Original Old School: Middle Man

If we look at their entire careers, this year’s starting five for Boston might be one of the best ever. We might one day say that all five of the team’s starters ended up in the Hall of Fame. What we can say with certainty now is that it invokes memories of old Celtics teams. One of the men on many of those Celtics teams was Robert Parish. Recognized as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players, Parish had one of the most decorated careers among big men in NBA history. In SLAM 92, he talked about that long career. –Ed.

parishslam92by Alan Paul

Robert Parish was the least heralded member of the greatest frontline in modern NBA history, and that was fine by him. The quiet, 7-1, 240-pound Louisiana native was happy to let Boston teammates Larry Bird and Kevin McHale soak up the spotlight. But no one who watched Boston get to the Finals five times and win three titles during his 14 years there could overlook the Chief’s contributions.

The Celtics averaged 58 wins during the Big Three’s 12 years together (’80-92), with Parish good for about 17 and 10 each season. He ran the floor remarkably well for his size, and his long-armed, high-arcing jumper was money in the halfcourt. He also played consistently great interior D.

Golden State snagged Parish in the first round of the ’76 Draft after he averaged 21.6 ppg and 16.9 rpg over four years at Centenary College (LA). After four seasons, Parish and the Warriors’ first-round pick were swapped to Boston for a pair of first-round choices in June of 1980; Bird had just finished his rookie season, and McHale was chosen with the Draft pick that came in the deal, meaning the Celtics essentially traded the rights to Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown for a couple of Hall of Famers. In his first season there, Parish averaged 18.9 ppg and 9.5 rpg, started a string of seven straight All-Star appearances and helped the C’s win a ring.

Bird retired in ’92 and McHale in ’93, but the Chief kept on rolling, averaging 11.7 ppg and 7.3 rpg in ’93-94-at age 40-then going on to play two seasons in Charlotte and a final one in Chicago, earning a fourth ring on the Bulls’ mighty ’97 squad. He retired as the NBA leader in both seasons (21) and games played (1,611), and also holds the all-time record for defensive rebounds (10,117). He totaled 23,334 points and was elected to the Hall Of Fame in ’03.

Parish traveled extensively after retiring, then coached one year in the USBL, where he was Coach of the Year for the Maryland Mustangs in ’01. He’s now looking for a spot on an NBA bench where he could share his low post wisdom. Maybe one of his former teammates now running teams (Bird, McHale and Danny Ainge) could pay Chief back for helping them look so good for so long.

SLAM: You were part of one of the greatest frontlines ever. How did you, McHale and Bird complement one another?

RP: Most importantly, we were able to keep our egos in check. My ego was the smallest of the three, so Larry and Kevin could flourish without me competing for minutes or shots. I didn’t care; we were winning. Most seasons I got about 18 a game, and that was fine. And the funny thing is, by not worrying about it, I got more acclaim. I think I still would have been a great player, but I wouldn’t have gotten the same recognition if I played elsewhere.

SLAM: Right-your numbers with the Warriors were about the same as with the Celtics, but had you stayed there your career would have been viewed very differently.

RP: My career would have been a whole lot shorter because I was so tired of losing, I was losing my taste for basketball and I would have quit sooner than later. Going to Boston revitalized my love of the game.

SLAM: You ended your career with the ’97 Bulls, who went 69-13 and some have called the best team ever. How would you compare them to the ’86 Celtics that won 67 games?

RP: The Celtics had an edge. We had a better bench, with Bill Walton and Scott Wedman.

SLAM: How similar was Michael’s role with the Bulls to Larry’s with the Celtics?

RP: Michael was more vocal and animated-a more hands-on leader. Larry led by his actions more than words. But each of their leaderships went completely unchallenged.

SLAM: What do you think was the biggest misconception of you?

