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It was a smelly situation. Last Friday, seven hours before a date with the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis, Robert Parish of the Boston Celtics was literally up to his elbows in cologne, hot on the trail of the right scent. But the Halston on his wrist wouldn't do—"Too strong. That stuff makes me sneeze when I wear it"—nor would the Vetiver Pour Monsieur that adorned his forearm. "No way," said Parish. "I bought some once, now I can't give the stuff away. I would like to get this done by game time."
Unfortunately, the scent Parish finally decided upon, Monsieur Rochas, wasn't much help in averting a 110-104 loss to the Pacers, but other sweet performances in Parish's first season in Boston have dissipated an old, ugly aroma and provided him with a new, winning one. Traded in the off-season from a stinker of a situation with the Golden State Warriors, many of whose fans felt he was lazy and had a bad attitude. Parish has averaged 18.9 points and almost 9.5 rebounds a game in Celtic green. So effectively has he filled the void left at center by the unexpected preseason retirement of Dave Cowens that at the end of last week the Celtics were 55-16 and just one game behind Philadelphia for both first place in the Atlantic Division and the best record in the NBA.
Although his rebound figure is about the same as it was with the Warriors, Parish is scoring five points more than his career average, and his inspired play at both ends of the court has observers discussing "the new and improved" Parish, talk that both angers and frustrates the old one. "Oh, yes, what a turnaround I've made, and, oh, yes, what a difference a year makes." he says mockingly. "My coming to Boston just did wonders for my attitude. Hey, I'm doing the same things I did at Golden State. And all that talk about the magic of being with the Celtics, forget it. The only difference in me is that the team I'm on is winning, and that's because the people here complement my game."
Indeed Boston's No. 00, the numerals Parish has favored ever since his junior high team ran out of numbered jerseys, has become just another cog in the finely tuned Celtic machine. Larry Bird is having a phenomenal second season, averaging 21.6 points, 11 rebounds and more than five assists per game. At age 32, Tiny Archibald is still skating and slithering through and around defenders. The Most Valuable Player in this year's All-Star Game, Archibald is scoring almost 14 points and dealing out seven assists per game. Having a double-threat scorer and passer both at the point and on the wing opens things up down low for Parish to crash the boards or take his pet turnaround jumper. For the year Parish has shot 55% from the field, but a more important statistic for Boston is his 2.60 blocked shots per game, fourth best in the league. At 7'�", Parish is the tallest player ever to play for the Celtics, and along with 6'11" rookie Kevin McHale, he has given Boston the shot-blocking it has lacked since the days of Bill Russell.
According to Celtic Coach Bill Fitch, those blocks are a measure of how hard Parish has worked since coming to Boston. "Blocks come when the player hustles his butt back on the transition from offense to defense," says Fitch. "I call it uphill/downhill transition. When the ball goes to some players on offense, they can't move fast enough, but when switching from offense to defense it's like they're moving strictly uphill. Robert has been getting uphill pretty quick."
Actually, for Parish the entire season has been downhill after the rigors of his first Celtic training camp. "I'm in the best condition of my life, but it was a bitch getting there," Parish says. "When I came in I was in shape for a Golden State camp, not for the Celtics. It was the most physical, intense thing I'd ever been through, but I can't knock the results."
The trade—Parish and Golden State's first draft choice, which the Celtics used to select McHale, for Boston's picks in the first round (Nos. 1 and 13)—came at just the right time for Parish, 27, who felt he had gone stale with the Warriors. Although his numbers in four years with Golden State were always respectable, they didn't satisfy his critics, who got the impression from Parish's gait, which can best be described as arthritic, and his on-court facial expression, a permanent scowl, that he was dogging it.
"I heard it all—I had a bad attitude, I only played when I wanted to. Someone even said I was so lazy I got into foul trouble on purpose so I wouldn't have to play," Parish says. "When I came to Boston I knew that I'd be tested to see if I had what it took to be a winner. I always knew I did."
Apparently, so did Fitch and the Celtics. "When the exhibition season started, people were looking at me like I was crazy, and after I saw Robert go up and down the court the first couple of times I really didn't know whether to laugh or cry myself," Fitch says. "[General Manager] Red Auerbach may be getting old and senile, but I knew he wasn't completely washed up. We'd looked at films and reams of information on Robert and had talked with Scotty Stirling and Pete Newell of the Warriors. They'd told us what we've come to find out, that Robert would be a good man to have even if he weren't a good basketball player."
In the light of Cowens' abrupt retirement, the Parish trade now appears to be another in a long series of brilliant maneuvers by Auerbach. Remember Easy Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan for the draft rights to Russell? Last year the 76ers overpowered the Celtics in the front court when they eliminated Boston in the playoffs. But with the addition of Parish and McHale to go with 6'10" Rick Robey, the Celtics' big men have more than held their own in matchups with Philadelphia this season.