By Gail McCarthy
Tommy Heinsohn, a key player in the historic Boston Celtics dynasty, has developed another talent he possessed as child, trading in a basketball for a paint brush.
And this weekend, he's putting that talent on display at The Mosher Gallery in Rockport.
A plein air painter for more than 30 years, Heinsohn's interest in art began to emerge when he was a student in Catholic grammar schools in Union City, N.J.
"I used to be the one to draw the Christmas scenes in colored chalk on the blackboard for the nuns," Heinsohn said in a phone interview with the Times.
In high school, he did some drawings for the yearbook and even helped a nun taking a master's course in biology at Fordham by drawing amoebas for her. In the 1950s, at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester where he was studying business and economics, one Jesuit priest took note of a drawing Heinsohn did of Joe Welch, who was on the cover of Life magazine because of his rebuff of Sen. Joseph McCarthy during a hearing on Communists.
"The priest, who was the head of the art department that was being newly formed, convinced me to put the drawing in the college show, and he convinced me to take an art class," recalled Heinsohn. "I went for three weeks but I had to drop out because it conflicted with why I was there — to play basketball."
His talent on the court took precedence for the budding star, who was drafted by the Celtics in 1956. His career then ignited, starting with his 1957 selection as NBA Rookie of the Year.
He was part of the Celtics' core that won eight NBA titles, and earned recognition as an All-Star six times. And after a 9-year tenure, he retired as a player in 1965. He went on to coach the Celtics, under which the team won two more world championships.
Standing 6-foot-7, Heinsohn is still an all-star with fellow athletes. In retirement, however, he has found more time to pursue painting, although he works during the season as a broadcaster and announcer.
He has a connection to Cape Ann that goes back decades and he has become friends with several noted Cape Ann artists, one whom is hosting a show for Heinsohn on Sunday at The Mosher Gallery in Rockport.
Heinsohn, a landscape painter, first learned about the region's rich artistic heritage in 1978 from the staff of an art store he frequented on Newbury Street in Boston. They suggested he visit the historic Rockport Art Association. Soon after, he signed up for a workshop with Ted Goerschner.
"After my coaching career, I really started drawing more in my travels (as a sports commentator)," he said, "and I started to compose scenes that were outside of the hotel windows throughout the NBA season."
While on the road with the Celtics these days, he packs away his watercolors and sketchbook.
"I would do something in art every single day for 10 minutes. And if I wasn't drawing, I was reading something," he said. "During my playing career I bought all kinds of how-to-paint books. I have a library of every guy who made a how-to book."
Heinsohn also visited museums at every opportunity in a further exercise of the creative right brain.
When he retired as a Celtics in 1965, he took his first formal art course at the Museum School in Boston with George Dergalis.
Heinsohn's interest in composition and outdoor painting grew and grew. He took workshops with some of Cape Ann's best teachers, including Charles Movalli and David Curtis. He recalled fondly the time when Goerschner took Heinsohn to meet Emile Gruppe (1896-1978), a noted American artist who established The Gloucester School of Painting which thrived from 1940 to 1970.
Like artists from centuries ago, Heinsohn, too, is captivated by Cape Ann's beauty.
"You can see why artists would come from all over," he said. "Within 10 miles, an artist can find every landscape scene you would think of painting, from villages to boats and harbors and lighthouses. There is the woods and quarries, and both urban and rural scenes, in all seasons.
"It has everything you would ever think of painting staring you right in the face," he added. "Then you can go to Bass Rocks where there is the raw beauty of the ocean and rocks."
In fact, Heinsohn summered in Gloucester for about 20 years, right above Stage Fort Park. And over the years, Heinsohn amassed a number of paintings.
"My late wife was an interior designer and she would run a show to get paintings out of the way," he said. "Painting is like an itch — you got to do it."
Heinsohn often travels with local artists to various New England sites as well as local spots. Just a few weeks ago, he was seated on the rocks in Rockport at the ocean's edge at The Headlands. Next month, he will be among the painters taking a workshop with Curtis.
Curtis said the basketball star is an accomplished painter. "He works so hard at it. He has shown me his sketchbooks which are filled with drawings," he said. "He is very dedicated and very humble about his art."
"I want to keep learning," Heinsohn said.
Part of that learning is by observation of fellow artists such as Donald Mosher and Tom Nicholas.
"When we go on trips, I watch them paint the first day and then I'd paint myself. Just watching them is helpful in seeing their decision-making," he said.
Mosher met Heinsohn decades ago when they got to talking in Mosher's Main Street gallery in Rockport.
"I got juried into a show at the North Shore Arts Association and he saw my painting and he invited me on a painting trip," recalled Heinsohn. "One time in the winter, I went out with Don and Tom Nicholas and I froze my feet off. Tom was wading through the snow up to his hips. But it's hard to find thermal gear in my size."
The fellow artists enjoy painting with Heinsohn.
"He makes the painting trips a lot of fun with a million stories," Mosher said. "I've seen his paintings evolve over the past 10 years from his hard work to develop his craft. In addition to oils, he does beautiful watercolors. He's just a great guy."
Nicholas added: "We usually have a lot of laughs when we're out there."
Heinsohn understands how many people are intrigued that such a tall man with his athletic history is also a creative spirit.
"But I've participated in shows with athletes as artists," he said, referring to a West Virginia museum exhibition. "There was artwork from every sport, even with guys who were in the Olympics."
He was once part of a two-man show with Don Hasselbeck, a former New England Patriot tight end, at a sports art gallery, called the Spectrum, on 57th Street in New York.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3445, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
What and who: An exhibit of New England scenes painted by Boston Celtics legend Tom Heinsohn.
Where: The Mosher Gallery, 13 Main St. in Rockport.
When: A meet-the-artist reception will be held Sunday, June 26, from 4 to 6 p.m., in conjunction with the show's opening.