Tommy Heinsohn, union man and labor agitator

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On Tuesday, former Boston Celtics’ player, coach, and longtime announcer Tommy Heinsohn passed away. He was 86, and while best-known at this point in his life for the extremely, let’s say, Celtics-friendly announcing style he employed, he was a legit basketball legend in Boston thanks to his three careers in the sport: Heinsohn is in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, one of just four individuals to accomplish that feat, and had a championship ring for all 10 fingers.

Heinsohn was also a labor agitator as a player, if you’re wondering why you’re reading about him in this particular newsletter. He was the president of the players union back in 1964, which ended up being a monumental year for the players. You see, like with the Major League Baseball Players Association, the National Basketball Players Association was a union without league recognition in its early years. They had actually formed back in 1954, but it took 10 years for the NBA to actually meet with and recognize them as a union. And this eventual recognition was managed in no small part thanks to the actions of Heinsohn himself, in his role as union president.

Heinsohn had become union president in 1958, taking over for teammate and another Celtics’ legend, Bob Cousy, who, per Sam Smith’s Hard Labor, had grown tired of “begging players for the $25 union dues.” Heinsohn’s major goal was to get the players a pension, something MLB players had already managed to secure, albeit not a very good one, with their own labor agitation. The NBA’s owners were still in the “threatening players if they joined the union” stage of things at this point, so they weren’t exactly compelled to listen to what those players wanted. They did, however, schedule time at an owners meeting for the players to discuss their issues in November of 1963, with Heinsohn at the head of the group. A player representative from every team traveled to New York for the meeting on their own dime, which happened, but without the players ever being invited in to speak to the owners.

It wasn’t just the pension that the players wanted to talk about, either, as Heinsohn would explain (again, per Hard Labor):

Sunday day games after Saturday night games, even a game scheduled the day after the All-Star Game, the travel, the schedule. If you were playing in Rochester and had to go to Ft. Wayne, they’d hold the train in Rochester. But then there was no direct train to Ft. Wayne. So they’d drop you in a cornfield and you had to walk about a mile to a crossroads with a few buildings, the main one being the Green Parrot Café, well known to everyone from that era. You’d get someone with a good arm, usually Carl Braun for New York, to throw pebbles to wake the owner, a woman who lived upstairs. “Oh, the Knicks,” she’d say. Then she’d call some local teenagers driving hot rods to pick up the players and drive them the 40 miles or so into Ft. Wayne. Really, the National Basketball Association. The 20, 25 preseason games, insurance, trainers. The Knicks had a trainer, but hardly anyone else. Those first few minutes after an injury are the most important. We had a guy going to dental school who’d come to tape us up before games.

The players, after being stood up by the owners in late-1963, were obviously unhappy. And that’s the background that led into the 1964 NBA All-Star Game, around two months after the owners insulted all of those player representatives. The ‘64 All-Star Game was set to be the first to be nationally broadcast, and was something of a trial balloon for a long-term contract to perpetually broadcast the game nationally. So, not just any old All-Star Game, but a major one for the goal of growing the NBA, which was nowhere near the powerhouse you think of it as today back in the 60s.

As union president, Heinsohn organized a player protest of the All-Star Game, mere hours before it was set to begin. The players weren’t going to play unless the NBA’s owners agreed to recognize the union and start making promises about financial concessions. Just an absolute power move by the nascent NBPA, and one that, predictably, infuriated the NBA’s owners.

Heinsohn gave the Celtics’ owner, Walter Brown, a warning about the boycott, as he felt Brown had always been loyal to his players and didn’t get in the way of the team’s many successes. Brown did not handle it well, especially since the All-Star Game was being played in Boston that year, and the boycott organized by a Boston player who was president of the union the owners obviously wanted nothing to do with. But that didn’t stop Heinsohn nor the NBPA from threatening the boycott.

The warning did eventually get the owners to respond with something besides expletives directed at the players, with the league’s pension committee chief, per Smith, saying they could talk pension in May, after the season. The players felt this was a stalling tactic to ensure the game would go on — remember, they were about two months removed from being promised a chance to talk pension and their other issues in a face-to-face with the owners, who had broken that promise, so the suspicion was more than justified. The All-Star Game was important to the owners, important to the league, and the players knew that. This discussion was going to happen right then and there, or there wouldn’t be a game.

The players from both All-Star teams got together in one tiny Boston locker room, and outside, various owners and coaches screamed at them that they “would be out of basketball” for participating in this boycott, that they’d never work in the league again, that the NBA would never get another chance at national television and that it would all be the players’ fault.

The players held firm, and eventually, the owners agreed that they would draw up a pension agreement to be signed in the morning. This recognition led to the kinds of changes the players wanted elsewhere, too: every team would now have an actual trainer, and there would no longer be Sunday day games after Saturday night games.

While the game’s start was delayed about 20 minutes with this last-minute concession, the public didn’t know why, and no one was about to tell them the game almost didn’t happen at all because the players stood up to the bosses. While an agreement was reached, hurt feelings and anger persisted. Celtics’ owner Brown remained furious at Heinsohn, especially, saying, “I wouldn’t trade him, but if I had a team in Honolulu, I’d ship him there.” Hawaii might sound like a pretty good situation to be in, but remember Heinsohn’s talk about how travel worked for players at this time. He probably would have had to try to swim back to the mainland for road games.

Brown and Heinsohn would make up before the year was out — Heinsohn had always been a favorite of Brown, which is part of why he felt so betrayed in the first place outside of just the usual labor/management relationship — and the NBA had taken one of its first steps towards becoming the giant it is today. And it certainly wasn’t all because of Heinsohn — labor movements, like with the championship basketball teams Heinsohn played on, require a group effort — but he certainly played a major role as union president and willing agitator. And there was nothing the NBA’s players needed at that moment in 1964 more than willing agitators with a plan.

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