Everybody's Favorite Big Mouth
With the Celtics struggling to reclaim their glory, the passion of their animated commentator, Tommy Heinsohn, remains as strong as ever for the game, for his artwork, and, most of all, for his wife through her fight with cancer.
The redhead in Needham, as Tommy Heinsohn affectionately calls his wife, casually passes a portrait of herself hanging just outside the master bedroom. The grand tour of the Heinsohns' ranch house does not ordinarily include this particular, private painting. But it's nearly impossible not to stop and stare at the young knockout with flowing, fiery red hair framed against a black background.
Draped in an unbuttoned peach blouse over tight blue jeans, the subject sits in a chair and looks downward with vulnerable reserve, uncharacteristic for those who know Helen Heinsohn as fearlessly independent and outspoken. The painter has captured her softer side in the simple composition and hazy focus, bringing sensitivity and tenderness to the portrait. In the lower-right-hand corner, Tommy Heinsohn has signed and dated this 1975 tribute to his wife.
"It captured who Helen was to me," says Heinsohn. "I wanted to show a quiet person. She's deeper than you think. It conveyed my message, but it left a lot of things to the imagination. It fades out in different spots, loses the edges."
The portrait departs from the landscapes, buildings, and still lifes Heinsohn usually draws and paints. His sketchbooks look like pictorial travelogues, as he spends time on the road filling pages with what he sees through hotel windows. The state capitols in Indianapolis and Sacramento. The Riverwalk in San Antonio. Rooftops and brick walls. He has sketched scenes on the team plane from his perspective as a broadcaster and in the locker room when he played for the Boston Celtics from 1956 until 1965. He prides himself on capturing what is, rather than what is merely pretty. An artist without artifice.
But with Heinsohn behind the microphone as color commentator for Celtics broadcasts on Fox Sports Net New England, games come across in broad strokes filled with unapologetic loyalty to the team he covers. "He's a homer," says his friend, former Celtic, and current Cleveland head coach Paul Silas. "He's in the Johnny Most mold. They bleed Green. To me, that's to be expected." After all, Heinsohn played an integral part on eight championship teams and coached the Celtics to two NBA titles. In the pantheon of Boston basketball greats that includes Bob Cousy and Bill Russell and Larry Bird, Heinsohn remains the only Celtic who returned to the league after his playing days and never worked for another team.
"I learned way back that what you're there for is to be you," says Heinsohn. "I try to put all I am as a person into what I do. My intelligence, my emotion. I've done that in everything. That's the way I believe people should do what they do."
With an accent that echoes both his hometown of Union City, New Jersey, and adopted home of Boston, his distinctively raspy voice bellows out the finer points of the game and bestows "Tommy Points" recognizing hustle, toughness, and team play. Heinsohn started the unofficial Walter McCarty fan club, coining the catch phrase "I love Waltah" and creating a national following for the reserve Celtic forward. He elevated the harassment of referees to an art.
His broadcasts are peppered with complaints that begin, "You've got to be kidding me" and "You call that a hard foul?" as he bemoans the injustice of calls against the Celtics. It is the sincerest kind of shtick.
Celebrated with a bobblehead doll, Heinsohn, 70, sits courtside as an easily recognized cult figure on the NBA circuit, inspiring imitators who shout his most famous slogans from the stands. They try to mimic his over-the-top, crazed inflection. His calls are replayed for pure entertainment value on ESPN. At home and road games, teenagers and older fans alike ask Heinsohn for his autograph and hope for 10 seconds of conversation. They usually get much more than that from a man who never tires of dispensing opinions or expertise.
In passion, humor, and feistiness, Heinsohn met his match in his wife, Helen. Their nonstop banter never lacks colorful language, sarcasm, innuendo, or laughter. A conversation about a problematic cable television connection quickly devolves into a ribald romp, quips flying. Heinsohn loves Helen's quick wit and "mouth and a half," which can end a mock argument by teasing, "Go ahead, darling. Tell how much you love me." And the two are back laughing at themselves again.
Since July 5, 2002, when Helen was diagnosed with brain and lung cancer, the laughter in their relationship has meant even more. Initially, the prognosis was grim. Swelling of the brain forced the Heinsohns to the hospital over that holiday weekend, where Helen was immediately sent to intensive care. During the following six months, she would undergo one brain surgery, two lung biopsies, and 14 chemotherapy treatments concurrent with 55 radiation treatments. She lost her trademark red hair, her appetite, and about 20 pounds. She gained an impressive collection of hats and head scarves. She maintained her sense of humor, though it sometimes showed a darker edge during the toughest months.
