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It's No Joke: This Card Is An Ace
Alexander Wolff
December 19, 1983
Kevin McHale often seems to play without a full deck, but he's a sixth man worthy of the Celtic tradition
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December 19, 1983

It's No Joke: This Card Is An Ace

Kevin McHale often seems to play without a full deck, but he's a sixth man worthy of the Celtic tradition

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Overburden is what miners call the topsoil you have to burrow through to get at taconite. You needn't clear much overburden to get at McHale. His parents keep a wall of their home covered with his trophies; dominating it is a mounted 11�-pound walleye pike. "It's his most important trophy," says his mother, Josephine.

McHale, 26, even looks like he just wandered out of adolescence. His mien is boyish, and so is his all-elbows-and-knee-caps build. "When he came to school here he was just a long-legged, gangly kid," says Saunders. "He was barrel-chested, but knock-kneed. He looked like Herman Munster. Neither of his parents is tall [his dad is 5'10", his mom 5'6"]. Maybe they put him together in a back room."

More likely, he was The Thing That Came in from the Cold. Like every boy in Hibbing, McHale grew up playing hockey, which is to Minnesota what football is to Texas. "In the ninth grade I was just average at every sport I tried," he says. "I was always so awkward, I could never get anything flowing in the same direction. But by sophomore year basketball was all I wanted to do because I became more and more successful at it. It was a snowball effect."

Hibbing High Coach Gary Addington, who is 6'1", helped McHale develop by playing him one-on-one, with McHale barred from the lane and the loser obliged to buy milkshakes. In his senior season, when Hibbing reached the state finals, the Bluejackets had six other players 6'6" or taller, freeing McHale, even then 6'10", to play the high post. "I could have gotten into a rut, scoring 30 points a game with my back to the basket," he says. "But Gary forced me to learn the whole game." (Hibbing High has produced one other NBA player, Dick Garmaker, an all-star guard with the Lakers and Knicks during the '50s. The wind sprints at Hibbing practices are still called Garmakers. "I've always associated the guy with a lot of pain," McHale says.)

Minnesota signed him to one of three scholarships they were permitted during an NCAA probation resulting from recruiting violations. A month into his freshman season he began starting at forward, alongside Center Mychal Thompson, now a Portland Trail Blazer forward. The Gophs went 24-3.

McHale averaged 15.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game over his college career, leading Minnesota to the NIT finals as a senior. He became the Celtics' first pick and the third choice overall in the draft. When asked how it felt, he said, "Where else would a six-ten, white, Irish Catholic kid want to play?"

McHale immediately became Boston's sixth man, following in a regal line that began with Frank Ramsey and has included John Havlicek and Paul Silas. Like his predecessors, he can run and has a knack for producing in the fourth quarter. He's also durable—he hasn't missed a game in his pro career. And the Celtics have never had a sixth man so big. When he enters a game—usually late in the first quarter, for Maxwell—he'll join Bird and Center Robert Parish on a front line that goes 6'10", 6'9�", and 7'�", respectively. Inevitably, McHale finds himself shooting his unblockable, turnaround fadeaway jumper over the smaller forward obliged to guard him. "If they can guard Robert, they can't guard Kevin," Jones says. "And if they can guard Kevin, they can't guard Robert."

McHale was at odds with Fitch from the start. During the summer of 1980, before his rookie season, when talks with the Celtics bogged down, McHale looked into the possibility of playing in Italy. "Let him eat spaghetti," Fitch said. Then, last season, Fitch made another remark, one that he claims was taken out of context: McHale, Fitch said, "would starve if he had to play center in this league." There's some truth to that; without Parish alongside him, McHale's effectiveness drops off. But McHale, who is as sensitive as he is competitive, was hurt.

"Bill's a great coach," McHale says. "We won a championship [in 1980-81] with him. But after a 30-point loss he'd show us a tape with nothing but low-lights, and 12 guys would be sinking down in their seats. Watching too much tape is like watching too much TV. It may be the Billy Martin syndrome. You get a coach who's a winner but very volatile, and after a while somebody on the team is going to get burned out. Either you've got to get new players or get a new boss."

Like some other Celtics, McHale was incredulous of Fitch's suspicious nature. Once Fitch dispatched an assistant to the top row of Houston's Summit Arena to roust an unidentified observer from a Celtic shootaround. He regularly banned out of town writers from practices for fear they would pilfer his plays. But unlike most of his teammates, McHale would talk to outsiders about Fitch's behavior. "Yeah," he told a Philadelphia columnist who'd been forced to wait an hour in a frigid lobby outside a Celtic practice, "we've only been running the same plays for 15 years." Says Parish, "Kevin is a man who speaks his mind, and he's a young man."

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