The joke was on Robert Parish. He believed what he heard in those Boston Celtics locker room bitch sessions after yet another practice for yet another game in yet another season.� "When I'm done with basketball, you'll never see me again," one Celtic would declare. "I'll never show up at another NBA arena. I'll never watch another NBA game on television."� "I'll never touch another basketball," someone else would promise. "When you see the last of me, you'll see the last of me." � The speakers would change on any given day from Kevin McHale to Danny Ainge to Cedric Maxwell to Dennis Johnson to M.L. Carr to Bill Walton, but the sentiments always would be the same. Basketball would be a dead issue when their playing careers were finished. Who needed the aggravation? Even Larry Bird would talk about how he would walk away from the sport that was making them all famous and rich, the door closing behind him, never to be reopened. The future would be a tropical island someplace, a beach chair and a tall drink with a parasol in it.
"You think about it now, it sounds so silly," says Parish, who won three NBA championships playing for Boston from 1980-81 through '93-94. "Here we were, complaining about a job where you had to work two hours a day. Not only did you have to work only two hours a day, but you were paid a lot of money and everybody loved you and gave you things. It was truly silly to complain, but we did. Everybody did."
Financial security was the ticket to an endless summer. That was the thought. Sure, some Celtics old-timers had come back and taken NBA jobs in coaching or broadcasting or management—Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn, K. C. Jones and even Bill Russell—but they probably needed a paycheck. With salaries higher, the modern player could afford to live the second half of his life without the arenas and the angry crowds and the endless travel.
Parish bought the concept. Tall, implacable, nicknamed the Chief by Maxwell for his resemblance to the silent, contemplative Native American who chronicles the madness in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Parish more than any other Celtic seemed as if he would have no need for basketball. He stayed above it all, rolling through nail-biters and blowouts, congratulations and criticism with the same stoic grace. The game simply was the game. He didn't have an ego that needed to be walked and petted and put on display.
"It's good that I didn't, too," he says. "That's why I fit on that team. If I had been a guy who needed the ball, needed the touches, it wouldn't have worked. We had a lot of guys who needed the touches. I just went out there and played. It's funny, when Kevin or Larry had a bad night, the stories always were that Kevin or Larry had a bad night. When I had a bad night, it always was, What's wrong with Robert? The stories would run all week. Nobody ever realized that with Kevin or Larry, they could shoot themselves out of a slump the next night. It would take longer for me because I was only getting nine touches a game. Slumps are mechanics. It takes longer to adjust your mechanics when you're not shooting."
Parish was a classic NBA big man, 7'1", 230 pounds, nudged into the sport because of his size. Spotted by Coleman Kidd, the coach at Union Junior High in Shreveport, La., Parish was 6'5" in seventh grade and clumsy with his new body, hitting his head on doorways, knocking over anything he touched because he couldn't fathom the length of his arms. His first impression of basketball was that it was torture. Kidd had to go to Parish's house every morning for the first three months, drag him to scrimmages that were held before the first class at school. Parish was terrible. He couldn't dribble, pass or rebound. Other students came early to watch the scrimmages and laugh at him. "It took me a year before I made a layup," he says. "It was a great moment. I was in eighth grade. I remember feeling very good about myself. I could make a layup."
By the end of high school he had made so many layups that more than 300 colleges wanted him. He chose Centenary in Shreveport because he wanted to be close to his infant daughters, Tomika and LaToya. Taken with the No. 8 pick by the going-nowhere Golden State Warriors in the 1976 draft, he received a great break after his fourth season when he was dealt to the Celtics.
Put between Bird and McHale, he helped form the best frontcourt in NBA history. In 13 seasons that threesome went to the playoffs 13 times, won the Atlantic Division nine times, reached the Finals five times and won the championship three times. Parish was an All-Star nine times.
The virtues of unselfishness and hard work were visible every night. "We came to play, no matter who we were playing," Parish says. "I'm interested in a lot of these teams today that think they are pretty good. They go out and lose to the underachievers. We never lost to the underachievers. We punished them. Don't guys today understand? That's when you pad your stats, against the underachieves."
When injury more than age broke up the lineup—Bird leaving in 1992 with an aching back, McHale in '93 with a bad back and ankle—Parish kept rolling. His back ached sometimes, but his body held together. He left Boston as a free agent after the '93-94 season, playing with the Charlotte Hornets for two years, then the Chicago Bulls in '96-97, earning a fourth championship in his final season. When he retired, he had played more years (21) and in more games (1,611) than any NBA player.