Heinsohn will handle the color and Dick Stockton the play-by-play at 9 tonight on CBS (Channel 10) when the fifth game of the finals is played at the Summit in Houston. Boston, leading three games to one in the best-of-seven championship round, can wrap up the title tonight.
Belief is still widespread that Julius Erving, the Sixers' peerless "Dr. J," can have the CBS analyst's job if he wants it when he retires as expected after next season. But even though Heinsohn can't match Dr. J's prominence and popularity, his new contract seems eminently deserved. He is a towering improvement over his predecessor, Bill Russell, whose total inadequacy on the air has been matched in recent network history only by ex-jockey Eddie Arcaro's failure as an ABC horse-racing analyst.
Heinsohn, 50, was both a great player, helping the Celtics win eight titles when he played forward in 1956-1965, and a successful coach, guiding the Celts to two more titles in 1974 and 1976. He joined CBS for the 1983-1984 season after earlier TV work for a Boston station, WLVI, and the big cable channel Home Box Office.
CBS asked Heinsohn to supply more inside information than Russell, who seldom deigned to disclose detail. "The idea was to get more into strategy," Heinsohn said in a telephone interview.
"It requires days of work," he said. "What I do is practically like a coach. I get a scouting report on each team and then try to imagine what I'd do if I were coaching each team. After I develop ideas, I check them with the coaches.
"By the night before the game," Heinsohn continued, "I have a good idea of match-ups and who they might attack. Before, they (CBS) were doing what I call 'high fliers': spectacular players.
"Now the pictures (the replays Heinsohn analyzes) have a meaning," he concluded. "I believe a basketball game is like a novel: There's characters, a plot and a subplot."
In the games so far, Heinsohn has utilized two pieces of special equipment: the chalkboard and a type of animation using colored disks.
Heinsohn said the chalkboard, first used on CBS pro football telecasts, is a "very delicate machine. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. It's an actual TV monitor. There is a pencil on it, and you just draw right over the top of this plastic screen as the picture is showing."
Drawing circles around players and arrows to show which way they cut and run, Heinsohn breaks down plays with clarity. The chalkboard can't be used at any and all times, since Heinsohn needs a preliminary look - which he can get during a commercial break - at the play to be illustrated. After that helpful peek, he knows where to put his pencil.
The animation with colored disks was used for the first time in the playoffs during Tuesday's fourth game. With a disk representing each player, Heinsohn showed with illuminating simplicity how Boston was triple-teaming Houston's powerful center, Akeem Olajuwon.
There was a disk behind him representing Boston forward Kevin McHale. To Olajuwon's right, a disk representing Boston forward Larry Bird blocked Akeem's turn toward the baseline. To his left, another disk denoting Boston guard Danny Ainge interfered with Olajuwon's course toward the lane. Perfect pieces for Heinsohn's purpose: "To show that it's not just a hodgepodge out there, that there's a lot of design to it."
Although Boston now holds a commanding and possibly insurmountable advantage in the championship series, Heinsohn has no doubt that Houston will be back in the future. Asked if he thought the Rockets had replaced the Lakers as the top team in the NBA's western half, he replied, "I think so.
"They're younger," he pointed out. "I think the Lakers have probably run their course."