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A Critique of Tommy Heinsohn

Tommy Heinsohn (Image from

OK, so here’s Wikipedia’s definition of a color commentator: “A color commentator (color analyst, analyst) is a sports commentator who assists the play-by-play announcer by filling in any time when play is not in progress. The term is of North American origin. The color commentator provides expert analysis and background information, such as statistics, strategy and injury reports on the teams and athletes, and occasionally light humor. Color commentators are often former athletes or coaches of the sport being broadcast.”

This definition describes what we mainly get out of our color commentators. Jerry Remy, for example, does an excellent job analyzing hitting strategy, whereas Dennis Eckersley is a master at explaining pitching choices. In basketball, however, we have a far more colorful commentator than either of them: Tommy Heinsohn.

What Tommy Does Well

There’s no doubt that Tommy Heinsohn, former Celtics player and coach, knows the game of basketball inside and out. When a player misses a free throw, Tommy’s gut reaction is usually confirmed by replays of the player’s shooting motion. When he sees a mismatch, the Celtics usually recognize it too and successfully exploit it. And when Tommy believes a player has hot hands, the player usually winds up having a monster game. Tommy also is very attuned to the feelings of the fans. If we’re frustrated about something — a lack of offense or poor play by a particular player — then chances are Heinsohn will also be frustrated. It’s when he vents that I think he gets himself into trouble.

Where Tommy Could Calm Down

What annoys me the most about Tommy Heinsohn is that he still believes he’s a coach and thus must defend the Celtics players. This is most evident when it comes to critiquing the referees of the game. Heinsohn goes off on rants against refereeing far too often and far too easily. His rants do not affect the outcome of the game; they simply rile up the fans to the point that they’re screaming for the refs’ heads. This is not fair to a bunch of people trying as hard as they can to officiate a fast-paced, physical game.

Not many officials hold the kinds of grudges Heinsohn accuses them of, and he goes into games assuming the refs are out to get the Celtics. Even if they were (and I don’t believe they are), as a commentator he should not feel as if this has anything to do with him. But he does, and it leads to rants and passive-aggressive snipes that sour what is otherwise strong commentating from him.

As a child, I was taught that referees don’t win or lose games for teams, and that if the game comes down to a blown call by the ref, chances are you didn’t do enough to win in the first place. While there are some problems with this argument, I believe it holds true most of the time. If the Celtics were clicking like they were before Christmas, it would take a truly egregious number of bad calls to swing games against the Celtics. But Heinsohn’s ranting suggests otherwise. Arguing that the refs are actively taking wins away from the Celtics, as he often does, just builds up bad blood in fans.

There’s also a sense of futility to Heinsohn’s ranting. While I’ll agree there are some issues with refereeing in the NBA this season, it is not likely to change without drastic action by David Stern. On the other hand, something as simple as a trade or a team meeting might turn the fortunes of the Celtics around. So while Tommy Heinsohn does on occasion criticize the Celtics for what they’re doing, he spends far too much energy criticizing the refs instead. Instead of helping fans to understand what the Celtics are doing wrong, Tommy Heinsohn seems content to just blame everything on the refs. This is not expert analysis…it is petty bitching. And it needs to stop.

Tommy Heinsohn contributes a lot as the Celtics’ color commentator. He just needs to calm down a little bit when it comes to the officiating. There’s not a game played where someone from each side thinks a call went the wrong way. Human error is part of  human-officiated sports. He needs to accept that and focus on what he does well: analyzing player form, recognizing mismatches, and explaining team strategy.

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3 comments for “A Critique of Tommy Heinsohn”

  1. Hi tommy I’am a maine native living in Florida and I watch you when I was a kid,Why don”t you teach perkins and big baby how to make a hook short,you had one of the best hook shoots around.wHEN PERKINS MAKES A HOOK SHOOT IN THE MIDDLE THEY ARE FLAT HE NEEDS MORE,ARCH ON THE BALL.

    Posted by michael | February 4, 2010, 8:07 pm
  2. Tommy I’m crazy about you. Keep telling it like it is! Does the author of this article really pay attention to your commentating? Does he know you were a player, a coach for championship teams, and you have green blood running through your veins? You would not have so much to say if the officials called the game better. The fans need to focus because we do get some off-calls. I hope you keep up with the b-ball rules because I am upset with the KG suspension. Why didn’t the officials clear the area and take the ball out in another place? Why is KG the only one being suspended and fined? Where do I find b-ball rules for this type of call? Players should be more professional in their comments to the media about each other because poor sportsmanship really comes out. This is playoff time and the officials need to take their experience up a notch! Recognizing the officials are qualified (???)and it’s tough job sometimes;they have to maintain their neutrality, and be consistent in their calls on both ends of the court in all games.

    Posted by Zee | April 19, 2010, 5:02 am
  3. Tommy Heinsohn is someone I do not enjoy listening to. I watch a lot of NBA games and compared to the other commentators it is annoying how much he is rooting for the Celtics and disrespecting the visiting team with his comments. Even if he is wrong and the replay is showing it, he would still whine about it. I hit the mute button often so I can enjoy watching Pierce and Rondo play and battle other good teams. Tommy is probably a great commentator in the eyes of a hardcore Celtics fan, but for me being neutral to the Celts but loving NBA it is hard to digest his Celtics-centered presentations.

    Posted by Moe | December 6, 2012, 5:53 pm

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