Most young Celtics fans see Tommy Heinsohn as the aged Celtics TV analyst. Some may know the 8-Time Champion and 6-Time All-Star was 1957 Rookie-of-the-Year when Bill Russell was a fellow-rookie in the same season. What most don’t know is that then-coach, Red Auerbach, belittled Heinsohn unmercifully – because Red knew Tommy could take it (per NBA.com Staff):
In addition to employing him as a go-to scorer, Auerbach directed his criticism of the team at Heinsohn, knowing that other players’ egos were too fragile for such a direct assault. “[Auerbach] knew that some of the big guys had sensitive egos — egos that didn’t like it if Red started to get on them verbally,” Heinsohn recalled in an article in the Boston Globe. “So when he wanted to get on someone to stir up things in the dressing room, he got on me. He knew I could take it. I was his whipping boy. I understood what he was doing, so I could handle it.”
For example, Heinsohn remembered one game in which he had scored more than 20 points and grabbed a dozen rebounds in the first half. But Auerbach, unhappy with the way the team was playing, lit into Heinsohn. The player silently withstood the attack for a while, then asked, “Red, what the hell have I done wrong tonight?” Auerbach looked at him with a serious face. “Tommy,” the coach said, “you warmed up lousy.”
One of the few legitimate criticisms Auerbach leveled at Heinsohn was his lack of conditioning. The coach once said that Heinsohn owned the “oldest 27-year-old body in the history of sports.”
There is more abuse that Tommy took from Red. During my one-on-one interview of Sam Jones and Mark C. Bodanza, author of Sam’s biography, I asked Jones about Heinsohn having the demeaning task of carrying the ball bag, not only in his rookie season, but also in his sophomore stint with Boston.
I brought up that Sam never had the demeaning rookie task of lugging the ball bag, but Heinsohn had the chore two years in a row. Red was not going to have co-rookie Bill Russell lug the bag in Heinsohn’s first season, and the next year, Jones’ rookie season, Sam rode with Russ, and Russ would not allow the ball bag in his car. Per Mark Bodanza, Heinsohn remembers it well.
(Sam):”I never remember carrying a ball bag. I never heard about the ball bag.”
(Mark): “I got that straight from Tommy Heinsohn, Tom (Lane)”
(Tom Lane): I asked if it was true that Heinsohn took a lot of verbal abuse from Red.
(Sam): “I saw a lot of it. I loved it. That means he (Red) kept off my back. That was Red’s whipping boy. Better Tommy than me.”
Sam didn’t remember carrying the ball bag because he never had to do it. But Tommy did it two years in a row, in effect to eliminate the possibility of Russell being demeaned or getting upset. Red handled men, not players, and he was cautious in his interaction with Russ.
Heinsohn may have been a smoker, and even the “oldest 27-year-old body in the history of sports” at one time, but he survives at age 85 and often turns the abuse he used to take from Red directly at NBA officials. He is a legend.