superb shooting touch and good body control, Tom Heinsohn was a vital cog in the Boston Celtics’ dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s. Chosen as NBA Rookie of the Year in 1957, he helped the Celtics win eight NBA titles during his nine-year tenure, was named to the All-NBA Second Team for four years, and was an All-Star for six.
Averaging 18.6 ppg in 654 regular-season games, Heinsohn was a versatile scorer but was often overshadowed by such illustrious teammates as Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Bill Russell. After turning in his jersey in 1965, Heinsohn coached the Celtics to two more world championships and was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1986.
Born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, just across the river from New York City, Heinsohn attended Saint Paul of the Cross school through the fifth grade. Then his family moved to nearby Union City, New Jersey, and he was introduced to basketball while attending sixth grade at Saint Joseph’s.
A high achiever, Heinsohn poured his heart and soul into the sport, practicing as much as he could, both at school and on local playgrounds. By the time he reached the eighth grade he was leading his team in scoring.
As a junior at St. Michael’s High School Tom Heinsohn was awarded all-county honors. The following year he was named a high school All-American after averaging 28 ppg. After considering more than 40 scholarship offers, Tom decided on Holy Cross College.
Heinsohn continued to improve during his collegiate years, playing under coaches Lester Sheary and Roy Leenig. He pumped in 23.3 ppg in his junior year and as a senior he set a Holy Cross scoring record by averaging 27.4 ppg. Named to almost every All-America team, he also made the dean’s list for scholastic excellence in his last four semesters.
The Celtics claimed Heinsohn as a territorial pick in the 1956 NBA Draft, the same year that Boston Coach Red Auerbach worked a deal with the St. Louis Hawks for the rights to a rookie named Bill Russell. Auerbach was impressed with Russell’s potential, but he wasn’t particularly optimistic about Heinsohn’s chances of making the team. Heinsohn responded by flying to Illinois to look into the possibility of playing amateur ball for a national industrial league. If Cousy hadn’t advised the youngster to stick with Boston, Heinsohn might never have played in the NBA.
As if to prove Auerbach wrong, Heinsohn had a sensational rookie year with the Celtics, and helped the team forge the best record in the NBA at 44-28. The Celtics advanced to the 1957 NBA Finals, and Heinsohn’s 37 points helped the Celtics to a thrilling 125-123 double-overtime victory that earned Boston its first NBA Championship.
The Boston blitzkrieg was now underway, and for most of the next decade the Celtics would dominate professional basketball as few teams in any sport ever have. Boston won eight consecutive championships from 1959 through 1966, and Heinsohn was a part of seven of them. He led the Celtics in scoring three times during those years, made six All-Star appearances, and was named to the All-NBA Second Team four times. He had his finest offensive season in 1961-62, when he averaged 22.1 ppg.
The 1964-65 season was Tom Heinsohn’s last. Missing 13 games because of injuries in 1964-65, he slipped to just 13.6 ppg, the lowest mark of his career. Yet the Celtics earned the NBA’s best record at 62-18 and beat Los Angeles in five games in the NBA Finals. It was Boston’s seventh consecutive championship and the eighth in Heinsohn’s nine seasons.
In 1969, three years after Red Auerbach retired, Tom Heinsohn was offered the post of head coach of the Boston Celtics. He accepted, knowing he had a monumental job ahead of him. With no experience as a coach, Heinsohn was supposed to create a team that could carry on the winning ways Boston fans had grown to expect, without the services of the greatest defensive center the game had ever seen, and with one of the greatest coaches of all time scrutinizing his every move.
In Heinsohn’s rookie season as coach, 1969-70, the Celtics won 34 games and lost 48, marking the first time in almost 20 years that Boston had posted a losing record. In the next season, however, the team started to jell, winning 44 games and losing 38. The following year Boston fared even better, posting a 56-26 record and making the playoffs for the first time in two years.
The Celtics began to steamroll in 1972-73, racking up the best record in the NBA at 68-14, including a 32-8 showing on the road, the second-best mark of all time. Their .829 winning percentage overall was the third highest ever. But New York derailed Boston’s fast break in the Eastern Conference Finals, beating the Celtics in seven games. Though denied another championship ring by the Knicks, Heinsohn did win NBA Coach of the Year honors.
After a solid 56-26 regular season in 1973-74, the stage was set for the Celtics’ first NBA Finals appearance since 1968-69. Their opponents, the Milwaukee Bucks with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, were favored to win, but in the end, Boston came out ahead with a 102-87 win.
The victory was an affirmation of Heinsohn’s coaching ideas. In what he called “guerrilla warfare,” his teams kept the pressure on opponents at all times, controlling the tempo of the game and playing with great intensity.
The Celtics regained the championship in 1975-76. During Heinsohn’s eight full seasons as coach, Boston won five Eastern Division titles in a row, took two NBA Championships and compiled a 416-240 record. Heinsohn stepped down as head coach at the start of the 1977-78 season.
Since retiring from the NBA, Heinsohn has done basketball commentary for television, has run a life insurance company and has indulged his lifelong passion for fine-arts painting. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1986.
In 1995 Tom Heinsohn received the Jack McMahon Award, given annually by the National Basketball Coaches Association (NBCA) to an individual who has made a special contribution to the NBA coaching profession.