Robert Parish is a man of exquisite nobility, gentility and grace. And he is exactly what the Basketball Hall of Fame is all about, a hallowed institution to properly honor the legends who never had any interest in ceremony, recognition or self-promotion.
Robert, in the early days, was the most unlikely candidate to ever make it to this grandest of stages. Growing up in the sweltering heat of the slow and small town of Shreveport, Louisiana, Robert was the oldest of Robert Sr. and Ada Parish's 4 children. He is also the only family member to ever pursue a life of sport. Even though Robert did eventually become one of the game's greatest players, his story starts with the game of basketball choosing him -- a quiet, reserved, young boy who was already 6 feet 6 inches in the seventh grade.
Shreveport, Louisiana was a different place in the 1950s and '60s than it is today. It was a classic Southern town -- old money, segregated and resource rich. Segregation and racism plagued the lives of so many of the best and brightest of the day. If it were not for the efforts of Robert's parents and one man, Coleman Kidd, Robert would not be here tonight on this most special occasion of his 50 years.
Robert did not particularly like basketball at the beginning, the game more of a nightmare and an obligation than a passion. Robert used to regularly skip practice in the early days, and it was then that Coleman Kidd would come to the Parish family home -- just a scant 6 blocks from the segregated Union High School -- looking for his wayward protégé. It was in these formative years that Robert started wearing his trademark No. 00. On the day they passed out the uniforms in junior high school, it was the only jersey left.
Things began to change for Robert with his mentor, Coleman, leading the way, but also with the changing times of America in the '60s. Union High School was closed down, and Robert now attended the integrated Woodlawn High School where his coach, Ken Ivy, along with Coleman Kidd, witnessed a remarkable transformation. Robert was now falling in love with the game that he would later dominate.
You couldn't keep him out of the gym. When they finally had to shut down the high school court for the day, Robert would head directly for Hattie Perry Park and its public "Rec Center". Seemingly overnight the extraordinary change was complete. Robert was now a "Star," an instant sensation with enormous promise. By the end of his high school career, that included a Louisiana state championship, he had received more than 400 scholarship offers, yet Robert, always heavily influenced by the loyalty and closeness of his family, decided to stay at home in Shreveport and attend Centenary College, a mere 6 miles from the family home.
It was at Centenary that Robert played for the next major influence in his burgeoning life -- Coach Larry Little. Centenary was an independent school when Robert played there in the mid '70s, with no conference affiliation, requiring the team to travel constantly just to get a schedule. And with only 900 total students, Centenary was the smallest Division I school in the United States. Centenary was also on NCAA probation the entire 4 years Robert was there. Robert, like all the other basketball players at Centenary, had the opportunity to transfer somewhere else because of the sanctions. But when the school president, Dr. Jack Wilkes, promised to honor all of the school's scholarship commitments, Robert's decision to come to Centenary and his commitment to seeing it through was validated.
Playing college basketball in an era that predated cable television, VCRs, and national newspapers, Robert received absolutely no media exposure. Nobody knew who he was -- or what he was doing. Nobody that is, except the pros. Robert was at Centenary 4 years, earning his college degree in education, yet under the rules of the day, was drafted by the pros every year, something that his mom, Ada, would have no part of. The scouts knew then what we have all come to know about young Robert. It didn't hurt that in the opening few weeks of his college career that he had one game of 50 points and 30 rebounds.
Robert loved life at Centenary, a primarily white, Methodist school. Robert lived in the dorms all 4 years, never had a car, simply walking wherever he had to go, just as he had done his whole life. The biggest problem that Robert faced while in college was that Coach Little could not get him to shoot enough. Completely immersed in the college lifestyle, Robert had it all: academics, a very active social life, basketball and family. His parents and siblings attended every home game and many of the road ones as well. Mature beyond his years at even this tender age, Robert was already the even keel, the steadying influence, the leader by example of everything he touched -- even his domination of Centenary's intramural baseball program. Always quiet, dignified and congenial, Robert became the proud leader of something very special, carrying on the brilliant tradition set by his father, Robert Sr.
