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Tommy Heinsohn
October 26, 1964
With their seven basic plays and the most basic bench in years, the Boston Celtics start chasing their seventh consecutive title. Here Star Forward Tommy Heinsohn (see cover) talks about a side of pro ball that the spectators can never see
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October 26, 1964

Of Charley Horses And Little Old Ladies

With their seven basic plays and the most basic bench in years, the Boston Celtics start chasing their seventh consecutive title. Here Star Forward Tommy Heinsohn (see cover) talks about a side of pro ball that the spectators can never see

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I don't know what it is about me: I am no Rock. Hudson, but I absolutely wow all the little old white-haired ladies. They stop me and talk to me all over the country, on the street, in restaurants, in elevators. Let the entire team be sitting around a hotel lobby—we spend a great deal of time sitting in hotel lobbies—and I'm the guy they always approach. They always say exactly the same thing. "My golly, but you are a big one," they say, and then most often they will reach out and pat me. "I have got a brother [or a nephew, or uncle] who is big, too." So I just stand there and nod politely; as a matter of fact, I really like little old ladies. Then they say, "Just how tall are you?" I tell them 6 foot 7 and 225 pounds, and they always reply: "'Oh, my. Well, Harry isn't that big. Gollies." That ought to give you an idea of the crazy, wild, recklessly exciting times professional basketball players have on the road.

It's funny, because I am not one of the real big monster guys in basketball, by far. There are days when everybody is bigger than me. The other members of the crew kid me about this magic with the little women in their lace shawls, and sometimes in the locker room a teammate will tweak me on the cheek and say, "Gollies, thweetie pie, but you thure are big and cute." If you have ever been tweaked on the cheek by someone like K. C. Jones, your whole face can hurt for a month.

Now it is that time of year again. It is time for 80 games of basketball under pressure that starts plenty high and gets a lot higher, time for all the little old ladies and those hotel lobbies and then catnaps with our legs sticking out into the aisles of airplanes and nights of physical and mental exhaustion. This is my 19th year playing the game, counting my kid years and the years I was an All-America at Holy Cross, and when you get to be a grown-up man 30 years old playing this game, there has got to be a good reason. I have two: I play basketball for love and money, and they come in interchangeable order, depending on how things are going when you ask the question.

I'm wide and strong but, like everybody else who plays the game professionally, I am also a physical mess: it's a paradox of the sport. I've got loose ligaments all over the place, on my legs and elbows, and I've really got weak ankles. I once had eight sprained ankles in one season. I have had four ankle sprains in the last six years, and that is a tribute to our trainer Buddy LeRoux, who could build a basketball player out of tape, splints and liniment. My left knee hasn't got the outside lateral ligaments it came with originally, and now I wear a special brace with steel sides so the knee won't wobble the way it shouldn't wobble.

When I joined the Celtics eight years ago I was stronger than Jack the Bear, and the first thing I did was run into Ray Felix. He played center for the New York Knickerbockers then. Basketball centers are a lot more agile now than Felix was then, but he had his ways about him. Players cutting for the basket around Felix would stop short because Felix used to impulsively raise up one bony knee and catch them right across the giant muscle in the thigh. In my first game in New York, Felix hauled off and gave me one of America's alltime great charley horses. We played the next night in Boston, and I limped around him from the other side and he hooked me again. I knew right then what kind of career it was going to be. "Ye gods," I said to Coach Red Auerbach, "I have played two games of professional basketball in my whole life, and already I have run out of legs."

But charley horses heal—slowly—and they are nothing like the feeling we get starting each season. I dread it. But I keep doing it. There comes that autumn morning when I throw that first leg out of bed and a shooting pain runs all the way up to my ears, which is a considerable distance for pain to shoot, and I feel like I am all charley horse. The ironic thing about it is that we get this feeling when we are in shape, and I would hate to think what it would be like out of condition. The Celtics are the toughest team in an extremely tough league, and we are expected to report to camp ready to run where other teams train into shape. I can remember when Carl Braun joined us from the Knicks, and that second morning he sat on the edge of his bed and groaned as sunbursts of aches and hurts ran through him. He recalled wistfully that "on the Knicks during the first couple of weeks of the season all we did was get to know each other."

Now we're off again, and this is the year, everybody says, that the Celtics will blow it. Well, let me admit right now that winning this year will be harder than any year I can remember, but win we will. There is one way—and only one way—that the Celtics can be beat this season. Later, I'll even go further and tell you 1) how the Boston Celtics can be beat this season, and 2) don't bet on it. Basketball the way we play it is a frightening, basic game.

You may find this a surprise, but the Celtics have only seven plays. All the rest of it we make up as we go along. There are a hundred options to be run off the basic seven. In college basketball 90% of the play is directed by the coach. "Fellas," he will say, "we'll play a zone defense or a man-to-man." In pro ball it is all different: we play the basics and think. Take any one of our seven plays. If worked properly it cannot be stopped. Our opponents have scouted us all over the place, but they still haven't seen the plays as many times as we have run them. What most always happens is that we will start one going (sometimes Auerbach will hand-signal us from the bench; it may or may not mean anything), and the defensive team will recognize it. Which means they will rush to our normal shooting spot and get there before the offensive player arrives. Then we slip into an option, and sometimes they will know that one, too, and stampede over to the No. 1 option spot. And then we start playing good old fundamental basketball. And how can you scout a thing as unmysterious as old-fashioned fundamentals?

This is how secret our plays are: Durin this spring we toured Europe on a goodwill mission for the U.S. State Department. There were four Celtics: Bill Russell, K. C. Jones, Bob Cousy (he's retired and came along to provide commentary) and me. Then we had Bob Pettit from the St. Louis Hawks, Tom Gola of the New York Knickerbockers, Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson of the Cincinnati Royals—with Coach Auerbach handling us all. As the trip went along we would stage basketball clinics in each city to spread the American hoop gospel. Red would run us through some pretty routine plays and visiting coaches would take notes, and things went fine until we got to Warsaw. That's when one of the coaches said, "Now show us some of the Boston Celtics' plays. They're the ones we want to see."

"Gentlemen," said Auerbach, "I'd love to, truly. But I cannot, because I don't have my whole team here."

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