Mountain Man, McHale, and the KG Trade

It is hard to imagine that there are still doubters out there. But they remain. To be sure, Kevin McHale tells the public it was pure coincidence that The Big Ticket landed in Beantown, instead of, say, Los Angeles, playing for Phil Jackson, or in New York, working for Isaiah Thomas. McHale, of course, has a history of being brutally honest, when a little less candor might have been warranted. He didn’t earn a reputation as one of the league’s best interviews for nothing.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s recap.

Kevin McHale might be the greatest power forward ever to lace them up and run down a basketball court. Every type of defense was thrown at him, and McHale had an answer for them all. Laker fans like to think Mychal Thompson provided an antidote to the Black Hole. But, in fact, Thompson was just another victim of the Torture Chamber.

Lest your memory play tricks on you this Halloween, go back and watch video of the 1987 NBA Finals. It’s available on youtube. McHale was fabulous, as always, and close to unstoppable. The only things that stood in his way of scoring 30 every game on 12-12 shooting was the fact that (1) McHale was mortal; and (2) he was playing on a broken foot. Yes, that is right. Despite being just off his game by a fraction here and there, McHale played through the entire series with an injury that would leave him with a permanent limp.

Oh, and did I mention that the name on the front of his jersey for more than 10 years of his Hall of Fame career read “Celtics”? McHale’s #32 was retired by the hallowed GREEN and hoisted to the rafters with the rest of the Celtic dignitaries. As part of that heritage, McHale added new chapters to the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. Many contend it was never more heated than it was in the mid-1980s.

A few highlights.

In 1984 the Lakers looked poised to end their run of Finals futility against the Celtics, when a Kevin McHale clothesline helped turn the series around and send the Lakers to defeat again. A year later, when the Lakers finally won a playoff series against the Cs, the first words out of Pat Riley’s mouth were “Now they can’t mock us anymore.” No one had to ask who “they” were. Everyone knew. The year after that, Red Auerbach had assembled the greatest team in NBA history. The 1986 Celtics had one noteworthy flaw: mental lapses that resulted from boredom. Every fan of that team remembers the losses to New Jersey in the second game of the season and to New York on Christmas day. In both games the Celtics lost leads of more than 20 points. In the 1986 Finals, the Cs lost twice to a Houston team that would probably have been swept had the Celtics attention not been diverted by the Sampson-Sichting Heavyweight v. Cruiserweight bout.

One team the Celtics never lost focus against were the Lakers. The two teams played each other four times in the pre-season alone, getting into fights during three of the games. The Celtics played the Purple twice during the regular season that year. Going into the home game in January, the Purple somehow managed to own a better record than the Green. By the end of the game, however, there was no doubt who was the better team. The Celtics won 110-95, amassing a 25 point lead in the fourth quarter. A few weeks later the two teams played again in the Forum, this time sans McHale, and the Celtics repeated their demolition-ball act.

After the second game, both Magic Johnson and Kareem conceded that the Lakers were no match. What they didn’t say was that the season was over for the Purple after that game. The Lakers never recovered, putting in a halfhearted effort the rest of the season, an effort that ended in a 4-1 Western Conference Finals defeat at the hands of a team Vegas handicapped as a prohibitive underdog.

What happened?

No one ever said publicly. But there were all sorts of hints, rumors, and innuendos. The Lakers could not face humiliation in the Finals, and so they chose defeat in the WCFs rather than get swept by the GREEN. Unrealistic, you say? The Celtics were playing at the top of their game. Walton owned Kareem in the two regular season games, holding Kareem to 3-14 from the field. DJ neutralized Magic. The Lakers two biggest stars were rendered hapless. Would the Cs have suffered a mental lapse, perhaps? Not against the team they hated this much.

Which (finally!) brings me to the subject of this post.

When Tom Gugliotta was a healthy and productive member of the Timberwolves, Jerry West and the Lakers were offering everything and anything (other than Kobe and Shaq) to acquire him. After six weeks of trade talks, the Minnesota media asked McHale why he wouldn’t pull the trigger on a deal with the Ls. “Believe it or not,” McHale said, “my job is not to help the Lakers win more titles.”

What an interesting choice of words, Kevin. Any Celtic or Laker fan today knows that the Celtics have 16 NBA titles while the Lakers have 14. The Lakers have won 5 titles since the Celtics last won number 16 and three titles since McHale retired. In other words, the Lakers are getting a little too close for comfort. Under no circumstances would McHale trade Tom Gugliotta to the Lakers. I repeat Tom Gugliotta. Since when did he become the latest incarnation of Karl Malone? Regardless of what you think of Googs, no one has any doubts about the stature of The Ticket.

MVP in 2004 with a decent supporting cast, Garnett spent the last three years waiting for McHale to get him more help. Problem was the roster actually got worse, and Garnett and his immense talent were left languishing on a lottery team.

Enter Danny Ainge. Walton was McHale’s alter-ego, and make no mistake, the two had their own private celebration at mid-court after the last title was in the bag (see picture above). But it was Ainge who was and remains McHale’s best friend. Ainge had been working McHale for Garnett over the last two seasons. Garnett didn’t want to go to Boston in June? No problem, McHale told Ainge. Just go about your business and we’ll try again later. Ainge acquires Ray Allen on draft day, and, you know what? McHale and Ainge did resume talks. This time, KG saw the light and McHale and Ainge got the deal done.

Phil Jackson’s response?

“I guess we didn’t have the right pedigree.”

My response?

Wow. Now there's some brutal honesty. If the Timberwolves weren't going to win a championship with KG, then there was really only one place he was gonna go--McHale's Boston Celtics. In other words, the next best thing to happen in the World According to Kevin McHale was if the Wolves can't win a title, then we better see if we can do something to help McHale's other team win number 17 and create a little breathing room between the GREEN and the purple.

It wasn't long before GMs from around the league were echoing Phil Jackson's sentiments. McHale never said so. But what did you expect? He already lost 3 first rounders for suffering from loose lips in the awful Joe Smith deal.

So when the Celtics hoist up the next banner (and the banner after that), I don't expect McHale to be invited. But I sure hope Danny arranges for a closed-circuit viewing where Ainge, Bird, McHale, and KG (and Walton, the last great #5) can hold up their glasses to celebrate the achievement.


john marzan said...

"The year after that, Red Auerbach had assembled the greatest team in NBA history."

the celtics team were too much. even 6-1 sichting was shooting 57% from the field, most of the shots coming from the perimeter. now how do you double kevin when there's larry, danny or jerry "57 FG%" sichting to punish you from the outside?

btw, great blog, lex.

here's mine, from the eighties.


john marzan said...

The Lakers never recovered, putting in a halfhearted effort the rest of the season, an effort that ended in a 4-1 Western Conference Finals defeat at the hands of a team Vegas handicapped as a prohibitive underdog.

c'mon, lex. the houston team had youth and athleticism on their side. they were a GREAT team. they beat The Great 86 Celtics team twice in the finals did they not? that's the reason why the lakers had to get mychal thompson. to fortify their frontline against houston. and they did it at no cost. the lakers gave up nothing for thompson, not even rambis. their laker core was intact. it's a case of the rich getting richer.

but thankfully the lakers did not have to face an healthy intact houston squad the following year. sampson got injured and was never the same again. key rockets wiggins and lewis lloyd were suspended for two years IIRC for drug abuse problems.

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