RP: That I didn’t care and I’m aloof. I’m pretty even-keeled and try to be indifferent to ups and downs, so people got the idea that I didn’t care if we won or lost. Nothing could be further from the truth. But that middle ground is what allowed me to remain consistent game after game, year after year.

SLAM: You had quite a rivalry with Bill Laimbeer, eventually throwing a punch at him in Game 4 of the ’87 East finals, which got you suspended. Did he goad you into that?

RP: Probably. I threw the punch because I felt he was trying to hurt me with an elbow up around my throat area. I don’t mind rough play, but I have a problem with [people] trying to hurt me. That was the difference with Laimbeer-he would try to hurt you. No one liked to play against him, but you had to respect his drive and intensity as a ballplayer, and you would love him on your team. He was willing to take the punishment and get the job done as not many players are, especially on the defensive end, where no one gives you credit. The whole Pistons team bought into their “bad boy” rap. They were very physical, well-coached and disciplined and that system worked for them. They had two great leaders in Isiah and Joe D and a bunch of solid role players, with guys like Rodman, Mahorn, Laimbeer and Salley.

SLAM: Danny Ainge was Boston’s Laimbeer.

RP: [Laughs] Right. They were both the type of player you wanted to throw a punch at all the time. They were an itch you could not scratch. Danny was a fighter and competitor who played the game with a lot of passion, was very annoying on defense and was a good offensive ball player, solid on the perimeter.

SLAM: What did Bill Walton bring in ’85?

RP: He was the best backup I ever had and a great friend. He was one of the best centers to ever play, limited only by injuries. When he came to Boston, he had one last chance and he took advantage. When I joined the Celtics, our practices were like games in terms of intensity. But once Bill joined, it really ramped up. On that ’86 team, our second unit was sometimes better than the first, so practice every day was like playoff basketball. We had depth at every position, with Scott Wedman going against Larry, DJ [Dennis Johnson] going against Danny and me against Bill.

SLAM: Who do you think were some of the most underrated players you played against?

RP: Bernard King, Andrew Toney, Dominique, Alex English, World B. Free, Maurice Cheeks and Dennis Johnson. I don’t think any of those guys are in the Hall, but they should be.

SLAM: A lot of people forget that Tiny Archibald was the point guard on the Celts’ ’81 title team. What was his role?

RP: He was the best point guard I ever played with, period. I think he’s the best small man to ever play. They give that title to Isiah Thomas, but even in the twilight of his career, Tiny was unstoppable. He got the short end of the stick and should have been given a contract and finished his career with us.

SLAM: Then Dennis Johnson came in.

RP: Dennis was one of the most underrated players of our era, but he was more of an off guard, though he played the point well. He was also one of the best defensive players I ever saw. They always knocked his outside shooting, but DJ found a way to get it done. He hit a lot of big shots. People forget how good DJ was in Seattle and Phoenix, when he was at his best. He had to tone his game down when he came to the Celtics because of Larry and Kevin, and he did that as well.

SLAM: You also played with Reggie Lewis, who died in ’93, just as he was coming into his own. How high was his skill level?

RP: Very high. His was an untapped talent and it’s a shame his career was cut short. He and Len Bias were the cornerstones of the Celtics’ future and they both died way too young.

SLAM: KC Jones seemed so laid back as a coach and it was held against him. Did you feel that he didn’t get his due as a coach, despite winning two titles?

RP: Yeah, and he wasn’t so laid back. People acted like he just rolled out the balls, but KC allowed us to have input in terms of the offense and defense. He didn’t always use our ideas, but he let us offer them, whereas Bill Fitch [who preceded Jones] didn’t. You had to be mentally and physically tough to play for Bill. His attitude was, “You’re supposed to play hard and win. I’m not going to congratulate you for that.” He instilled a toughness and arrogance in us because that’s the way he was. He was never satisfied, and that pushed us and helped us establish our identity, but you can only keep that up for so long. Then KC came in and was more of a pat-you-on-the-back type, which is what we needed then, as a more veteran team.