Tommy Heinsohn - Founding Father of Small-Ball

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Tommy Heinsohn - Founding Father of Small-Ball Empty Tommy Heinsohn - Founding Father of Small-Ball

Post by bobheckler on Fri Sep 04, 2015 10:39 am

Big man Heinsohn adapts small ball while on bench
Celtic becomes fourth to be inducted into Hall as player, coach
POSTED: Sep 2, 2015 9:41 AM ET

@IanThomsen | Archive

Heinsohn Career Coaching Highlights
Check out career coaching highlights from 2015 Hall of Fame Inductee Tom Heinsohn.  (MY NOTE:  Must go to link to see this video)

Tom Heinsohn, who is entering the Hall of Fame as a coach, is a founding father of the small-ball era. The Golden State Warriors won their championship in June by borrowing from ideas introduced by Heinsohn in the 1970s.

"At first everybody thought I was crazy," says Heinsohn, who has been affiliated with the Boston Celtics for almost 60 years -- nine as a Hall-of-Fame 6-7 forward who won eight championships (1956-65), another nine as coach (1969-78), and four decades as a team broadcaster.

Heinsohn had been broadcasting Celtics' games when team president Red Auerbach asked him to run the team following the retirement of Bill Russell as player/coach in 1969. It was not the first time that Auerbach had offered Heinsohn the job.

"Red asked me to coach the team the year he retired,'' says Heinsohn, who had quit playing one year before Auerbach stepped down as coach in 1966. "I said I would not be able to coach Bill Russell because we were contemporaries together. Red had a special relationship with Bill Russell, who was the centerpiece of the team at the time. Russell was such a proud guy, I said, `Why don't you get Russell to coach and he will get the most out of himself?' I don't know if Red had thought of that before, but that's what he did.''

The expectations were absurd when Heinsohn took over the Celtics: They had won 11 of the NBA's previous 13 championships, and yet most of the old stars were gone. Heinsohn missed the playoffs each of his first two years as he developed youngsters Jo Jo White, Dave Cowens and Don Chaney around John Havlicek.

Cowens, the No. 4 pick in 1970 from Florida State, provided the Celtics with their new small-ball identity. At 6-9, Cowens had been expected to make his career at power forward alongside emerging center Garfield Smith.

"Garfield Smith was a little bigger, but he didn't work out,'' Heinsohn says. "He threw three air-balls in a row at the free throw line, so he wasn't destined to be our center. Dave was chomping at the bit to play center. He had played center (in college). So we did it.''

In those days, the NBA was defined by its domineering low-post stars. Cowens became the Celtics "big man'' at a time when 10 of the last 11 MVPs had been shared by traditional centers: Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Wes Unseld and Willis Reed. And now a new era was being launched by young 7-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who would win a half-dozen MVPs and championships with the Bucks and the Lakers.

"People thought that Dave would not be able to survive,'' says Heinsohn. "I wanted us to be an up-tempo team -- I really believed in that strategy -- but we had to run in a different way because we didn't have Bill Russell rebounding all of the misses and taking off. Dave became an integral part of that.

"We wanted to put a torture test on the other team's center -- make the other guy play the way we wanted to play. Dave was an exceptional athlete who was terrific on the pressure defense, which was one of the reasons that Red was interested in him -- because of his ferocity and athletic ability on defense.''

At the other end of the floor, Heinsohn installed the same kind of 3-2 offense with no center that had been built around him as a player at Holy Cross.

"I worked with Dave Cowens to become a point center,'' Heinsohn says. "He would handle the ball a lot and he would be out on the perimeter. In order for him to be effective, we spent a year working on his outside shot, and he became a prime ball handler in that situation. It really confused the whole league -- they would switch the power forward on him, and our power forward (Paul Silas) would be left open.''

"We had six plays,'' says Cowens. "The center handled the ball on the 'one' play and set the pick on the 'two' play. It was an iso for the center on the 'three' play. The 'four' play he was doing a dribble handoff. The 'five' play it was something else, and the 'six' play was for the center down low. So four of five of those plays the center was the focal point. Do you think that's how it is today? It has changed so much. But Tommy knew what he was doing.''

Heinsohn would walk through the options with Cowens methodically.

"I told him, 'You're going to become a little bit like Bob Cousy looking at various options -- where your teammate is going to be open, how he's going to be open and what kind of pass you're going to make,'" says Heinsohn. "He was a little upset because he thought I thought that he was dumb -- because we were going through this whole Arthur Murray dance routine. One night he woke me up at 3 in the morning, up in Buffalo. He was all perturbed. I said, 'What's the matter, did you get arrested?' He said, 'I need to talk to you, I can't sleep.' He said, 'Do you think I'm dumb, making me do this?' I was thinking, oh, what did I do here? I said, 'Dave, if I thought you were dumb, I would never ask you to do this thing. Nobody has ever done this before. If you can handle it, you're going to be the most unique center in the NBA.'

Tommy Heinsohn - Founding Father of Small-Ball 150831222402-tommy-heinsohn-dave-cowens-boston-celtics-vs-milwaukee-bucks.story-body
Tom Heinsohn and his pupil Dave Cowens.

"If you were Wilt Chamberlain or Bob Lanier or Walt Bellamy or any of the other 7-footers, you hated to play against Dave Cowens because you'd be running your butt off to catch up to him, and you would be bending your knees on defense on the perimeter, which was something they never did. That was the object of it. I had a feel for what we were doing, because I was Dave Cowens in college in this offense. I was the center of the Holy Cross teams and I was a prime ballhandler. I led the team in assists in college. I grew up playing as a guard in high school, so I had a feel for the passing - and Dave took to it. As he was learning what we wanted him to do, I was eager to have him shoot the ball coming up on the break in the trailer spot. That wasn't his best game at that point in his career. As a competitor he didn't want to shoot that shot because he was missing. He said, 'Tommy, I can't make that shot. I don't want to shoot it.' I said, 'Dave, don't worry about missing - the more you take now, the sooner you're going to be making them.'''

