Celtics legend Tom Heinsohn dies at 86

Tom Heinsohn, a bruising, intense forward on the Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1950s and ’60s who later had success as the team’s coach, passed away on Tuesday. He was 86.

Heinsohn was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player (1986) and as a coach (2015).

He played on eight title-winning teams under legendary coach Red Auerbach (1957, 1959-65). Heinsohn averaged 18.6 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists in his Hall of Fame career. He was a six-time All-Star.

The Jersey City, New Jersey, native worked on Celtics broadcasts after retiring as a player in 1966. He served in that role until replacing fellow Hall of Famer Bill Russell as head coach in 1969.

Russell paid tribute to Heinsohn, the 1956-57 NBA Rookie of the Year, on Twitter: “We were rookies together and friends for life. In life there are a limited number of true friends, today I lost one. RIP Heiny.”

“This is a devastating loss,” the Celtics ownership said in a statement. “Tommy was the ultimate Celtic. For the past 18 years, our ownership group has relied hugely on Tommy’s advice and insights and have reveled in his hundreds of stories about Red Auerbach, Bill Russell and how the Celtics became a dynasty. He will be remembered forever.”

Bob Ryan, a longtime Boston Globe reporter and columnist, summed up Heinsohn’s connection to the team in an eloquent yet simple way. He tweeted, “No one bled green more than Tom Heinsohn.”

Tom Heinsohn had success as coach

Tom Heinsohn coached the Celtics to a pair of NBA titles in 1974 and ’76. He was fired in 1978.

As a result, he returned to the broadcast booth for NBA and college games on local and national telecasts. Starting in 1981, he began working as a Celtics TV analyst through the 2018-19 campaign, teaming up with Mike Gorman.

As Celtics coach, Heinsohn compiled an overall record of 427-263 in the regular season. In 80 playoff games, he collected 47 victories.

Broadcasting icon

NBC Sports Boston noted that Tom Heinsohn had a deep connection to the Celtics fans who tuned in to watch the team’s games.

“We are immensely saddened by the passing of our beloved friend and colleague Tommy Heinsohn,” the TV station said in a statement.

“Like his time as a player and a coach, Tommy also became a legend as a broadcaster over the past 39 years. He brought tremendous passion and excitement to his commentary and analysis, and he helped inform and entertain generations of Celtics fans.

“His loyalty and contributions to the network, franchise and city are immeasurable, and will forever be recognized and honored.

“We send our love and deepest condolences to the entire Heinsohn family. Tommy will be missed and will forever be in our hearts.”

In an interview with The Boston Globe, play-by-play man Gorman described Heinsohn as a coach disguised as an analyst.

“Tommy doesn’t really do color,” Gorman said. “In his heart, he’s still coaching the Celtics and he always will be. It doesn’t matter who the coach is, and it’s no disrespect to the coach. This always will be Tommy’s team. Tommy will be coaching this team till he takes his final breath.” 

A fraternity of four

Tom Heinsohn is one of four individuals enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach. The others: John Wooden, Bill Sharman and Lenny Wilkens.

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