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Tommy Heinsohn, Hall Of Fame Artist

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BOSTON — From 1957 through 1965, Tommy Heinsohn was a very good player on a great basketball team. The Boston Celtics won seven consecutive championships during that stretch.

Heinsohn became Boston’s head coach in 1969, and over the next eight years, the Celtics won five division titles and two more championships. Heinsohn was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1986.

All of that, though, is beside the point. This is the story of Tommy Heinsohn the artist, rather than Heinsohn the basketball player.

Heinsohn recently opened an exhibit featuring his paintings at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown called "Beyond Basketball." Heinsohn, it turns out, is hoping to go "beyond basketball" himself.

"(Art) is what I’ve been doing since I was a little kid," Heinsohn said. "At times basketball kind of took over my life, so that I wasn’t’ able to really do as much as I would have liked to have done."

It might be hard to believe that basketball got in Heinsohn's way, but according to him — it did.

To some extent, basketball continues to get in the way. Heinsohn still broadcasts some of the Celtics games on the local cable channel. But throughout his career as a player, coach and analyst, the artist has found a way to paint.

"The difference between art and sports, is that you know the results and peoples’ opinions within an hour after the game."

Tommy Heinsohn

His current exhibition includes various scenes that presented themselves to Heinsohn as he looked out the windows of hotels in various NBA cities, though lately he seems to have preferred to work in New England.

"This one here is the lighthouse on Pumpkin Island up in Maine," Heinsohn said, introducing one of his paintings. "It was a very overcast day, as you can see, and in fact the whole week we were up there, there wasn’t a sunny day. So I got pretty good at painting moody clouds."

He’s also gotten pretty good at painting lots of other things. Plenty of his work was selling, according to Alison Matthews, who was handling sales at the exhibition.

For Heinsohn the basketball-playing artist, or the painting former pro player, there have always been personal stories. One of his favorites speaks to how he handled the challenge of indulging his passion for painting while he was scoring for the Celtics.

"I wanted to go to the Cochran Galleries down in Washington, a terrific museum," Heinsohn said. "I asked a couple of guys at breakfast if they wanted to go with me and nobody wanted to go. I hopped a cab, took off, and the cab driver dropped me at the wrong entrance, so I had to walk around the building. As I walk around the building, I look down and in the basement they’re having a life class with a nude model standing in the window. So when I went back to the hotel, I talked to my teammates and told them this thing and they all wanted to become art lovers real quick."

According to the artist, the gap between painting and basketball — or sports in general — is not as wide as might be supposed. Heinsohn says that each requires concentration and practice, but what’s most important is that the artist and the athlete must love what they do.

Then, of course, is the matter of confidence, which, as a shooter, Tommy Heinsohn never lacked.

"You gotta learn that if you’re gonna take the last shot of the game, it’s either gonna go in, or it’s not gonna go in, and you’re either gonna be the hero or the goat," Heinsohn said. "So if you think every painting is going to be a masterpiece, all you got to do is harken back to taking the last shot of the game. It becomes immaterial.

"The difference between art and sports is that you know the results and peoples’ opinions within an hour after the game. You may never know (in art.) Look at Van Gogh. During his lifetime, I think he sold one painting, and it was to his brother, so you gotta go along on what you believe. You gotta have a little moxie, too, which is what Van Gogh had. He’s the type of guy that would be willing to take that last shot of the game."

That dramatic metaphor notwithstanding, what seemed to impress most of the visitors to the Arsenal Center gallery on this particular evening was the serenity conveyed by the paintings. Most of the landscapes were devoid of people.

Several of the observers spoke of the delicate rendering of the various greens of the sea, or the play of light and shadow on the sun-bleached wooden buildings Heinsohn had rendered.

"It’s very relaxing, soothing." said Carol Barton, a visitor to the exhibition. "I like it. Oh, it looks like it’s sold. Maybe he’ll do another one."

All the praise — and sales — suggested that most of those in attendance were happy they’d taken advantage of the opportunity to see Tommy Heinsohn’s work. But one couldn’t help wondering if a similar exhibition by a similarly talented and committed artist would have drawn the same level of interest.

Bob Shay, a member of the board of the Arsenal Center for the Arts, said that the artist’s celebrity may have played a role in the board’s decision to mount the exhibition, but certainly wasn't the sole reason it decided to feature Heinsohn.

Shay said that the art the center features "has to meet a certain standard. You go upstairs, and there are artists who aren’t as widely known as Tommy."

For the record, in the Arsenal Center exhibition, there’s not a single painting in which a basketball or a basketball player makes an appearance. Nevertheless, Heinsohn's paintings kept selling and the artist grew more and more pleased.

"That’s good," Heinsohn said, when informed of his success. "This is, you know, for a scholarship fund in my wife’s name for an artist here, and I hope they all sell...but I don't know about that."

And so the fellow known to his Celtics teammates as “Tommy Gun” because he was never, ever shy about hoisting up the last shot -– or the first shot, or any shot in between — embraces modesty regarding his canvases.

He is not only a man of multiple passions, this large and loud champion who paints tranquil scenes and still-lifes, but a fellow who will surprise you as well.

This program aired on October 4, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Bill Littlefield Twitter Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.

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