IN THE COURT at their practice center in Brookline, Massachusetts, the world-champion Boston Celtics begin their prepractice exercises. These men are professionals, the best in basketball, and they conduct themselves accordinglybending, stretching, focusing on the business at hand. That is, all except one.
Off to the side of his 11 teammates, Kevin McHale stands with one foot up on a training device known as a Stairmaster. He bends perhaps three degrees from the waist, expending approximately the amount of energy it takes to drop a piece of paper into a wastebasket. But he's not slacking. McHale is loosening the muscles that control one of his most potent, and offensive, weapons: his mouth. So as he bends a little, he talks-a lot.
Thus begins another workday for a man who is called unstoppable, dominant and impossible to guard when he's not called flippant, brash and irreverent. For if there is anything McHale likes as much as tormenting opposing players with his inside scoring moves, it's talking. About what he's done. About what he's going to do. About what you've done (as long as it was bad or stupid). About what you can't do, About fishing and hunting in Minnesota. About TV shows. About high school rivalries. About thc price of silver. About the latest book he's read.
"I've always said," laughs teammate Danny Ainge, "that if Kevin had to wear a mouthpiece while he was playing, he wouldn't enjoy basketball."
Better you should cut off his left arm than remove his tongue. A silent McHale is almost unimaginable.
"He is one of the few players I know," says Celtics center Robert Parish, "who can talk and play at the same time. It doesn't break his concentration at all."
Surprisingly, McHale backs his torrent of words with an equivalent amount of action.
In his seventh year as a professional, Kevin Edward McHale has become one of the most highly acclaimed players in basketball, a feat all the more amazing because he plays on the same team as Larry Bird, who is rated by many experts as the greatest all-round player ever. But such is the respect for McHale's own scoring, shot blocking and rebounding that people are answering his lighthearted banter with serious testimonials:
"Bird is tough, but McHale down low is the match-up that eats everyone alive in this league."-Chicago Bulls coach Doug Collins.
"Kevin McHale is the best inside player in the league. He is as close to unstoppable as you can get. He's been tough on us forever, and he just seems to be getting better and better."-Milwaukee Bucks coach Don Nelson.
"He's the most underrated player in the league. He presents as many match-up problems as anyone, or more."-Los Angeles Lakers general manager jerry West, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
"Nobody can guard Kevin McHale. Nobody."-Larry Bird his own bad self
It seems that despite all the courtside comedy, this man is a serious threat.
Taped to the wall of the Celtics' locker room at their Hellenic College practice site is a piece of paper bearing a snapshot of McHale and the following text:
WANTED FOR FAILURE TO TALK ON DEFENSE
KEVIN MCHALE ALSO KNOWN AS: FRANKENSTEIN, HERMAN MUNSTER, LURCH, THE BLACK HOLE, RONA BARRETT,
TIN MAN -May be [seen] with a 'midget named Nils Lofgren
-Usually unshaven, uncombedjust a generally unkempt look
- Knees shake at the foul line - Wears a mask and fake hightops -If seen, show him the Yellow Brick Road and point him toward The Wizard-dire need of a new heart.
This is a kind of zone-press defense against the guy, trying to blunt the verbal attacks-not against his opponents but against his own teammates. McHale's victims are wasting their time: It's unlikely that any of them will ever conjure up a better spontaneous one-liner than McHale comes up with just about every day.
The primary target of his tongue for the past two seasons has been Bill Walton, the perpetually injured Celtics center. just as certain politicians provide material for political cartoonists merely by showing up for work, Walton provides fodder for McHale by attending practice. McHale rides him about his hair, his car, his health, his UCLA background, his politics, his playing style and at least 37 other things:
McHale on Walton's offense: "Hey, Bill, those 1965 John Wooden face-up moves don't cut it anymore."
McHale on naming his own baby boy: "We were thinking about naming him Bill, but his feet were normal, so we had to pick something else."
In the face of this onslaught, Walton remains stoically tolerant.
"Kevin is unique," says the former UCLA great. "He has a very upbeat, lively personality that really flourishes under a coach like K. C. Jones. He loves to talk, but he has the ability to back it up."
Unlike his predecessor, Bill Fitch, Jones has been able to accept, even appreciate, McHale's flapping tongue. "Of course, his first love is talking, but the other one is basketball. And his talk keeps us loose. If he isn't keeping us loose, he's firing us up. Still, if you give him half a chance to get on you, it's bad."
McHale to Walton, on court, as the 1986 championship clincher wound down: "Well, you've finally done something!"
The 6'10" McHale has been a productive member of the most famous franchise in professional basketball since the day he signed on in the fall of 1980. He averaged ten points a game as a sixth man when the team won the N.B.A. title that first season, and in the ensuing five years, he has increased his scoring average steadily (13.6, 14.1, 18.4, 19.8 and 21.3) as the Celtics won additional championships in 1984 and 1986. Acknowledging that contribution, the Celtics have boosted his salary to more than $1,000,000 a year, which is still far less than the estimated $1,800,000 hauled in annually by the highflying Bird.
