These days Tommy Heinsohn is probably best known to the younger set of Celtics fans as the helplessly homer voice on the Celtics television broadcasts, who complains nightly about the refereeing and the atrocities committed against the home town team.
Mike Gorman, a pro in every sense of the word, oftentimes has to talk Tommy down from the ledge in the middle of a broadcast. I can only hope I have half the spirit and vigor that Heinsohn has when I’m going to turn 79.
Heinsohn has been calling Celtics games on television since the 1960’s. If you can believe it, one of his early partners in the booth was none other than Red Auerbach. Can you even imagine that?
The book Dynasty’s End: Bill Russell and the1968-69 World Champion Boston Celtics by Thomas J Whalen of Northeastern University has a very interesting section on the time that Heinsohn and Auerbach spent together in the booth, as well as how Heinsohn got his start in broadcasting.
While Heinsohn may be regarded as a caricature these days by some, this view disregards his contributions to how the game of professional basketball is broadcast on television.
I’ve obtained permission from Professor Whalen as well as the publisher, University Press of New England, to reprint an excerpt from the book in which Heinsohn details his beginnings as a broadcaster, and his time with Red in the booth.
If Boston fans became disillusioned by [Jim "Bad News"] Barnes’s lack of production, they were positively upbeat over the pairing of former Celtics star Tom Heinsohn and Red Auerbach in the television booth to cover the team’s games for channel 56, a Boston station that specialized in old movie reruns and local sports programming. “It worked out pretty well,” Heinsohn later said of the experience. “We had a lot of fun doing the broadcast. Red was definitely pro-Celtic. He would go after referees, what have you. I think Red brought a different look to the broadcast, a different sound and a different attitude. Johnny Most was doing the radio at the time and he had built up such a huge audience on radio because when the Celtics began winning all those titles that’s who they listened to. It wasn’t television. So he was the voice of the Celtics and we were trying to capture our own audience and at the time channel 56 was still a UHF station. In order to get it, you had to buy a special antenna. We had a limited audience at the time and we tried to build an audience, [but people] had to go out of their way to tune in.
For those fortunate enough to tune in, however, Auerbach and Heinsohn provided more than their fair share of entertaining moments, especially when the competition heated up on the floor.There was, for instance, the time when the duo were broadcasting a playoff game in Philadelphia. Auerbach, who had fallen into the habit of eating peanuts during telecasts, dropped a bag on the floor just as Philadelphia’s Chet Walker was viciously fouled by Larry Siegfried going to the hoop. But Auerbach had missed this crucial part of the play. He was too busy retrieving his peanuts. “Everyone in the arena and watching television at home had seen the play except Red,” Heinsohn later explained. “He had been involved in a more important matter. Walker was stretched out when Red finally looked to the court. ‘What’s he doing?’ he screamed into his mike. ‘Is he pulling that same old jazz about 20 seconds?’” Even when Heinsohn gently informed his old coach that Siegfried had knocked him down, Auerbach remained unconvinced.
“He was not in the play!” he insisted.
“Okay, Red,” Heinsohn replied. “Have it your way. He was not in the play, but would you settle for this — he was in the movie?”
As is the case with most innovative concepts, the idea of putting Auerbach alongside Heinsohn as a color man came about by sheer accident. During a road contest against the 76ers in the middle of the 1967-68 season, Auerbach was having difficulty finding an empty seat in the then-packed Philadelphia arena. Seeing that Heinsohn, who was broadcasting the game solo, had an opening next to him, the Celtics GM ambled on over to claim his prize. “And the next thing I knew,” he said, “I was on the air.” Equally significant was the fact that Channel 56 officials liked what they saw in terms of the charismatic energy Auerbach brought to the proceedings. The soon signed up the opinionated Brooklyn native as their number two basketball man in the booth. This new arrangement sat well with Heinsohn because he had been lobbying station officials for some time to provide him with on-air relief during broadcasts. “I had to at least go to the men’s room,” Heinsohn later joked.
Fortunately, providing television commentary was not something new for Auerbach. He had previously worked as a color man on a number of ECAC college basketball games. “But that was different,” Auerbach said. “I would just sit there and tell the folks that one team was using a 3-2 defense and the other team was in a full-court press. Technical stuff like that. When I do the Celtics game, I’m emotionally involved.”
Indeed, Auerbach became so personally wrapped up in a game that he never gave a thought to how unfair and biased his comments sometimes were. During one contest he telecast, for example, referee Earl Strom came down with a painful leg injury, thus temporarily putting a halt to the action on the floor. Instead of expressing sympathy, Auerbach seized the opportunity to settle an old personal score he had with Strom. “Shake it off!” he yelled into his mike. “I never thought a referee could get hurt. If he stands there nursing it everybody will get cold. Let’s go! Doesn’t he know there’s a 20-second rule? He’s only got 20 seconds to get back in there.”
