A Critique of Tommy Heinsohn

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.” And this is mainly what we 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, 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. They 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. Far fewer of them hold the kinds of grudges Heinsohn accuses them of than he thinks, 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 much as the Celtics color commentator. He just needs to calm down a little bit when it comes to refereeing. 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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