McHale isn't uncoachable, but he likes to flirt with the limits of authority. He and Bobby Knight, his coach in the 1979 Pan Am Games, got along well enough that they went fishing together when they returned to the states from Puerto Rico. Yet when former Ohio State Coach Fred Taylor, Knight's Pan Am assistant, supervised a brutal drill, McHale bought breathers by asking, "How'd Havlicek do this drill?" and "How'd [Jerry] Lucas do it?" Taylor thought he was seriously inquiring about members of Taylor's old NCAA championship team. McHale tells that story the way a schoolboy gloats about hoodwinking a substitute teacher.
But McHale insists he has matured. "Last year was a sobering experience," he says. "The whole thing with the contract and fatherhood [his wife, Lynn, gave birth to a daughter, Kristyn, during the playoffs] forced me to grow up a lot. Life isn't all fun and games. And the media can put a lot of pressure on you."
So can a coach. But under Jones, only McHale's blocked shots total has suffered. "I'm using him a lot more at forward than at center," says Jones, who may change his mind as the season progresses and Parish feels the brunt of playing an average of 37.4 minutes a game. "He's not going to block as many playing way out on the floor." Yet McHale is getting more chances to go to town offensively. Against Detroit several weeks ago, working mostly on 6'8" Cliff Levingston, McHale scored 19 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter. He calls such mismatches the "torture chamber."
McHale has been known to get on the case of such diverse luminaries as L.A.'s Magic Johnson, teammate Danny Ainge and the well-traveled Marvin (Bad News) Barnes, an occasional rival in off-season pickup games. Barnes likes to call his jumper "ice cream" because it's so smooth. But when he fires a brick, McHale screams "frozen yogurt."
None of this Hibbing-style ribbing will stop, even if Boston Garden becomes a more literal torture chamber. "If I do have a slump, people are just going to have to accept that I'm still giving it my all every night," McHale says. "I haven't done anything different this season. I go out and work hard, but if something's funny, I'm going to laugh. I don't think there's any one model attitude on the basketball court." In fact, when Parish walked out of training camp this fall, demanding a contract renegotiation because he didn't think as the starting center he should making $350,000 less than his backup, he took some of the heat off McHale. And the way he's playing, McHale could take the rest of the Garden heat off himself.
Meanwhile, from Flight 133, the Garden was becoming a benign speck on the horizon. Up in seat 2D, Parish's eyes had shut and his jaw had gone slack.
"Ah," McHale said, "I see Mr. Parish is ready for a little paper."