The 10th Grade Growth Spurt Changed Everything
June 13, 1980
He left the Iron Range carrying an overnight Val-Pac, hooked up with his agent in Minneapolis and arrived in Manhattan pondering life in the Bay Area.
He'd been scouted, weighed, measured, graded, stamped prime and summoned to The City for drafting and media evaluation since the NBA was certain he'd go in the top three.
Golden State, Kevin McHale was told by people who are supposed to know. Third pick overall. Boston will go for Joe Barry Carroll. Utah . . . they've gotta fill seats . . . will grab Darrell Griffith. Golden State will take you.
OK, McHale decided on Seventh avenue Monday morning. Fine with me. And proceeded to muffle the cacaphony 17 stories below with a nap.
"Hear Boston made a trade?" agent Ron Simon informed him upon arising. "Holy cow," McHale thought. "A whole new perspective. Golden State'll take Joe Barry now." At 1 a.m. Utah GM Frank Layden called. The Jazz were going to take Griffith. Had to.
McHale crossed two names from his mental mock list. "I wonder," he mused, falling asleep, "what it'd be like to play for Boston?"
The growth spurt, as Josephine McHale remembers it, began somewhere around 10th grade. Until then her second son was a 5-9 hockey player with cold feet. "Thirty below," Kevin remembers. "An outdoor rink. It had to be warmer inside."
He began playing basketball at Hibbing High, making the varsity when someone else left the squad. "He'd sprouted so fastthat he was awkward," Paul McHale says, "with the legs and all. But you could see him progress in the 11th and 12th grades and get his coordination."
By senior year McHale was 6-9 (the name was Irish, the genes Croatian) and the Hibbing Bluejackets were 25-2. They murdered people in the sub-regionals, literally doubling opponent's scores, and reached the state finals.
Where McHale's name was mentioned in the Daily Tribune the accompanying adjective was usually dominant.' Four blocked shots in the first two minutes. Onequarter, five shots, 10 points. Sixteen rebounds a game. Utah coach Jim Marsh began turning up at the McHale house. A lot.
"We got to really like him," Paul McHale says. "He'd drop by and we'd chew the fat. You might have found him here anytime."
Recruiting letters arrived by the boxful that winter but most of them were left unopened. Utah, where Jeff Judkins showed him around, was the only campus McHale visited - "Kevin felt he didn't want to waste anybody's money," says Josephine. And went there mostly to be polite, because Marsh had been so earnest and persistent. McHale knew he was going to Minneapolis. And the U of M. "I wanted to be a Gopher," he says. "As simple as that. Home ties, home state."
He'd been told he probably wouldn't start there as a freshman; the six best Gophers were all returning. But by the third game McHale had cracked the lineup, shooting 55 percent and grabbing a dozen rebounds a night.
His marksmanship remained reasonably constant for four years (1704 points in all, second only to Mychal Thompson in U of M history), but that was gravy. McHale summoned up visions of Sikma, Cowens, Robey, a runner and banger who wasn't afraid to stick his nose and elbows in for a rebound.
His parents rarely missed a game, driving 180 miles each way. "Many nights it would be 30 below zero," Paul remembers, "and there's a lot of desolate country between here and Minneapolis. You're praying all the way back that the old car is going to keep going."
On the way Josephine would tell her husband that Son No. 2 was going to be a pro. "She could see it. I'd tell her, don't say that to other people. They'll think you're bragging."
McHale played in the World University Games and beat out Ralph Sampson for the starting job on the US team at the Pan American Games last summer. Bobby Knight, who does not love everybody, loved him.
He played in Madison Square Garden as Minnesota made the NIT finals this winter. He was visible, highly visible, in the postseason draft showcases - the Coaches' All-America game in Indianapolis, the Pizza Hut and the Aloha Classic, where he was MVP. Carl Scheer, who wanted McHale badly at Denver, winced. Too many people who hadn't noticed before were drooling. He was no longer a masked man from the Range.
The day of the Guaranteed Public NBA auction is the day of the locust at 52d and 7th; the jammed lobby and staircase at the Sheraton Centre evoke the last days of the Saigon embassy. Everyone has to, needs to get Upstairs.