Upon graduating from Centenary, the NBA's Golden State Warriors drafted Robert with the 8th overall pick in the 1976 Draft. Tonight he becomes the first and only member of the first round of that draft to make it to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Robert joined a Warrior team that was already a world championship-level squad, but the transition was difficult as he now had to sit and watch others play the game he had learned to love. Once again, strong and true Americans selflessly came through for Robert. Most notably, Clifford Ray and Al Attles were constantly there for this young prodigy who was now forced to deal with his own frustrating disappointments and the cruel realities of the professional game.
By the 3rd year of Robert's record-setting NBA career, things were starting to break for him. But the Warriors were now a team in decline and all the great legends and times, sadly a thing of the past.
At the end of Robert's 4th year in the league, he was definitely at a crossroads. Waking one fateful summer day, 23 years ago, Robert learned that he had been traded to the Boston Celtics, the beginning of a 14-year run that, like everything else Robert has done, changed the course of history.
Red Auerbach took a chance that day on someone who others had begun to question and doubt. That chance was as brilliant a move as Red has ever made.
Blossoming in Boston, Robert found a new home, much like the new home that Robert bought for his parents back in Shreveport -- a new and glorious residence out on the lake on Shreveport's West Side. Robert's parents were reluctant to leave the 7-room family safe-haven in the center of town that had served them so well. Mr. and Mrs. Parish stood for continuity and loyalty. Robert was ultimately able to convince Mom and Dad that this would be a good thing, although for years after the move to suburban Twighlight Meadows, Robert Sr. would still get up extra early in the morning and drive back to the old neighborhood so that he could ride to work as a welder for the Riley Beard Manufacturing Company with his lifelong buddies.
New homes usually bring new friends and Boston was no exception -- none more important than our great coach and mentor, K.C. Jones.
But even the best of times have to come to an end someday. So after 14 fantastic years with the Celtics, Robert knew it was time to move on.
Two years in Charlotte; a closing hurrah in Chicago with Phil Jackson and the record was complete. Four NBA championships, a member of the NBA's All-Time Team as one of its 50 Greatest Players ever, 9 All-Star Games and the countless leaguewide and franchise records which includes being the NBA's all-time leader in games played, to say nothing of being in the Top 10 all time in such varied categories as most minutes played, total rebounds, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds and blocked shots.
Robert Parish turned 50 less than a week ago. Tonight we celebrate his spirit, his humanity and his life.
Robert is as fine a person, teammate and player as I have ever known -- on and off the court.
And playing behind him for the Celtics was like following the Brinks truck down a bumpy road after they left their back doors open.
Today Robert is larger than life -- the Renaissance Man living in Charlotte N.C., focusing on the values and personal characteristics that he saw every day in his mom and dad so many years ago in Shreveport: family -- Robert is the proud father of 4 children; neighborhood; community; and continuity. Robert likes to refer to himself as a "simple man," a loner. Don't be fooled by his genuine humility or the calm, stone-face demeanor. Robert is a special human being with incredibly varied interests. As an avid reader, world traveler, movie, sport and entertainment aficionado, Robert's biggest problem is that there is just never enough time in any one day.
Robert was also one of the real innovators and trend setters in NBA history. Always impeccably dressed -- so clean, so pretty, so dignified -- Robert was one of the first to have his own one-word nickname, "Chief". He was at the forefront of the physical fitness and nutrition revolution that has transformed today's game, and his decades-long involvement with the martial arts is an example we can all learn from.
Robert's place in the history of the game is secure. Only 3 big men have won more championships -- Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Mikan.
Some will say that Robert was lucky; that he played on great teams with unbelievable talent. The reality is that we were the lucky ones to be on his team.
As great as it is to be Robert's teammate, it is even better to be his friend.
Bill Walton, who is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, is an NBA analyst for ESPN.