After watching Boston lose in the Eastern Conference finals for two straight years, critics were questioning whether Heinsohn's style could produce a championship. The ultimate test arrived in 1974, when the Celtics entered the NBA Finals as underdogs against the Milwaukee Bucks of Abdul-Jabbar, who had averaged 27.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocks while earning his third MVP in four years.

"That was the best-coached series that I was ever in,'' says Heinsohn. "Larry Costello (of the Bucks) I thought was a terrific coach. They had a thousand different ways to get Kareem the ball. Most everybody in the league doubled him to try to take the ball out of his hands. I believed he had a stamina problem, and so we needed to make him really work and take him out of his comfort zone. We set up our press defensively to make them take time off the clock to bring the ball up. Then we didn't let them get the ball into the corner, which was their best angle to feed him on the baseline. Third, we had Dave overplay him so that he would have to take one to two steps out to get the ball. That was our concept of dealing with him without doubling him, and it really worked until we got to the sixth game.''

The Celtics were three seconds away from clinching the championship on their home floor when Abdul-Jabbar swished a 17-foot skyhook to give the Bucks a 102-101 win in double overtime. Now the Celtics were headed back to Milwaukee for a Game 7 against Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and Bob Dandridge.

"Everybody was despondent,'' Heinsohn says. "Cousy had been at the game, and he said, 'Why don't you double-team him like everybody else does?' I went through the whole routine of the stamina problem and how they had every way of handling it if he was doubled. Their whole offense was built around you doubling Kareem. It played into their hands if you doubled him. Then all of a sudden a bell went off in my head. I said, you know, they are so prepared for everything we've done so far - they have an answer for everything we're doing -- so I said to myself, why not press them in this game? Because they'll never expect it.

"After playing all those years in seventh games and playoff games on the road, the object was to take the crowd out of the game as quickly as possible. It would give us a jump-start because they would be confused.''

There was one day off before Game 7. Heinsohn shared his bold idea with the players.

"I didn't tell them I was doing it,'' Heinsohn says. "I asked them what were their thoughts on doing it, which is what Red would do. They mulled it over and decided we would do it.''

Tommy Heinsohn - Founding Father of Small-Ball 150831221141-tom-heinsohn-1974-nba-finals-milwaukee-bucks-vs-boston-celtics.story-top
Tom Heinsohn of the Boston Celtics celebrates after Game Seven of the 1974 NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks in 1974.

Abdul-Jabbar was outscored 28-26 by Cowens as the Celtics won 102-87 by pressing and scrambling the game defensively.

"We got off to a 17-point lead in the first half and coasted to the championship on the road because we changed-up the defense,'' Heinsohn says. "I was a little proud of myself, because there were members of the press corps who already thought I should go back into the insurance business, and they would have jumped on this if it didn't work. It was crazy in one day to change the defense. But I believed it was the right thing to do, so that's what I did. I looked at it the same as taking the shot at the end of the game. If it goes in, great; if it doesn't, let's go have a beer.''

The go-for-broke strategy turned out to be consistent with his career. Heinsohn would never have taken on the job of rebuilding the Celtics following the greatest run in sports history unless he believed in himself. Any fear of losing was trumped by his desire to win.

The only way for Heinsohn to prevail in his new career was to win the championship -- in spite of the Celtics' youth and lack of size up front.

"I remember people riding him, saying, 'Tommy is just doing what Red is telling him to do, and he's not really in charge,''' says Cowens. "But Tommy is not afraid of anything.''

Heinsohn won another championship two years later in the memorable 1976 NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns. Cowens entered the Hall of Fame in 1991, and White will be inducted on September 11 alongside his risk-taking coach. Heinsohn is going to be presented by fellow Hall-of-Famer Tom "Satch'' Sanders, his former teammate and assistant coach.

"I am very pleased because Satch is a guy who epitomized what the Celtics were about -- control of the ego and all that stuff,'' says Heinsohn. "When I was playing and coaching, it was a players' game. Players were given control of what they did on the floor. We had generalized principles, but it wasn't specific. My idea was to free up everybody so you weren't looking over at the bench to see if you should or shouldn't take the shot. A good shot was any shot you think you can make -- but there had better be somebody under the basket. We would stop in practice and ask, `Who was the man under the basket?' And if he didn't know he was supposed to be there, we made him take laps.

"We worked on judgment. In our organization, the players had input. That's why so many of the Celtics became coaches over the years.''
Whether it was Cowens committing to a new style of play at center, or he and his teammates taking ownership of the decision to press all-out in Game 7 at Milwaukee, the Celtics were committed to winning on behalf of one another.

"You committed to make something work in front of your teammates,'' Heinsohn says. "You had pride of authorship. That was the essence of Celtic Pride.''



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Tommy Heinsohn - Founding Father of Small-Ball Empty Re: Tommy Heinsohn - Founding Father of Small-Ball

Post by Sloopjohnb on Fri Sep 04, 2015 11:33 am

I thought the the Knicks of that era played a style that more closely resembled modern "small ball" than the Henishon Celtics.

They had a frontcourt that was considered small even by the standards of that era: 6'6" Debusschere, 6'5" Bradley and 6'9" Reed. All their regulars were good to outstanding perimeter shooters so they spread the court and--at least against the Celtics--they did not seriously contest the offensive boards but would take high percentage shots from a ball movement offense that emphasized good floor balance and then race back to present a well organized defense.


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