Heinsohn prided himself on being the more professionally polished of the two, as he had been regularly doing the team’s games since 1966. “Hey,” Auerbach informed him over the summer break that year, “we’re going to be televising road games this season in Channel 56. Are you interested in doing the play-by-play?” It didn’t require much arm-twisting by Auerbach to bring Heinsohn on board, especially since the latter had been itching to get back into the game following his retirement as a player in 1965. But before taking over the telecasts, Heinsohn had to first serve a brief apprenticeship with veteran broadcaster Marty Glickman, a longtime voice of the Knicks. “I acquired the feel of the microphone, the pace of the game, the commercials and the entire mechanics,” Heinsohn later wrote of this formative period. “I borrowed the Celtics videotape equipment and practiced at home games. Fred Cusick, the sports director of Channel 56, would sit alongside and review my homework after the Boston Garden games.
Satisfied with the progress he was making behind the mike, Heinsohn decided he was ready to fly solo for a contest against the Bullets in Baltimore. “I had no color man, nothing,” he later recalled. “I did every commercial, every lead-in and the halftime interview without a problem, which made me feel great – like the night I scored 47 points [as a player] in Seattle. Only this time, a star was born in Baltimore. I sweated frequently that first show but I drank enough Cokes to cool me off. That led to the discovery of an occupational hazard of TV announcers. It is called the relief stop by truck drivers and other patrons of the highways. It is called something more descriptive by ballplayers when they go to the dressing rooms at half time.”
Apart from this call of nature, Heinsohn made only one major gaff during the entire broadcast. That occurred when he read a promotional announcement for the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy. Heinsohn pronounced it “Yenkel Doodle Dendy.” Thinking of a way to extricate himself from this embarrassing lapse, he quickly came up with an improbable yet amusing explanation. “Of course, that’s a Jewish movie,” he told viewers.
As the years wore on, such mistakes grew less frequent as Heinsohn became increasingly more comfortable in front of the camera. He particularly enjoyed broadcasting games from historic arenas like the old Madison Square Garden of New York and Boston Garden. “You were in the first row of the balcony in the overhang [of these arenas], so you had the game close to you and you were hanging over the action,” he said. “Subsequent to those buildings going down, all the other buildings that were built [after them] put you further up and out of the action or they put you actually on the floor where you were being blocked out by the coach standing up or the referees standing in front of you.”
While taking in this unique perspective of the game, Heinsohn also found himself mastering the nuts and bolts of television broadcasting. “I was learning to deal with different directors and producers because that’s what they did on the road those days,” he said. “They didn’t travel everybody, just the broadcasters. So we always had a different producer or director. One of the producers he collaborated with in New York in particular proved helpful. “I would give him verbal cues so he would have an indication this is where we needed to go in tight on this picture,” he related. “From that we started to develop a different way to broadcast pro basketball – to catch the action, not just do hero shots.” By “hero shots,” Heinsohn was referring to the unfortunate tendency of sports television producers of this era to allow cameras to linger on players after they made a basket, instead of following the rest of the action on the floor. He felt this hamstrung the efforts of conscientious game announcers like himself to give an accurate depiction of events as they occurred. Indeed, the fast-paced nature of professional basketball required a different broadcasting approach altogether. As he later explained, “You have a certain rhythm in football and baseball where there is a stoppage in action, times between plays to get across your thoughts. In basketball, there is extreme pressure to be succinct. You have only four or five seconds to tie all the pieces together.”
Heinsohn would later incorporate these novel ideals into his work as an analyst for NBA telecasts on CBS-TV in the early 1980’s. His approach was straightforward and simple. He believed his main purpose was to educate the general public on the strategies and inner workings of the game. “Part of my preparation is to be the coach of each team,” he said. “We meet with each coach before the game and I verify the thoughts I have. I script out a series of potential replays which will help in the early stages to give the story line. And the players on each team make the plot work.” To be sure, this was a far cry from the way the sport was covered when he first started out in the business. “We’ve gone from televising the high-flyers, which made it seem like the game was so easy with no defense, to the highly sophisticated game. There has been an evolution in presenting a more sophisticated approach to pro basketball, I game which I feel has been maligned for years. The challenge is to make the broadcast so the first-time viewer doesn’t have to be Albert Einstein to understand it.”
© University Press of New England on behalf of Northeastern, Lebanon, NH. Reprinted with permission excerpts from pages 126-129.