M.L. Carr enjoys a good laugh and he can't hide a hearty chuckle when
he's asked to reminisce about Robert Parish's first days in Boston.
Back then, in the fall of 1980, Parish was almost universally regarded
as an underachieving slug, having played four unremarkable seasons for the
Golden State Warriors. Golden State had gotten so disenchanted with Parish that
it made a trade so it could have Joe Barry Carroll instead.
In today's NBA, the Robert Parish of 1980 would be seen in the same
light as a hybrid of the 2002-03 Michael Olowokandi and Vin Baker. The notion
that Parish would be named as one of the top 50 players in NBA history, or
inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame some 23 years later was as
implausible as it was laughable.
The coach of the Celtics at the time was Bill Fitch. He ran Parish
relentlessly. He ran over Parish relentlessly. In one exhibition game, Fitch
kept Parish in the game as the man who would be soon known as The Chief kept
piling up foul after foul.
As Carr recalled, "Bill kept calling him a big stiff. Well, that big stiff
went on to become a Hall of Famer.''
That big stiff went to play 17 more seasons in the NBA, 21 in total, and no one
has played in more games. He won three championships with the Celtics in the
1980s, including that very first season in Boston, when he averaged 18.9 points
and 9.5 rebounds a game. He added a fourth ring as an occasional contributor
and full-time guru on the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls, before retiring.
In 14 seasons with the Celtics, he blocked a franchise best 1,703 shots.
(Remember, blocked shots were not kept during Bill Russell's defensive reign of
terror in the 1950s and 1960s.) On the floor, he was a picture of understated
stoicism, rarely changing expression, unless Bill Laimbeer got in his face
one too many times.
"There was no showmanship to Robert's game,'' said his former Celtics teammate
Bill Walton, whom Parish chose to be his Hall of Fame presenter at the
induction ceremony. (One Hall of Famer must be selected as a presenter.)
"There was the rebounding. There was the defense. There was the scoring. There
was the setting of screens. There was the way he ran the floor. How many
centers in today's NBA do any of that?''
Answer: not many, because there aren't that many centers these days, not to
mention any teams that even consider the notion of running. The big stiff who
couldn't run became one of the best running centers of all time, a player who
was more than content to subordinate his game and his skills for the betterment
of the team. Maybe that's easy to say when you've got Larry Bird and Kevin
McHale as frontline teammates. But sometimes it's easier said than done.
"He was always understated,'' said former Celtic Dee Brown. "When they talk
about the Big Three, it's always Larry, Kevin and Robert. He's going into the
Hall the same way he played -- quietly. He just did his job. And he played
against all those tough centers, guys like Moses (Malone) and Patrick (Ewing)
and he never complained.''
And he rarely missed games. Parish was one of the most durable players of his
time; in his 14 years in Boston, he never missed more than eight games in any
McHale called Parish the most dependable teammate he ever had. "He was there
for every practice,'' McHale said. "For every game. He very seldom missed
anything, including assignments on the floor. His longevity is unbelievable,
but his dependability was just as impressive.''
Of the Big Three, Parish is the one who lasted the longest, staying relatively
injury free throughout his career. He embraced the martial arts before it
became a fad, helping him with his timing and hand-eye coordination. As he
explained it then, "the quicker person was getting the rebounds I thought I
should be getting.'' He paid attention to what he ate and, midway during his
years with the Celtics, gave up wine because he felt it slowed him down. He was
a notoriously quick healer.
And, over his first eight years in Boston, he played, unknowingly, with a right
elbow that had only 80 percent extension.
The Hall of Fame is honoring Parish for his 21 seasons in the NBA. But it also
could have considered his achievements in college, not that anyone knows, cares
or remembers. The NCAA certainly wouldn't vouch for him; it placed Parish's
alma mater, Centenary College in Shreveport, La., on probation soon after
Parish arrived there in 1972 because it had illegally converted Parish's test
scores. (As one of the top high schoolers in the country, Parish was being watched by the NCAA like a hawk. And Centenary was not your big time program. It would have
been like Carmelo Anthony deciding to play for Rider for a year.)
The school remained on probation throughout Parish's four years there and you
won't find his stats in any NCAA record book. For the record, he averaged 21.6
points and 16.9 rebounds a game at Centenary, including a monstrous 24.8 points
and 18 rebounds a game as a senior. He had many chances to transfer, but stayed
right where he was. The Sporting News saw through it all and named him a first-
team All-American as a senior.
Parish's final days in Boston did not go well. The team started to buckle with
the retirements of Bird (in 1992) and McHale (1993.) Reggie Lewis collapsed and
died in 1993. Parish came under fire on several fronts for his role in a very
ugly, messy, domestic violence situation with his ex-wife. His final season
with the Celtics, 1993-94, the team missed the playoffs -- the only time that
happened when he was there -- and he became a salary cap casualty. He went on to
Charlotte. The Celtics used his salary cap slot to sign Dominique Wilkins.
The Celtics honored Parish a couple of years ago and retired his number. The
Hall of Fame, which asks voters to vote on basketball merit only, came calling
this year, the first year Parish was eligible. As an integral part of what may
be the most dominating frontcourt in NBA history, Parish was a no-brainer. The
fact that he also was the Longevity Chief made it, to coin a term, a slam-dunk.
The big stiff is right where he should be.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.