Uptown dudes in high-cut Connies and clipboards and stockbrokers stealing a few minutes at noon are pushed shoulder to shoulder and 20 across, surging vaguely toward the mezzanine as noon comes and goes and the first name filters down . . . Carroll . . . Carroll . . . Carroll. Yeah.
Upstairs, security guards block the doors to the Imperial Ballroom B where the scene is somewhere between a Democratic state convention and the old Copacabana on a Saturday night. (Man, I got to get in, you don't understand. You do know who I am?)
Tables for each club are plunked in the middle like lily pads. The Public is stuffed at the rear, just inside the doors. Up front the commissioner is talking into a microphone . . . 6-foot-4, a hundred ninety pounds, from Loueeville, Darrell Griffith. McHale nods. No surprise there.
"Boston," O'Brien continues, to a chorus of boos from Knickerbocker provincials, "selects 6-foot-11, 235 pounds . . ."
"That's me," McHale concludes, and the next four hours are a yo-yoing blur. McHale walks through the partition and moves across a dining room where place setting, luncheon rolls and full water glasses wait untouched, to the press room.
Carroll is still being interviewed at the podium, two feet above a thicket of microphones held by eager Manhattan gnomes. "Give it my best shot," he murmurs repeatedly. Do the best I can. Can't predict the future."
Within nine seconds McHale is also surronded by gnomes, who have managed to have grasped the essentials. He is a big man labeled for Boston, which now has a number of big men. He is an Irish name joining the Celtics. For 30 seconds of quick tape, that is an encyclopedia.
For 10 minutes McHale talks in four directions at once (fortunately this is easy, no Celtic since Charlie Scott gets words out faster) as the gnomes scribble key phrases. "Elated . . . remember watching Red Auerbach on TV as a kid . . . my father's dancing a jig right now . . . fun to play with The Bird . . . help the team any way I can . . . like a dream come true."
The draftees are walking in one by one now and the gnomes recede and regroup around them. North Carolina's Mike O'Koren, dazed, enters the room on tiptoe. "Michael can't come down," McHale proclaims, delighted. "He's flying. He's excited. Noo Jersee."
Left unattended for a moment, McHale scans the room for an unoccupied phone. "How do I dial?," he asks a bystander. "One and out?"
A receiver is lifted in the North Country, area code 218. "Lynn? . . . How you doing? . . . Isn't that super? . . . Mom there? . . . Yeah, the line's busy at home."
"My mom's lost," McHale decides, hanging up the phone. "They can't find her. She's probably driving around aimlessly."
The next plane for Minneapolis leaves LaGuardia at 2:20 but Celtics VP Jan Volk says there has been a change of itinerary. "Red wants you to come up to Boston," he tells McHale and Simon. "Two o'clock shuttle."
It is now past 12:30 and the crosstown traffic is discouraging. "I sat in a cab for an hour this morning," Volk says. "We'd better get going."
"Ten minutes," McHale promises him. "I'll go pack." One Val-Pac, total? "Five minutes."
Outside a dozen refugee Boston fans, strangers in a strange land, rush toward him mumbling "autographs, gotta have autographs." McHale's eyes widen. "This is crazy," he tells himself. "Red Auerbach is waiting for me," he tells them, and slips up the backstairs to rendezvous in Simon's room.
"Thanks for the subway ride," he calls out to Simon's brother Howie.
"72d Street," Howie reminds him.
"I love 72d Street," McHale shouts, heading for the elevator. "My first time on a subway. And the lights go out for five minutes. Nobody even flinches. Nobody reacts. And I'm paranoid."
Well, semi-paranoid. McHale's line of play has taken him to Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Italy and every Gopher-eating pit in the Big Ten. New York, with its 7 a.m. jackhammers, disco skaters and scarcity of eye contact, amuses him as much as anything else.
The taxi careens out of 51st street and points uptown at the bridges. "The Big Apple," McHale sighs, stretching his legs. "Crazy. A lot different than Hibbing, Minnesota."
