WALTHAM, Mass. — In the dark days of the Celtics franchise in the mid-1990s, Tommy Heinsohn used to celebrate big plays by reserve forward Walter McCarty by declaring, "I love Walter!"
Chances are Heinsohn has never watched a Philadelphia 76ers game and spontaneously yelled, "I love Philly!"
The Celtics open their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Sixers on Saturday at the TD Garden, and a storm may already be building in the belly of the boisterous Hall of Fame forward and Celtics TV personality. Few teams bring out Heinsohn's ire like Philadelphia, a city with which he has a long history as a player and as a coach.
"Every time Tommy's around and you mention Philadelphia, the hatred comes out," Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said Friday. "I think with Tommy, of all the teams, this is the one he wants to beat the most all the time. Even regular-season games, when you talk to Tommy on the plane, this is his target team, so I'm sure he'll be nice and calm when he's covering the games."
One of the greatest games of Heinsohn's career was Game 6 of the 1960 Eastern Conference Finals against the Philadelphia Warriors, who moved to San Francisco in 1962. Heinsohn scored 22 points in the chippy, decisive game, sending the Celtics to the NBA Finals against the St. Louis Hawks for the second of what would be eight straight league championships. On Celtics TV broadcasts, the color announcer gets even more fired up than usual when the opponent is from Philadelphia.
Rivers was only a spectator to the Celtics' and Sixers' epic battles in the 1980s, but he said Heinsohn keeps him informed on the rivalry, even if the Sixers franchise only called the City of Brotherly Love home for the final two years of Heinsohn's playing career. What matters in Heinsohn's eyes simply may be that the Sixers are from Philly, and that may be even worse than being from New York.
"He hates New York, too," Rivers said. "Maybe Tommy just hates the opponent. And he loves the refs."
The NBA foolishly plans to have refs present at every game in the series, with a team from Philadelphia as the opponent and Heinsohn in attendance. That is quite the trifecta.