11.26.2013

Sampson and Olajuwon Overshadowed by Some Tall Green Timber

June 1986

There was a shared tension in the household of Robert Parish early in the morning. His wife was going to Boston Garden to sing the national anthem. He was going to Boston Garden to work in the paint.

    Who was more nervous?

    "That's a good question," the 7-foot-tall Celtics center said, considering his answer after the Celtics had dumped the Houston Rockets, 112-100, yesterday afternoon to take a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals.

    Who had the tougher job? The woman, who had to step in front of the crowd of 14,890 people and sing a song she never before had sung in this place? The man, who had to step into that 16-foot-wide stretch of painted wood under the baskets where this game and especially this series of basketball would be decided?

    Who was more nervous?

    "She was," Robert Parish finally decided in his deep voice. "I'd been there before."

    Truth was truth. The woman -- Nancy Saad Parish -- was going into an area where she would be trying something new. Robert Parish was going to a familiar place to do familiar things.

    The trumpets all concerned the visitors to the ghastly green Boston Garden paint -- 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and 6-foot-10 Akeem Olajuwon -- but the local inhabitants knew the local rules. This has been a friendly home for a lot of people in white jerseys with green trim for a lot of springtimes, a lot of years.

    Why -- no matter who was visiting -- should this time be any different?

    "I still felt tight in the beginning," Robert Parish said. "I don't know why. Probably because we haven't played for a while. My arms, my legs felt tired. You know, tight. We didn't have our rhythm for the whole first half."

    This was a time to establish rhythms, a time to shed the cobwebs and rust of an eight-day layoff, "the first breath of competition" in the words of Celtics guard Dennis Johnson, the return to playing against strangers in strange uni-forms. This was a time to settle into the game that will continue as this best-of-seven series continues. A time to ex-plore the confines of the paint.

    "How did it seem in there?" reserve Celtics center Bill  Walton was asked. "Did it seem cluttered?"

    "At times . . . but, no, not really," Walton said. "I know what you mean. There are some big people who clutter everything underneath in some games, but these aren't those kinds of big people.

    "A lot of big men come to the game late, simply because they grow late. That isn't the case here, except for Olajuwon, and he isn't that way anyway. These are big people who have played the game all of their lives. I think all of us, if we were 6 feet 5, still would have been playing basketball. These aren't people who just stand around."

    Towers. The entire story was supposed to be towers. My towers against your towers, checkers and chess with large human beings. How could the Celtics handle Olajuwon and Sampson? How could Olajuwon and Sampson handle Parish and Kevin McHale and Walton, that extra variable? Towers vs. Towers. Towers in the paint. Pro basketball as a gothic novel.

    "Can either of those guys cover you one-on-one?" McHale was asked.

    "I don't think anyone can cover anyone one-on-one when the people are this big," the Celtics forward said. "You're in so close to the basket, if you just keep making moves, you're going to get past the guy for your shot. The defense always has to come from a second guy, helping out."

    Help in this situation came from everywhere. The paint was a magnet for help at both ends of the court. Throw the ball into a tower and people came running from distant area codes and Memorial Day barbecues. No tower ever stood alone for a very long time with the basketball.

    The game was to see which towers would be able to operate best, to see which towers had trouble. My towers against your towers. The game was to see where there would be a tower advantage, where the other towers would break.

    "One thing teams always have to consider when they play the Boston Celtics is fouls," Walton said, pointing out the area where the most obvious breaks occurred. "It's a big thing to consider. When we get someone in a foul situa-tion, we go right at 'em. It's a tough time for them."

    Here was Ralph Sampson, out of the game midway through the first period with three fouls. There was Akeem Olajuwon, out of the game midway in the breakout third period with five fouls, throwing his mouthpiece to the floor. Here was Robert Parish, tightness gone, rolling. Here was McHale, Walton, rolling. Here were the Celtics, roll-ing.

    There was Ralph Sampson -- one basket, two points, on the entire day.

    "I know how tough it was for him," McHale said. "You just have trouble when you get three fouls and you have to sit like that. You come back in the second and you want to do something, but you feel out of it. You're trying not to foul. You're never in the game. All day. You're never in the game."

    Life in the paint simply became easier and easier all day. One Houston tower was missing for a while. The other Houston tower was missing for a while. There was room to work, room to maneuver. All three Boston towers were rolling.

    "What were you guys doing against Olajuwon and Sampson?" Robert Parish was asked.

    "Trying to bother 'em," the big man replied. "Trying to keep 'em off the boards. Always conscious of keeping 'em away from the basket."

    The final statistics sheet showed Parish with 23 points, McHale with 21, Walton with 10. That was 54 points compared with Olajuwon's 33 and Sampson's 2.  Tower vs. tower? Towers in the paint? Home still was a friendly, familiar place.

    "What would you do if you were Sampson and Olajuwon?" Robert Parish was asked. "How would you adjust for the next game on Thursday?"

    "I'll let them figure it out," he replied on his way out the locker-room door.

    Time to leave. He had to go home with the lady who sang the national anthem.   

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