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 rantings 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
February 8, 1999
The union pioneer says players must "get rid of this notion that
they are the game."