Tom Heinsohn, en route to becoming an all-American at Holy Cross, left a memorable impression on Yale when he tallied 44 points against the Bulldogs

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Tommy Heinsohn had a monster game against Yale with 44 points, then set the school scoring record later that season. (Photo: Holy Cross Newsroom)

By Joel Alderman

Tom Heinsohn, Hall of Fame basketball star and everybody’s all-American, who died recently (Nov. 9, 2020) made a name for himself even before he entered the NBA. As a collegian at Holy Cross he left his mark just about everywhere he played, and few, if any, of his outings were more impressive than his performance at Yale.

He knocked down 44 points, which is still the most ever registered against the Bulldogs at home. (Rick Barry of Miami scored 45 later that month in the Hurricane Classic for the all-time high against the Bulldogs.) Heinsohn’s 44 was at the time the second-highest total ever achieved by a Crusader against any opponent. And he made it look easy.

box score of Yale Holy Cross game Tommy Heinsohn scored 44 points

Click to enlarge.

It was on December 10, 1955, a Saturday night. The sellout crowd in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium of close to 3,200 watched in awe as Tommy scored baskets “as easily as a man flipping pebbles into a fishpond,” to quote Bill Newell in the Hartford Courant.

Hundreds were turned away starting an hour before the 8:30 tipoff. The visitors were attired in their flashy purple road jerseys with large numbers. Their brilliant 6’ 7” pivot man scored at will, shooting from inside and out and controlled both backboards with his rebounding.

He nearly topped Palazzi for most points by a Crusader

Heinsohn’s 44 points ranked just behind what was then the all-time Holy Cross individual scoring record of 47 established by Togo Palazzi against Brown in 1953.

Palazzi was named after Admiral Tōgō Heihachiro who was one of Japan’s greatest naval heroes in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. Togo was also a great HC player.

Heinsohn tallied on every conceivable kind of shot and almost single-handedly broke the back of a Yale team that was coming off a road win against Connecticut.

Johnny Lee also on the floor

Yale had its own future all-American that night, Johnny Lee, to be honored in 1996 by the renaming of the wing within the Payne Whitney Gym in which this game took place. Instead of simply the Amphitheater, it is now known as the “John J. Lee Amphitheater,” so named in 1996. Lee died in 2001.

Lee had 24 points, but they were overshadowed by what Heinsohn did. Keep in mind that this took place before the introduction of the 3-point basket. The Crusaders were directed by first-year coach Roy Leenig.

Yale stayed in contention for the first 15 minutes and led 7-6 after five. It remained close with the Purple in front 20-18 at the 10-minute mark, and 32-30 with 15 minutes gone.

Heinsohn and Joe Liebler brought it up to 36-30 before Ed Robinson cut the Yale deficit to two points. From then on it became the Tom Heinsohn show.

Yale’s coach sure Heinsohn was headed for greatness

Heinsohn at Holy Cross. (Holy Cross Magazine)

A few days later Yale coach Howard Hobson, had an open conversation with the Bulldogs’ hockey coach, Murray Murdoch, at a media gathering. As related by Bob Wheeler in the Yale Daily News, Murdoch, after talking about his ice team, said “This fellow Heinsohn must be something.”

To which Hobby replied, “Oh, he sure is, Murray, he is undoubtedly one of the finest players in the country, a first-team all-American without any question. Take Saturday’s game, for instance. It wasn’t just the fact that he scored 44 points against us; it was also his 20 rebounds, his fine floor work, and his adequate defensive ability…and he hit on 51% of his shots.

“We needed a superb game to beat them,” continued Hobson. “As it was, they had an unusually good night while we had only a fair one.”

The Holy Cross record lasted only until March 1, 1956, when it was bettered by Heinsohn himself. He put in 51 while beating Boston College (117-75) in the last game before the NCAA Tournament. The Crusaders lost their first-round game in the later named Big Dance to Temple, 74-72, ending in a near riot when Heinsohn’s basket at the buzzer and an apparent foul on the play did not count.

But that is another Heinsohn story, which we will tell later.

Many tributes on social media

Getting back to his passing, an abundance of memorial comments has been generated on social media, none more touching than from Bill Russell, which we shall now leave you with.

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