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12.04.2012

The Walton-Parish Connection Made the 5-Spot in Boston One of Historic Greatness



He'll be 50 in August, but if ever a half-century man looked as if he should be heading for the opening tip tonight, it is Robert Parish.

He is still every inch The Chief -tall, regal, and West Point-straight from head to toe. He walked into the room in his usually royal manner, impeccably outfitted in a charcoal suit. He always dressed and carried himself like a Hall of Famer. Now he is one.

And he likes it.

"I'm still floating," said Parish, presented here yesterday as a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of '03. "I really haven't grasped the impact of the award. But I am honored and very pleased."

Sentiment and emotion were never part of the Parish package. He always played hard, but instead of radiating passion, he projected a cool indifference. You could never imagine ol' Double Zero burning himself out, which may help explain how he lasted through 21 seasons and 1,611 games, both NBA records.

It was a career in three distinct phases. Act I was the Bay Area phase. the four years spent floundering with the Golden State Warriors. Act II was the meat, the 14 years in Boston, a time when he established himself as one of the top 10 centers of all-time. Act III was a three-year bit-player coda, culminating with a final championship year in Chicago.

But forget about Golden State, Charlotte, and even Chicago. He is a Hall of Famer because of what transpired in Boston from 1980-94. Robert Parish became the Robert Parish we remember with such fondness on June 9, 1980, when he and Golden State's third pick in the 1980 draft were shipped to Boston in exchange for the first and 13th picks.

Here's a fair question. Where would Parish have been if Red Auerbach and Bill Fitch hadn't conspired to bring him to Boston?

"Home," Parish maintains. "It would have been a short career."

What? No Robert Parish rainbow turnaround jumpers, some of them ending with his momentum carrying him right off the playing surface? No Robert Parish running hooks? No Robert Parish graceful finishes at the end of countless fast breaks? No indefensible Robert Parish pick-and-rolls with Larry Bird?

Scary thoughts. But we did see all those things after Robert was sprung from Oakland.

"Winning had something to do with it," he says. "I was losing interest in the game out at Golden State. I didn't have that fire. Coming to Boston rejuvenated my career. I owe a lot to Red Auerbach and Bill Fitch. They threw me a lifeline."

He was not what you call your instant success after joining the Celtics. His first exhibition season in Boston was a horror, bottoming out the very night Dave Cowens told the team he was retiring when an angry Fitch allowed his struggling new center to remain on the floor against the Bulls after picking up his fifth personal foul - in the first quarter.

The message was clear: Like it or not, you're it, pal.

"I was like everybody else that night - surprised," Parish reports. "The problem was, I reported to Boston out of shape. It was the only summer I ever took off. It was a hard first month, but I wouldn't change a thing. It taught me a valuable lesson. I owe a lot to Bill Fitch. He taught me just how much mental, as well as physical, toughness was needed to win a championship."

Something else happened on that fateful October evening. Just before the team bus departed from Terre Haute for the two-hour ride to Evansville, Cowens came aboard to say goodbye to the team and to give Parish a message. Cowens told Parish that he was indeed The Man and was going to be great in a Boston uniform.

"I was touched by it," Parish recalls, "For him to come up and say that showed that he had a lot of respect for me. He certainly didn't have to do that."

On Opening Night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Parish got the tap, and trotted down to the box. Bird threw him the ball. Parish swished one of those patented turn arounds, and it was the beginning of a love affair between Parish and Boston.

It peaked in the 1985-86 season, when the only thing more fun for Parish and his mates than beating up on hapless foes just about every game was challenging each other in practice. For that was the year Bill Walton joined the team to give Boston the greatest 1-2 pivot punch the game has ever known or will know. Whatever we saw on display in the Garden on a Wednesday or Friday night might not have been half as compelling as what went on over at Brookline's Hellenic College gymnasium on Tuesday or Thursday morning.

"I'm 50 years old," says Walton, who was on hand to see his friend and teammate minted as a fellow Hall of Famer, "and I miss it all. But what I miss most are those practices. I couldn't wait to get to practice, knowing I was going to play against Robert Parish, who was better than everybody I'd be playing against on other teams."

"Bill Walton enhanced my game," replies Parish. "Those practices were better than games. Some days, when Bill was feeling good, he just disrupted practices."

Only a few of us were fortunate enough to see those scrimmages. But millions of fans got to enjoy Robert Parish's graceful elegance in actual NBA competition. Having him actually voted into the Hall of Fame only confirms what people in Boston already knew.

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