The Celtics have won 17 championships from 1957 to 2008. A lot has changed over the course of these various title runs, but one thing has stayed the same: Tommy Heinsohn.
The Hall of Famer reached the NBA Finals in all nine years of his Celtics career, which began after he was selected by a territorial pick in the 1956 NBA draft. He won a title in eight of those appearances and two more as a coach for the team.
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He has been there in some capacity for the other seven titles, serving as a color commentator on television shows during their final run in 2008.
Heinsohn died on November 9, 2020 at the age of 86, but his influence lives on. The Sporting News spoke to various members of the Celtics community amid their hunt for the No. 18 championship. Here are their Heinsohn stories.
John Upton, TD Garden Vendor: I am 65 years old. I’ve watched the Celtics for 55 years and I’ve never known them without Tommy Heinsohn.
Alex Wright, Fan: The coolest thing about Tommy is that he’s part of every generation. From the first generation Celtics with Bill Russell to the Larry Bird generation, Paul Pierce generation, he touched everything.
Terry Flynn, Fan: He was so exposed to this city that a lot has been learned about him. He was on the local news programs. They would highlight his art. He was an excellent artist.
Heinsohn was known for his unabashedly pro-Celtic broadcasting style. Many fondly remembered him.
Upton: He was a Homer, and that was okay.
Paul Andrews, Fan: He was national spokesman for a time. He tried to be impartial but couldn’t. He had Celtics in his blood. Unique, great.
Jared Weiss, staff writer for The Athletic: Greg Stiemsma was that third-string center that the Celtics had. He once compared him to Bill Russell.
Wright: He was a bit hasty sometimes, but that’s why everyone loved him. He made these outlandish statements that he laughed at himself.
Jay King, Celtics reporter for The Athletic: Milt Palacio had a game winner [in 2000]. The Celtics were really bad. Palacio had a very short career. He didn’t make much of an impression. From what I recall he had a steal and a heave on an inbounds play on the buzzer. It was the middle of a long season. Tommy was so jacked, so excited. I was a kid so I loved the Celtics. He just screamed.
Kevin O’Connor, Writer and Podcaster for The Ringer: I think for me growing up with Tommy Heinsohn and [play-by-play announcer] Mike Gorman, that’s what made it so entertaining. One of the reasons I became a die-hard Celtics fan wasn’t just because I watched games with my dad. I watched games with my dad, Mike and Tommy. The enthusiasm imprinted on me what is important in basketball. Play hard, sacrifice, use Tommy Points for frantic plays, offensive rebounds.
Tommy had a genuine love for the Celtics. They knew it was real because he’s been part of the Celtics family ever since [1950s]. He brought you into his family through the show. I loved listening to Mike and Tommy. We rushed home to watch games, watched the aftermath and watched him present the Tommy Award.
The Tommy Award was presented by Heinsohn to a player who “went beyond the call of duty and risked life and limb”. Heinsohn also awarded Tommy Points for hustle plays. They became an integral part of growing up in Boston.
King: Everyone used to hand out Tommy Points. After a little kid did a hustle in a fourth or fifth grade game, it was heard. “Tommy point!”
Wright: My wife laughs at me when I say, “That’s a Tommy Point right there!” I’ll do the dishes and ask for a Tommy Point.
Heinsohn continued to influence players in the dressing room long after his coaching and playing days were over.
Daniel Theis, Celtics Center: He was thankful for everyone who played. I remember when I came here after that [playing in] Germany. In the tunnel after games he would come up to me and tell me he appreciates how I play, how hard you play. Hearing something like this from a legend like Tommy meant a lot.
White: So many of these guys, when Tommy first came up to talk to them, felt, “Why is this guy talking to me?” But then you could see that they understood that he’s not just been here forever. He won in every way. He was with the guys who won at the highest level. If you won with Russell, you pushed [John] Havlicek and [Dave] Cowens – he knows how to overcome top talent with haste and to leave his comfort zone.
I remember Tommy sitting next to it [Rajon Rondo], put his arm around him. You could see that Rondo was one of those guys who refused to be spoken to. He didn’t want to be told what to do because he was so confident in his own abilities. I just remember him sitting there and absorbing what Tommy had to say. It was like [Kevin Garnett] used to talk to him. There are very few people in this world who show that Rondo really wanted to listen.
Heinsohn died of kidney failure on November 9, 2020. He was 86 years old. Many shared their dismay that Heinsohn was unable to witness the current run.
Upton: It is sad. I’ve worked with him quite a bit in the studio for the local subsidiary. His death hit many people hard. He would have liked that. He would have gone mad and killed the umpires. He was bleeding really green.
O’Connor: He would have screamed. “DRAYMOND?!”
Theis: Of course it’s sad that he died and he can’t be a part of it. He’s glimpsed this team when we made it to the conference finals a few times. Hopefully we can win and somehow share that with him.
King: It feels weird. It was always a great pleasure for me to be able to talk to him. He would be in the press area. Nobody loved basketball like this guy. He was always jacked about everything. That was what was missing the most, the enthusiasm for everything Celtic.
O’Connor: We all exist. I lost my father. It doesn’t feel weird, it feels like something that happened. He lived such an amazing, fulfilling and joyful life with Tommy. It doesn’t feel weird, just happy that I was able to become a fan of this team and listen to them in my formative years.
But it’s disappointing that he’s not here. This team is a special group. This is a Celtics team he would have absolutely loved and I would have loved to hear what he called those games.
Andrew: Tommy’s somewhere in the rafters here. It’s kind of cheesy, but I believe it.
Deep in the rafters of the TD Garden, the nicknames of Celtics greats line the walls. There’s Big Bill, Hambone, Easy Ed, Tiny, and Twoine, among others.
And there’s Tommy Gun, centered over all 17 championship banners. His No. 15 hangs over the pitch, swaying with the crowd.