As the contrail from United Air Lines Flight 133 evaporated into the sky over Logan Airport one night last week, a carefree Kevin McHale settled his 6'10", 225-pound body into a first-class seat. The Boston Celtics had just completed their longest home stand of the season, and McHale was plotting a practical joke to get a road trip off on the right note.
When it comes to such jokes, the Celtics are as much a first-division club as they are at playing basketball. They steal writers' garment bags and page celebrities in airports. (Forward Cedric Maxwell always pages former NBA great Dolph Schayes, and once, last December in Salt Lake City, Schayes actually showed up.) McHale's favorite ruse is putting paper in the mouths of sleeping teammates. "Try using one of these cocktail napkins," he said. "When just the edge sticks out of a guy's mouth, it looks like he's got fangs. The best part is when he wakes up."
Do not disturb McHale, for waking him up right now would spoil everything. So far this season, he has played the best basketball of his four-year NBA career, and for at least two reasons he couldn't have picked a better time. First, with the fickle Boston Garden fans itching to remind him of the ill feeling generated last spring by the highly publicized negotiations that resulted in McHale's four-year $4-million contract, his excellent play has kept the wolves at bay. "There's this invisible wave of pressure at every home game," says Bob Ryan, a local sportscaster. "He's had to play this way."
Second, when All-NBA Forward Larry Bird suffered sprained ligaments in his right knee last Friday night against the Denver Nuggets, McHale the superb sixth man became McHale the starter and surrogate star. He responded well in Boston's ensuing game in Atlanta, playing 39 minutes, scoring 13 points and getting nine rebounds as the Celtics won 104-87.
Bird's injury will keep McHale from fulfilling his usual role as supersub, but that's no sweat for McHale. Two seasons ago when Bird fractured a cheekbone, McHale became a regular in his place and the Celtics won 22 of those 26 games as McHale averaged 15.5 points and 8.9 rebounds while maintaining his reputation as one of the league's most formidable shot-blockers. It might be said that McHale is a master of relief, comic and otherwise.
Under low-key Coach K.C. Jones, who replaced the acerbic Bill Fitch on the Boston bench this season, the Celtics have practically joked their way to a 17-6 record through week's end, which put them only 22 percentage points behind first-place Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division. Boston looks nothing like the tense team that lost in a four-game playoff sweep to Milwaukee in last spring's Eastern semifinals. This is K.C. & The Sunshine Band, and McHale is on lead vocals. He's headed for career highs in field-goal percentage (.581 after the win in Atlanta), rebounding (7.9 per game) and scoring (19.2) while playing about 30 minutes a game, essentially the same amount of daylight he averaged last season. McHale is at a loss to explain his improved play. "Maybe it was something I did during the off-season," he says. "But I doubt golfing helps your field-goal percentage. I just have that feeling that every shot I take is going in."
Still, considering the events of the past nine months, it was startling that last week someone in the Garden unfurled a banner that read THANK HEAVEN FOR KEVIN. McHale played miserably in the Celtics' ignominious playoff exit, scoring a total of eight points in four fourth quarters against the Bucks. He spent much of last season criticizing Fitch for sowing discord among the Celtics, though McHale wasn't completely blameless himself in this regard. "Kevin has an irreverent bent that can be refreshing," says one Celtic observer. "He simply wasn't going to become one of Bill's robots. Then again, he's always the last guy on the bus. It's funny once or twice, but after 50 games you get tired of it." Then, when McHale's agent, John Sandquist, began soliciting offers of free-agent millions from the spendthrift New York Knicks,
The Boston Globe
ran a cartoon depicting McHale as a pig wallowing in a styful of dollar bills. The caption read, "The Real McHale."
From there, his contract talks degenerated into a public bloodletting. McHale spoke with bitter candor about their progress, as did Celtic President Red Auerbach. Nothing sullied McHale's image more than a claim in April by Harry Mangurian, then the Boston owner, that he and McHale actually had shaken hands on a figure a month earlier. McHale insists they hadn't settled on anything. For a while it appeared that McHale, who's from Bob Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, Minn., was singing I Shall Be Released—and the Celtics were just as determinedly crooning You Ain't Goin' Nowhere despite a Globe poll in June revealing that 72.1% of Boston fans hoped he would bug out. Suddenly it didn't seem to matter that McHale is as good as they come in filling the quintessentially Celtic role of sixth man.
In fact, McHale is hardly the porcine ingrate depicted in the Globe cartoon. He's a generous, overgrown kid who would be happy just hunting and fishing. "A tough agent is what Kevin needs, because of the way Kevin is," says Phil Saunders, a college teammate at the University of Minnesota who's now an assistant to Gopher Coach Jim Dutcher. "Kevin's so easygoing, you could probably talk him into letting you drive off with his truck."
Hibbing is located in the Mesabi Iron Range, an area of northern Minnesota whose time has passed. When life was good, Iron Rangers like Paul McHale, Kevin's dad who recently retired after 42� years with U.S. Steel, would load ore into the railroad cars that trundled out of the open pits, bound for the steel mills of Pittsburgh and Detroit. Even when the raw ore gave out after World War II, the Rangers unearthed vast amounts of iron-bearing taconite rock and employed a process for separating ore from the worthless tailings, as wheat from chaff. There's plenty of taconite left in the ground around Hibbing, but as the domestic steel industry has fallen on hard times, so has the town.