Ask Tom Heinsohn what he thought of the recent NBA labor dispute, and he's blunt: "I thought it was stupid, just stupid. The players can't find a way to divvy up $1 billion and save the league?" Heinsohn's words, curmudgeonly as they sound, can't be dismissed as the ran tings of a grumpy old man. During his Hall of Fame career as a Boston Celtics forward from 1956 to '65, Heinsohn helped establish the National Basketball Players Association, even serving as its president from '57 to '65.
At the 1964 All-Star Game, which was to be played in Boston, Heinsohn, now 64, orchestrated what nearly became the NBA's first work stoppage. The game was to be broadcast on national TV, a rarity in those days, and the players sent word to league president Walter Kennedy that they weren't going to play unless their demands were met. "We were fighting for recognition as a bargaining unit," says Heinsohn. "Our concerns were things like establishing a pension plan and improving playing conditions. There were no trainers on a lot of teams back then. It wasn't just about money issues; it was about the recognition of a partnership between the players and the owners." Left with little choice as game time approached, Kennedy agreed to recognize the union and establish the players' first pension plan. The game was played—and broadcast—as scheduled.
Heinsohn, a six-time All-Star and a member of eight NBA championship teams, retired at age 30 because of a torn plantar fascia muscle in his left foot. He began broadcasting Celtics games on local TV in 1967, but Red Auerbach hired him as Boston's coach in '69. Coach Heinsohn won two more NBA championships before being fired in '78. He returned to the air a few years later and has spent the last 16 seasons calling games.
Heinsohn has seen the NBA undergo dramatic changes. As a player he once negotiated a contract with Celtics owner Walter Brown while the two stood side by side in the men's room of a Boston restaurant "He asked what I wanted, and I told him," says Heinsohn. "We made the deal before we zipped up." Now, such close relationships between owners and players are rare, and Heinsohn attributes that primarily to the players' egos. "The players went into the lockout feeling, We're the game," says Heinsohn. "All sense of a partnership was lost. There needs to be an attitude adjustment on the part of the players. They need to get rid of this notion that they are the game. Basketball is the game."