"My joke was always: Nothing can happen to me, because Tommy won't be able to find his socks," says Helen, whose cancer is currently in remission.
A funny line here, a funny line there helped Tommy get through the ordeal. "She has difficulty remembering some of the things I said when she first went into the hospital," says Heinsohn. "But the circumstances engendered in me the thought `What is this all about if you can't be meaningful to the person you care about?' That's what I try to be. She's always been that to me. She just entered into [the treatments] like, `I'm going to have my life, and that's it.' And that included humor. That was the way our life was. There was humor."
Tommy and Helen never looked for an escape from reality. They face cancer with unflinching honesty. Trying to explain the tests and treatments involved in Helen's ongoing fight, Heinsohn sounds very much like a clinician, the booming theatrics of the broadcaster replaced by a slower cadence and softer tone. But he does borrow from his broadcast style. He talks about PET scans and biopsies and survival rates, breaking down the doctor-speak like so many replays. He accompanies Helen to as many tests as possible. When the two discuss dealing with the disease, Heinsohn often takes over the narrative, though he always uses "we," as if the couple has cancer.
"We had the lung scan today," says Heinsohn. "And yesterday, we had the MRI on the brain. . . . We go through this thing every three months with something. Everybody hopes initially that it's going to go away. Cancer doesn't go away. You just hold it in retreat as best you can. We're 2 1/2 years into the deal."
When the treatments began, Heinsohn started a nightly ritual. As the pair went to bed, Heinsohn would always ask Helen, "Did you have a happy day today?" It was his way of reminding Helen to take the fight day by day, to try to pull something, anything, positive from the situation. Usually, Helen would say, "Yes, dear, I had a happy day," and they would fall asleep with that thought. But after one particularly difficult lung biopsy, Helen could not kid herself. "I told Tommy, 'Let me think," says Helen. "'I had my throat cut. They sawed through several ribs in my chest. I almost threw up in the recovery room. Are you out of your [expletive] mind? Did I have a happy day today?' Then I told him, 'Yeah, I had a good day today. I'm here to discuss it.'"
It comes as no surprise when Heinsohn mentions he was the class cutup at St. Michael's High School in Union City. As Heinsohn politely puts it, he never devoted the proper attention to daily prayers. But his 10th-grade homeroom teacher, Sister Eleanor, kept the antics to a minimum by encouraging his growing passion for art. "I've always been interested in art since I was a kid," says Heinsohn, "before I even knew there was such a thing as basketball."
In grammar school, he began drawing Christmas scenes in colored chalk on the blackboard. He bought how-to books. He begged his parents for the pastel sticks displayed in the window of a Union City five-and-dime store called Cheap Sam's. The family could not afford a set of pastels, but Heinsohn's interest in art continued undiminished though largely unacknowledged, until Sister Eleanor sent him upstairs with drawing assignments. She was studying for a master's degree in biology at Fordham University, and Heinsohn would sketch the amoebas, frog legs, and cell parts needed to complete her homework. "That was the first time anyone encouraged me to do anything, really," says Heinsohn.
Further encouragement came from a dorm proctor at the College of the Holy Cross, who saw Heinsohn copy a Time magazine cover featuring McCarthy-hearings figure Joe Welch and persuaded the Worcester college student to take an art course. But when the basketball season started, Heinsohn couldn't fit both into his schedule and dropped the course after just four classes. Heinsohn would not have time for formal training until finishing his Hall of Fame playing career as a forward with the Celtics.
After decades spent honing technique, Heinsohn calls himself a "decent amateur," with dozens of exhibits across the country to his credit and a basement studio cluttered with hundreds of unframed canvases. He once participated in a show called "Twice Gifted," which featured the artwork of celebrities who had earned fame in another field, including Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, and James Dean. Heinsohn remarks with admiration that Dean "was probably the best artist of everybody."
Heinsohn has "painting buddies" the way many men have golf buddies. They travel New England three times a year, a mix of professionals and avid amateurs, in search of picturesque scenes to paint. An original Heinsohn landscape once fetched $2,500, much to the surprise of the artist.
"The first time I sold a painting, Helen took it to this guy who's a friend of ours to have it framed, and I didn't pick it up," says Heinsohn. "The guy asked, `Do you want to sell this painting?' I said, `No, I don't want to sell it.' The guy said, 'Well, I'm gonna tell you how much someone wants to offer: $800.' I said, 'All right, sold.'"