McHale twice won the N.B.A.'s Sixth Man Award (1984, 1985), and he played in both the 1984 and 1986 all-star games. But this season, he has elevated his game to an extraterrestrial level. He scored 20 or more points in each of the Celtics' first 28 games, a streak that exceeds Bird's personal best by 11. By the all-star break, he had scored 20 points or more in 44 of 47 games. He is making close to 60 percent of his shots, and he is sinking nearly 85 perdent of his foul shots, which is eight percentage points better than his previous best.
The conclusion one reaches after reviewing all this is simple: The surest way to get two points in the N. B.A. this year is to put the ball in McHale's hands. "There's no one close to him in scoring; it's a joke," says Bird, who ought to know. "He's got that jump hook, and every night we go to him. The only thing Kevin can't do is dribble."
Danny Ainge gots a step further, stating without hesitation that for the 1986-1987 season, "McHale has been our M.V.P."
This is all very odd, because McHale really doesn't look like a professional basketball player. Or an athlete. Or even a particularly healthy person. As his fellow Celtics like to point out, he looks like Herman Munster. He has long legs, unruly hair, a narrow chest, squared-off shoulders and a face out of Little Rascals. His trademark telescoping arms extend from here to forever.
McHale, when questioned about his sleeve length: "I really don't know what it is. I only wear short-sleeved shirts."
There is no question that McHale accomplished a lot in the early days of his career because people didn't take him seriously. He fits no one's conception of a ballplayer. To this day, players who should know better have their shots blocked by McHale because they can't believe this strange creature is even remotely athletic. "There are cars that don't look so good but run beautifully," says the Lakers' West. "It's the same with McHale. He runs well, he just doesn't have a beautiful gait."
McHale's odd way of moving on the court often provokes a hard look from the officials, who sometimes suspect him of defying the laws of basketball and gravity at the same time. But when he's called for walking with the ball, he reacts as if he'd been unjustly accused of transporting stolen baskets across state lines, "Me!" he'll shout in horror. "Me?"
What makes this peculiar physical package work is McHale's gift of timing. For some reason, the subtle rhythms of basketball come easily to this ungainly ballplayer. "I've always been able to shoot and block shots," he says.
McHale admits to some embarrassment about this. He realizes that a player such as teammate Greg Kite can work four times as hard and get one quarter the results' In his idle moments, which include just about all the time he's not actually playing basketball, McHale can imagine that there is a reproving angel hovering over his shoulder, shaking an index finger in disgust. "It's that old Catholic guilt," he says. "If something comes too easily, maybe it's not good for you."
Things that are impossible for others to master are second nature for McHale. For instance, hundreds of high school coaches have preached to thousands of developing big men that (A) it is not necessary to dribble the basketball every time you catch it and (B) if you're trying to block the shot of a right-handed player, you should use your left hand, and vice versa. Approximately one among those thousands of players is able to put those lessons to use. McHale is the one in a million who didn't have to learn; he came preprogramed,
Watch McHale play a few games and you will note that after he grabs an offensive rebound, he never, ever puts the ball back on the floor, where a smaller man can grab it. Instead, he keeps it high and flips it into the basket with a subtle flick of the wrist, a pulse from the finger tips. It's a good move, too: McHale has been among the league leaders in field-goal percentage all season. Similarly, blocking shots by the book, he has remained near the league leaders in that category as well; he has snuffed as many as eight attempts per game this year.
Nevertheless, his defensive play hasn't earned unanimous raves this season. Bird attributes this to McHale's focus at the other end of the court, calling it 'Just a question of priorities." Still, it's not as if his defensive ability were in serious doubt. McHale made the N.B.A.'s defensive allstar team last season, and he closed out the Celtics' 1986 championship series with stifling performances against Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks, Terry Cummings of the Milwaukee Bucks and Ralph Sampson of the Houston Rockets.
Bill Walton knows as much as anybody about the war zone under the basket, and he says that McHale is currently dominating that territory. "Kevin McHale is the best post-up player in the league right now," Walton declares. "He is unsurpassed. I can't say enough about his ability to create mismatches. What makes him the toughest inside player, as opposed to Kareem Abdul-jabbar or Akeem Olajuwon, is his variety of moves."
The primary move is a methodical jump hook. "That's my comfort," McHale says. "If I'm not playing well, I go to that shot. It sets up so many other moves."
Setting up the offensive moves he makes with his mouth, meanwhile, is whatever's happening within earshot. "He just talks and talks," says Ainge. "I've heard him say, 'I'm gonna score over their whole team,' and then score over three guys. I've heard him say to Moses [Malone, threetime-M.V.P. center], 'You can't stop me.' Then he backs it up. He really frustrates some guys. He'll goad them into fouling him, and then he'll just strut to the. line and make two free throws."
