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Still Going Strong
Alexander Wolff
March 11, 1991
At 37, Robert Parish is the oldest player in the NBA—and he's playing better than ever
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March 11, 1991

Still Going Strong

At 37, Robert Parish is the oldest player in the NBA—and he's playing better than ever

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Parish took Ray's words to Boston, where the Warriors sent him in 1980 in a deal that Celtics president Red Auerbach actually said would "help both teams." (That trade—Parish and a draft pick that became Kevin McHale to the Celtics for two draft choices that became Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown—was voted, in a recent survey of NBA general managers, the most boneheaded in the history of the league.) In the crucible of his first Boston training camp, a fortnight that would mark the difference between early retirement and likely Hall of Fame enshrinement, Parish was mercilessly ridden by coach Bill Fitch. "No matter what I did, it wasn't enough," Parish says. "Not that I was in the best shape. But I was his whipping boy, along with Cedric Maxwell. All you heard was 'Parish and Maxwell' all through training camp. It was like being in an echo chamber."

Today, Fitch would not be Parish's first choice for a dinner companion. But Parish soon resolved the uncertainty about his role that had dogged him at Golden State. The Celtics expected him to run, rebound and block shots; there were others to take care of the rest. "It rejuvenated me," he says. "I wasn't 20 feet from the basket anymore. I was down on the block where I should have been all along, getting follow-ups and tip-ins. I realized I didn't have to score 25 points and get 15 rebounds. I could, but I didn't have to."

And so Parish went about, as Ray says, "formulating his persona as the Chief." Maxwell had come up with the nickname, after Chief Bromden, the huge and silent playground ringer in the 1975 film One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Parish didn't like the name at first. He had always been self-conscious about his height-ashamed when his father, Robert Sr., would wonder aloud why his son needed a new pair of pants so soon; guilty when his mother, Ada, had to take another job so Robert Jr. could have his clothes specially tailored. But on this most intensely scrutinized and followed of NBA teams, Parish happily let the others—the Maxwells, the McHales, the M.L. Carrs and the Larry Birds—be the Randle P. McMurphys of the asylum. As for being nicknamed the Chief: "Now I've grown into it," says Parish. "I've developed the personality to go with the title."

"Robert wanted to be a great center," Ray says. "He just didn't know how to go about it." Now, after a decade, the Celtics have won enough that people are finally recognizing one of the reasons why.

Paige's Rule No. 2: If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.

And No. 3: Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.

Of No. 2, Parish says, "I prefer to take a couple of Alka-Seltzers."

As for No. 3, Parish has limbs long enough for jangling, but he has always used more carefully considered movements. He had played in college during those killjoy years in the 1970s when the dunk was outlawed. As a result, he had to develop an orthodox repertoire of shots, most of which he uses at least once during an NBA game today. On balance, however, he believes not being able to dunk retarded his development. "You've got to be ferocious to dunk," he says, "and that would have helped me at the professional level. It would have made me more forceful, more dominant."

What Parish does have from college is his jumper, the one that involves lifting his arms impossibly high, as if by hydraulics, and then squeezing off a shot that arches preposterously high. Kidd, noticing the flat trajectory of sixth-grader Parish's shot, held a long-handled push broom aloft and thus midwifed the Robert Rainbow. "He's probably the best medium-range shooting big man in the history of the game," says Bill Walton, who backed Parish up during the Celtics' 1986 championship season.

In the low post Parish has two staples, one for each side of the lane. From the right block, he favors a sudden spin along the baseline that usually ends with a dunk. From the left, he'll take a righthanded sally through the lane and then unfurl a classic, if not entirely seamless, hook. Paige-like, he mixes up these moves with his jumper—three simple things: fastball, curve, changeup. "If you only have one bread-and-butter play to go to, it's difficult, because everybody's got the book on you," Parish says. "And everybody knows I've got a turnaround jumper. So I try not to be too predictable."

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