Until Helen became sick, she organized annual exhibits of Heinsohn's paintings, first at a Brookline framer, then at Joseph's restaurant in downtown Boston. They were invitation-only affairs designed to sell off pieces the Heinsohns had no place to store. Now, Heinsohn occasionally shows paintings at the Bryant Gallery in Jeffersonville, Vermont, and with Gloucester's North Shore Arts Association. But he derives greater satisfaction from giving his art to friends.
At one invitation-only exhibit, Heinsohn placed a special painting at the center of the showroom, cordoned off by velvet ropes. The piece, Wedding Day, depicts the Stone House Inn, where broadcast partner Mike Gorman got married 17 years ago in Little Compton, Rhode Island. When Gorman and his wife arrived at the exhibit, Heinsohn escorted them to the center of the room and presented their wedding gift.
"When I first started, it was something I could do by myself," says Heinsohn. "It really is like a friend. It keeps me involved in something. It's soothing. It's fun. It's a social exercise. It's an intellectual exercise."
Covering the Celtics these days, Heinsohn can be heard voicing wild enthusiasm for the team's return to a running game. Celtics head coach Doc Rivers does a humorous impression of Heinsohn exclaiming, "That's the basketball I'm talking about." It's the refrain Heinsohn favors whenever Boston scores on the fast break. A steadfast belief in the running game represents the Celtics birthright as passed down directly by patriarch Red Auerbach. It was the style Heinsohn played and coached. He delights in the tradition continuing.
"Tommy doesn't really do color," says Celtics play-by-play man Gorman. "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. If it was possible to still be playing for this team, he would be."
Watch Heinsohn work a game: He expends more emotional energy than any Celtic in uniform. Gorman has long suggested that Fox add a "Tommy cam," a small picture-in-picture feed to capture the emphatic gestures and cartoonlike facial expressions that punctuate all Heinsohn commentary. He makes his points with hands flying, eyes popping. The audience at home misses half the entertainment.
Pregame, halftime, and postgame stand-ups showcase a more subdued Heinsohn in suit and abstractly patterned tie. He looks younger than his age, with his gray hair barely receding. But time has slightly bent and added weight to his 6-foot-7-inch frame, rounding out his features. Deep, frequent laughter reinforces Heinsohn's jolly presence.
For all the fun and frivolity Heinsohn brings to Celtics broadcasts, with Gorman serving as straight man, the former NBA coach of the year views his job with a surprising seriousness behind the scenes. Heinsohn sees himself as both entertainer and educator. "I came to the conclusion that the way I wanted to present it is that every game was a murder mystery," says Heinsohn. "And I would like the producer and director to help me lay down the clues so that by the end of the game the people would know how the murder took place. What I managed to do was take the games like a coach, pull them apart, and choreograph the camerawork to get key replays. Each one of these replays was a clue."
Critics accuse Heinsohn of coming across as a bombastic know-it-all: too much theater, not enough insight. They look to the impartial, analytical, and more dispassionate national broadcasters as role models. Unquestionably, Heinsohn goes over the top when it comes to commenting on the performance of officials. "I have a thorough belief that there are three teams involved in a game," Heinsohn explains. "There are the two basketball teams and a team of officials. They all have a bearing on how the game is played. . . . Officials have to be held accountable like the players."
A really bad call can provide color for an entire broadcast. With an official in his sights, Heinsohn cannot be distracted or dissuaded from his agenda. When veteran official Kenny Mauer became the target of a tirade for the better half of a game, he collected his jacket from the scorer's table at the end of the contest, smiled wryly at Heinsohn, and said, "Merry Christmas."
"Tommy never has a nonfeeling moment," says Gorman.
When the subject turns to Helen, art, or basketball, Heinsohn is most open and most passionate.
With Helen too sick to join him for games at the FleetCenter in the months after her initial diagnosis, Heinsohn devised a special on-air tribute. "The redhead in Needham sure would have hated that shot," he said, and at first, only people close to the couple knew whom Heinsohn had in mind. "The redhead in Needham would have gotten all over the referee for that one." The tradition continues for road games. Watching from home, Helen enjoys the private acknowledgment. It is like that heartfelt tribute hanging nearby in the hallway.
Globe staff member Shira Springer covers the Celtics. She can be reached at email@example.com.