Celtics

‘He’ll never be far from our minds’: Mike Gorman prepares for a Celtics season without Tommy Heinsohn

Heinsohn, a Celtics legend as a player and coach as well as broadcaster, died in November at age 86.

Elise Amendola
Tommy Heinsohn (left) and Mike Gorman called Celtics games together for 39 seasons.

Mike and Tommy.

For 39 seasons — beginning in Larry Bird’s third year, carrying from the original Boston Garden to the new one, covering Paul Pierce’s entire career, and bridging four championships — Mike Gorman and Tommy Heinsohn weren’t just familiar to Celtics fans. Sometime early on, they became family.

Gorman’s crisp, understated style (“Takes it … makes it!”), Heinsohn’s boisterousness (“You’ve got to be kidding me!”), and their shared good humor and effortless rapport led them to exceed the usual status of even the most popular broadcast teams.

They, like the best of friends, like family, earned first-name-basis status upon first reference.

Mike and Tommy.

We knew them together, and rarely considered one without thinking of the other.

Now, there’s some lingering sadness as the Celtics prepare to open their season Wednesday against the Bucks. Heinsohn, a Celtics legend as a player and coach as well as broadcaster, died in November at age 86.

It’s the first Celtics season he won’t be involved with in some way since 1955-56, the year before Red Auerbach brought him aboard out of Holy Cross.

It’s now Mike, without Tommy. That’s going to take some getting used to for everyone. Especially Mike.

“I will miss him,’’ said Gorman. “We’re all going to miss him. He is the Celtics to me. I love Cooz [Bob Cousy], Bill [Russell] was a wonderful player, the greatest winner. [John] Havlicek was a wonderful man, everyone loves Larry. But Tommy never strayed. He never went any place else. He had chances to go work in other places. He just never could leave the Celtics. I intend to do all I can to make sure he keeps that legacy.”

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Depending on the generation, fans’ memories of Heinsohn are of him on the parquet floor as a player, or on the fringe of it as a coach and later a broadcaster. But when Gorman thinks of him now, he sees him in another part of the Garden.

There’s Tommy, in the media dining room, in the final hour before game time, holding court and telling stories to a rapt audience that never minded, if they had even noticed at all, that their chicken piccata was getting cold.

“Those were good times,’’ said Gorman. “The press room was where Tommy held court. We talked to two or three different people who say they really will miss him most when they look up the corridor outside the press room. We’d always see him coming down the corridor at a little bit of a left angle, because that’s how he walked. We’re all going to look up to see him coming through the door, and he won’t be coming through the door.”

Mike learned early on that there was much more to Tommy than basketball. He was a voracious reader, devouring everything he could about Winston Churchill. He was a gifted artist who would take two or three weeks each summer to fall off the grid and work on his paintings, not that he considered them work. But he never wielded his knowledge to make others feel small.

“He was always doing something to make himself smarter,’’ said Gorman. “People just heard the guy say, ‘Ridiculous! Ridiculous call!’ That’s how they thought he was all the time. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

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“I would watch people walk through the door [to the press room] when they come in and argue a certain point with him. He wouldn’t do anything about it and come to find out he knew 10 times what the other person knew.”

Mike and Tommy’s friendship was that enviable, most authentic kind. The kind when you can be secure enough not to talk for a while, but when you do, there’s no awkwardness as the conversation and ribbing picks up where it left off.

“We’d go months sometimes in the offseason without each other,’’ said Gorman. “But when we did talk to each other, and hopefully everyone has one or two or three friends like this, it doesn’t matter how long you were apart. As soon as you were back together it’s like you were there yesterday.

“We talked about everything. Politically, we were very far apart on the scale of things. We disagreed on a lot of things. Tommy used to say we had only one fight in 40 years, and it’s still not over.

“It didn’t matter how long we went without talking. If it had been awhile, he’d pick up the phone with this exaggerated, ‘Well, hello! My goodness!’”

Mike Gorman and Tommy Heinsohn began broadcasting games together in 1981.

Gorman begins Season 40 with a partner who is already familiar. Former Celtic Brian Scalabrine has been an analyst at NBC Sports Boston for the last six years, and has called road games with Gorman for the past few years after Heinsohn stopped traveling.

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“It’s already pretty comfortable from where I sit,” said Gorman. “I enjoy working with Scal, and I’ll tell you why. Tommy was 86, and Scal is more than 40 years younger. [He’s 42.] I get the younger point of view that I would never get from Tommy, that I would never hear from Tommy, because we’re not younger people.

“Scal’s knowledge of the league, the X’s and O’s, and what’s going on and who’s pursuing whom and who’s trying to sign whom, is very, very good. I find myself quizzing him on a lot of stuff. I’ll tell you, Tommy really supported Scal. They laughed a lot.”

Gorman and Scalabrine will be calling the home games from the Garden, but road games will still be called off a monitor from the NBC Sports Boston studios. Despite the short offseason and pandemic-affected circumstances, Gorman’s enthusiasm for the new season is high.

He’s thrilled Abby Chin has returned to NBC Sports Boston as the studio host (”She is an incredible teammate,” said Gorman). While he acknowledges that the Eastern Conference is probably tougher than last season, he likes the moves the Celtics made, particularly the signing of Tristan Thompson.

Gorman believes the team will be both good and entertaining, something that has been a constant aspiration on the broadcast, first with Tommy, and now with Scalabrine.

“If I’m asking you to spend 2½ hours with me, I’m hoping I can make you laugh a couple of times,’’ said Gorman. “Tommy believed in that, too. I didn’t think that was going to be a problem with Scal, finding some humor in what’s going on, and it’s not.

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“But we all miss Tommy, and he’ll never be far from our minds. He was bigger than life. You never heard anyone say, ‘That guy reminds me of Tommy Heinsohn.’ Nobody ever said that.

“There was,” said Mike, “only one Tommy.’’

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