September 18, 1980
The hard part, says Kevin McHale, was breaking the news to his hosts.
"We (agent Ron Simon and McHale) were upstairs talking on the phone to the Celtics, and the Milan people were downstairs waiting to take us to lunch. My first thought was, How can I tell these nice people I'm not going to play for them?' They had been so nice to us."
"We told the owner, and he answered through an interpreter, Something changes in business every day.' He took it very well."
So it's now a fait accompli. After three months of on-again, off-again negotiations, after a quickie inspection tour of Milan and after an eight-hour direct flight, McHale stepped off the plane yesterday to sign a multiyear Celtic contract. He was then immediately transported to Hellenic College, where 20 other candidates for the team have been working out since last Friday. Coach Bill Fitch didn't want to hear about any jet lag.
"Oh, I'm sure it's going to be rough at first," McHale said. "But I'm in pretty decent shape, if not in game shape. Anyway, I never heard of anybody dying on the basketball floor."
A quick check of this morning's obituary page will either confirm or refute that contention. At any rate, McHale swears that his trip to Milan was for real; that he was prepared to sign a contract to play in the Italian league.
"It was the only option I had," he explains. "I would rather have played with Boston, but I think I would have enjoyed it over there. I liked the European attitude. Everybody was so mellow. It was interesting, although I don't honestly know if I would have found it six months interesting."
While in Milan, McHale worked out with the team to get a feel of what it would have been like. The club made him a good offer, and until the moment Simon picked up the phone to give the Celtics one last chance to sign him, McHale was certain he was going to be playing in Italy.
He says he is unafraid of his new competition. "When I went to Minnesota, I was looking forward to playing against Mychal Thompson, who was already an All-American. Competition is good. You often play your best game in the biggest situations. But my only goal here is to help the team, to do whatever is needed, whether it's for 5, 10, 15 or 25 minutes a game."
McHale might have been justified in thinking that the Celtics really didn't want him all that much, what with all their big men, but he claims that wasn't the case. "I don't think it was a matter of them wanting me," he points out, "but in them needing me. I think if they needed me badly the contract would have been signed a long time ago."
All this stuff is merely conversation now. The next step is to win the respect of his coach and teammates and to gain the favor of the fans. "I hope that people understand," he concludes. "I've always been the type of guy who was on time, who did whatever the club asked. I'm sure the fans and veterans are saying, Who does the kid think he is?' But all that is in the past. I'm ready to work hard."
You can also believe that Bill Fitch is ready to work him hard.