The same man who rents the Hertz cars - roomy air-conditioned Oldsmobiles from Clusiau's across the street - also drives the limousine at Chisholm- Hibbing Airport. This is not exactly complicated work; four Republic airliners arrive every day and four depart and all of them come through the Twin Cities at some point.
Actually Hibbing considers itself a Twin City - Chisholm is only seven miles northeast on Rte. 169, seven miles of lakes and ore mines. Stay on 169 and you will cover the Range, its towns (Hibbing, Chisholm, Buhl, Virginia) like pellets on an iron necklace.
Lake Superior is 75 miles east, the Canadian border roughly 100 miles north; winters, which begin in November, are brutally cold. If you live here, you are probably a Slovenian, a Yugoslav, a Scandinavian or an Italian, your grandfather probably spoke broken English, and you work for a mining company for $16,000 a year. Your son probably plays hockey. Very well.
Bill Baker, whose last-minute goal tied the Swedes at Lake Placid and probably saved the gold medal, lives in Grand Rapids. The scrappiest, hungriest line on the US team -- Buzz Schneider (Babbitt), Mark Pavelich (Eveleth), John Harrington (Virginia) came off the Iron Range. So did Bob Dylan.
Hibbing, the largest town along the necklace (23,000) was named after Frans Dietrich Von Ahlen. Sort of. His mother's name was Hibbing. Von Ahlen, who had a nose of iron, unwittingly built his town atop the area's largest ore deposit in 1893.
Upon learning this two decades later, residents decided the iron was more important than the town, and dismantled it piece by piece. The last building was finally resettled in 1958; the natural ores had all but run out by 1963.
"The steel companies weren't interested any longer," Paul McHale recalls. "There was an awful lot of unemployment here then. It drove home the point that mining was the lifeblood of the town. When miners weren't working, nobody else was either."
Fortunately, a lower-grade substance called taconite, in ready supply on the Range, produced tolerable iron if smashed to powder and sifted.
So people are employed and reasonably well-off these days; Paul McHale, one of 11 children, will have worked for US Steel for 40 years this summer. His family lives in a comfortable one-story house on Outer Drive with a backboard on the garage and they leave the doors open, as most folks do here.
All around town huge stacks of firewood (which has jumped to $30 a cord) dry on front lawns and nobody worries about theft. Crime is not a serious problem on the Range; beery teenagers tearing around in cars seem to be the primary civic headache.
Pleasures are basic; half the homes are wired for cable TV, complete with Home Box Office and everything Ted Turner can put on the air. There is one movie house, the Lybba, a drive-in on the way to the airport and a fraternal row - Masons, Moose, Elks - on Howard street.
There are also 10,000 lakes within driving distance (or so the license plates say) and more across the border. Paul McHale and his two sons have been known to find a fat walleye or two beneath the surface and have happened upon a partridge in the woods now and again.
Tomorrow morning after John McHale comes up from Wisconsin, Kevin and a mutual friend will fly across the border to Red Sand Lake and get lost for a while. When Kevin returns he'll set up his weights in the garage. "And about a month before I go to Boston," he says, "I'll kick 'er down hard."
Once across the bridge the traffic melts away; Boston by 3 p.m. will be no problem. "Like Chinese food?," McHale is asked.
"Yeah, once in a while, sure."
"Auerbach," he is informed, "loves Chinese food."
"Bahston," McHale says. "Hope I don't pick up that twang."
Before McHale boards the shuttle he gets the full Chamber of Commerce briefing. Lots of Irish in Boston, great Italian food. Share the building with a train station. Nothing - the ocean, the mountains, the woods - more than an hour away. College town. If you like Minneapolis . . . Good fishing. Celtic Pride taken seriously.
At 3:20 McHale walks into the Blades and Boards Club at the Garden, sits down next to Bill Fitch and Auerbach and squints at a bank of spotlights and gnomes who speak with twangs.
"How does it feel?," one of them says.
"I'm elated," Kevin McHale begins anew.
The Kevin McHale story appears somewhere deep in the sporting pages of the Daily Tribune Wednesday afternoon. More precisely, it is a UPI roundup story that mentions McHale, the best basketball player to come out of Hibbing since Dick Garmaker (who played for the Lakers when they were near a lake), in the final few paragraphs.