"I do worry about some of the things he says publicly," admits Jan Volk, the Celtics' general manager"Much of what he says is very funny. But sometimes I feel bad because there is an underlying viciousness. It does trouble me on occasion."
A recent example of McHale's bloodcurdling humor came in late January, after Celtics play-by-play announcer Johnny. Most's father died. McHale launched speculation that Most's color man, Glenn Ordway,, had passed the commentator a poison apple to speed his succession into the lead job and that Most had mistakenly given the lethal fruit to his father. The jape spread quickly through the press corps, which began giving an apple-of-the-day award. Funny? Maybe. Vicious? Not exactly, because the speaker was McHale, a man who can be offensive and still score points with anybody within arm's length.
It's not enough for McHale w taunt the guys in the broadcast booth or the people who guard him on court. He has even more fun razzing the men who are guarding his teammates.
"He'll go up to Isiah Thomas and say, 'Danny says he's going to kick your ass,"' reports Ainge. "So then Isiah goes out and gets 33 against me."
With Walton incapacitated for the first half of the Celtics' season, McHale has adopted Ainge as an alternative, if smaller, target. "I love to tell Danny I can put him in slumps," McHale says. "I'll say, 'I can feel a bad time coming on with that jumper."'
The person most exasperated with McHale's humor was former Celtics coach and current Houston mentor Bill Fitch. Let's just say that the ex-Marine and the wisecracking kid from Minnesota didn't exactly have the same world view.
"I want to have fun," explains McHale. "I don't see all this as life and death. I look at some of these coaches and they don't let up; they don't know how to have fun. When we won the championship in 1981, the first thing Bill Fitch said was 'We've got to think about winning it again.' I said, 'Hey, let's have a party first!"'
McHale on road games in the 1986 championship series: "What's there to playing on the road? My philosophy is that the floor is always 94 feet long and the basket is always ten feet high. The only problem sometimes is that the officiating can be a little different. But I've never seen a fan come out of the stands and block a shot."
If McHale refuses to take basketball too seriously, it may be because he has a strong senscts of what real work is all about. He was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, on December 19, 1957, the son of Paul and Josephine McHale. Hibbing, which also gave the world Bob Dylan, is in the Minnesota iron range, and McHale's dad was a miner. "Working seven to three in those mines is a bitch," McHale points out. "Every morning, you've got to be there. By three o'clock, you're dying to get out. You live for Friday."
It's almost as if McHale were dedicating himself to having the fun his father couldn't have. He is also making sure his dad can properly enjoy his retirement. The toys McHale has bought his parents include a satellite dish, enabling them to watch any Celtics game and McHale performance they choose. During his mining days, his father never had time to develop his interest in basketball. "Now," says McHale the younger, "he can't get enough of it."
McHale joined the Celtics in 1980, after four years of leading good but not great teams at the University of Minnesota. At the end of his senior year, he went to an all-star tourney called the Aloha Classic, dominated it and carned its M.V.P. award. That year, Boston chose third in the college draft, and after Joe Barry Carroll and Darrell Griffith went off to Golden State and Utah, McHale was selected by the Celtics. Sportswriters covering the draft in Boston were shown a video tape of McHale blocking Carroll's first four shots in a Minnesota-Purdue game. Since that time, the wisdom of that draft pick has never been in doubt.
It wasn't as if McHale were flying into an empty nest, of course. He arrived the year after Larry Bird took over the town, and he quickly sized up the situation. "If I had come in and the Celtics had not been such a strong team, I might have approached things differently," he explains. "But Larry was there, and Cedric Maxwell was there, and they were strong personalities. There was no way I was going to do anything to disrupt the chemistry of that team."
His tongue may have been uncharacteristically still, but somehow he managed to play the game. The team immediately recognized that this strident kid was a killer in crunch time, the kind of guy who demanded the ball. McHale had more big fourth quarters in his rookie year than Dave Cowens and Larry Bird combined had in theirs.
"He was really never a rookie," says general manager Volk. "He didn't play like one, and he never carried himself likeone. Rookies usually show deference to veterans and to the coaching staff. Kevin McHale did not."
But as much as he has improved over his seven years with the Celtics, McHale has always been able to see the big picture, which is this: In Boston, Bird reigns supreme. As good as McHale is-and few are better he is not Larry Bird.
"I'm happy to be playing with Larry," he insists. "Any time I start to think otherwise, I consider what it would be like playing against him. Not getting Bird's level of recognition doesn't bother me at all. And it's not just me. We have other great players here, guys like Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish, and they all feel the same way., There has been a pecking order ever since I've been here, and Larry is at the top. That's fine, because he knows how to handle that."
But right now, nobody in the N.B.A. can handle Kevin McHale, who has only one complaint about the life he leads.
"By the time the play-offs are done," he says, "hunting season is over in Minnesota."