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Kevin McHale drove to the Boston Garden last Friday night with his six-year-old son, Joey. This has become an end-of-career ritual for the 13-year veteran Boston Celtic forward. He takes one of his four kids to every game, stopping at McDonald's on the way, talking about that night's opponents and about school and whatever other subject might arise. It has been one of the few pleasures of a long and injury-filled season for the 35-year-old McHale.
"One night Joey was a ball boy," says McHale. "It was a big game, and everybody was cheering during the introductions. He came over and said, 'Dad, are we gonna win?' To hear that, to see my kids involved, it's been a real kick."
On this trip to the Garden, McHale found himself thinking about other drives on other nights. This was his final regular-season game at home as a Celtic. Oh, there still had not been an announcement that he will retire at the end of the playoffs, but there is no doubt about his intentions. He is already building a house near Minneapolis and has discussed his career in the past tense with friends. Two bad feet and now a bad back have reduced the playing time and effectiveness of the 6'10" McHale, a seven-time All-Star, a two-time winner of the Sixth Man Award and a member, along with Larry Bird and Robert Parish, of the Celtics' Big Three, the Hall of Fame nucleus of the Boston teams that won three NBA titles in the 1980s.
The opponents this night were the Cleveland Cavaliers, another team locked into a playoff position, so the game really meant nothing. Then again, for McHale it meant everything. He had missed the last three games with his ailing back. Who knew how much he would play in the playoffs? Who knew how he would feel tomorrow? This was a chance to say good-bye.
With eight minutes gone in the first period—the traditional time for his entry into the game during his glory days—McHale replaced Parish, who will be the one remaining member of the Big Three next season. What followed was a grand, unchoreographed delight. For 32 of the remaining 40 minutes of a 107-99 Celtic win, McHale was on the floor. He seemed to be running and jumping in a pain-free warp of time. Sure, Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance were missing from the Cavs' lineup, and maybe that mattered, but maybe it did not. McHale made his first five shots, bringing back memories of the seasons when he was a low-post scoring machine. The statistical line would show him finishing with 17 points and 11 rebounds.
When he was pulled from the lineup with 54.4 seconds left, the ovation began. He waved both arms to the crowd. He shook the hands of all of his teammates. The ovation continued for a minute before the game resumed and then continued until time ran out, until the players had left the floor. The message Board at the west end of the Garden flashed THANKS, KEVIN and showed two recently retired Celtic numbers—3 for Dennis Johnson, 33 for Larry Bird—and the soon-to-be-retired 32 for McHale. The tall man's eyes were suddenly quite moist.
"Daddy," his son, the ball boy, asked, "why are they cheering?"
"It's no big deal," McHale said.
Then he kissed the boy on the forehead.