The Tribune had not planned on covering the triumphant homecoming at the airport; Dan Anderson, who is both the sports editor and his entire staff, is busy punching in softball scores. "Didn't know when he was coming in," Anderson says. "He didn't call us."
Anyway, everybody already knows McHale was drafted by Boston. The news went up in magnetic letters at the Village Inn and the Security State Bank and was posted on the garage door of Lynn Spearman's house down the street.
Besides, the draft was shown live on cable here. Shirley Von Alman could hear the McHale clan cheering from her house several doors down.
Now, at 5:32, the clan - which is to say Paul, Josephine, Tricia, Mary, niece Jeannie, her husband Michael and Lynn Spearman, Kevin's fiancee - has gathered in the airport lobby to render appropriate homage to the nation's No. 3 pick overall. They appear to be the extent of the welcoming committee, and are not surprised by this. Republic Flight 997 is on time, and through the terminal window a 6-foot-11, 235-pound center/forward from the University of Minnesota sees a green banner unrolling - Welcome Home Boston Celtic.
"Oh no," Kevin groans, horrified. "Get that thing down."
"He's embarrassed," Josephine whispers.
At home two shamrocks have been taped to the front door and Kevin's car, the 14-year-old Brown Bomber, is in the driveway. The odometer reads 140,000. McHale plans to drive it to Boston. Why not? Hasn't broken down yet.
"Well, what do you think, Paul A.?", says Kevin, heading instinctively for the back door.
"Come around this way,' says Paul.
"Now I get drafted, I use the front door, huh?"
"No," Paul says, pointing to a visitor. "I meant him."
Josephine goes in to prepare dinner - garlic bread, a platter of steaks, fried potatoes, salad with two kinds of dressing, cake with whipped cream and pineapple. There has always been plenty of food in the McHale house, of necessity. "For a snack," recalls Josephine, "Kevin would come home and eat several slices of toast and one of those large cans of fruit cocktail. He'd eat it right out of the can."
McHale changes into a green T-shirt and gold Gopher shorts and flops lengthwise on the floor next to the bookcase, which contains the World Book encyclopedia and the Bible. "Lonnng two days," he says. "Feel cooped up." Presently, he opens a leather shoulderbag and starts passing out Celtics souvenirs, courtesy of the management.
He unfolds a pennant - "Red told me to put it on my wall, and think about Boston." He pulls out a T-shirt. "Extra-extra large." He tosses a lighter to Lynn and decides his father should have a key chain that reads World Champions. The gold lettering around the rim is starting to fade.
Although McHale has decided he'll be buying his father a new truck and his mother a dining room set, money is never mentioned. It is assumed that since both Auerbach and Simon are reasonable men, they will decide on a reasonable salary for the first Celtic Gophersince Kleggie Hermsen.
It is also assumed that McHale will do whatever is asked of him to earn it. "My job is to play basketball," McHale says. "Ron's job is to talk."
When letters and calls came from agents this winter, they largely went unanswered. McHale had heard good things about Simon, a Minneapolis attorney who doubles as president of the U of M alumni association. "I chose him," McHale says, "because he didn't need it."
Simon will take it from here. Rookie camp begins in August. The flight to Red Sand Lake leaves Saturday morning. "My brother John's organized," McHale says. "I just go along."
Now, he wants to drive plastic golf balls a grand total of 30 feet. His younger sister Mary, who confirms his nine-hole scores on the side (yes, he did shoot a 40), may shag. Then again, she may not.
"I pulled a muscle," she says. "Right here."
"Can't have a pulled muscle there," McHale says clinically. "Gotta be at the point of attachment.
"I do," Mary says. "Really."
So McHale takes an iron and starts chipping balls towards a neighbor's house and shagging them himself. "Take a few swings, mother dear," he advises Josephine. "Loosen up." Josephine declines.
McHale shrugs, bends, chips, peers off into the distance, 30 feet away. "Right on line," he decides.
"Just like being in New York," he is told.
McHale nods solemnly. "No horns. No hustle, no bustle," he says. Home on the Range.
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