He almost pulled it off. He almost slipped through his brilliant career without a scratch and came close to walking away from the NBA with his reputation intact, waving one last time to the weepy-eyed fans, living a lie to the end.
Robert Parish hopes to play one more season with the Charlotte Hornets, but things won't be the same for the venerable Chief, who turns 42 in August. A light has been shined on his dark side, and it probably would be a good thing if we all just got up off our knees now. After his ex-wife's description of how Parish beat her (page 62), it doesn't matter how many points he has scored or games he has played.
Our hero, it turns out, is the worst kind of coward. According to Nancy Saad, Parish abused her for years, beginning when they were dating in 1981 and culminating in a severe beating during the '87 NBA playoffs that left her hospitalized with head injuries for a week. She draws a detailed picture of Parish that could not be more disparate from the public perception of the future Hall of Famer, and it leaves us wondering how, in this age of a minicam on every corner, we could have been so blind. Maybe the young tough guys in the press box are not as far removed from the old ink-stained lushes who played cards with their heroes on the midnight train to Chicago as we would like to believe.
Parish was respected, inside the league and out, for his restrained demeanor. He rarely spoke ill of teammates, coaches or even officials, and aside from a memorable sucker punch at Detroit Piston center Bill Laimbeer in the 1987 playoffs, public outbursts during his career totaled zero.
Unfortunately, the 14-year Boston Celtic veteran didn't exhibit the same self-control at home. Saad, 5'9", says her 7'1", 230-pound ex-husband once kicked her down a flight of stairs when she was eight months pregnant. Clearly, Parish didn't waste his best moves on the basketball court. He saved them for his few TV commercials and interviews, where he succeeded in fooling most of the people all of the time.
There were members of the media who had heard rumors that Parish battered Saad, but he was never exposed. True, until recently Saad had never spoken publicly about the abuse, but she claims her phone didn't exactly ring off the hook as journalists tried to check out what they'd heard. "I kept wondering when someone would call," she says. Unlike Parish, Saad had a history of emotional outbursts in public, including memorable verbal assaults on reporters, referees and opponents. She was casually dismissed as a crazy woman by most of the Boston media, including this alleged hard guy who went soft on the Chief. I was there. I was fooled. In five years at the Boston Herald, I wrote more than a couple of columns in praise of Parish, the ageless wonder, as graceful off the court as on. I was a slow-footed dupe, oblivious to the real Parish and therefore part of the lie.
In the winter of 1990-91, at the age of 37, Parish was in the midst of perhaps the most remarkable season of his career, and in detailing his resurgence, Boston reporters would often make lighthearted mention of his divorce, finalized in September 1990. The implication was clear: good for the Chief. He finally got rid of her, as if she'd been an extra 10 pounds around the waist. Now look how happy he is.
Parish left Boston a year ago, but the Celtics don't let go of the past easily. Parish's 00 is the next Boston uniform number likely to be retired. Last season there were Celtic fans who felt that Reggie Lewis, if indeed cocaine had been a factor in his death, did not deserve to have his number retired. How do they feel about Parish? Can abusing your body with drugs be worse than abusing your spouse?
Of course, even if they saw the other side of Parish, some fans would continue to cheer the Chief as long as he could bury the 12-foot turnaround. Even after the secret life of O.J. Simpson was laid out, there remain vocal cretins who believe domestic abuse is a personal matter, no different from, say, religion or one's choice of bedroom carpet. To them, wife beating is no different from wife cheating. We'll boo the drug user and the malingerer and the pitcher who can't keep his fastball down. The wife beater? Hey, what business is that of ours?
These same fans invariably want to know why women don't just leave, when they should ask: Why don't their husbands just stop hitting them? These fans wait for an explanation from their hero, as if there can be a good reason to punch your wife.