August 26, 1997
OK, so Robert Parish went one year too long.
That leaves 20 years of greatness in a sport where you qualify for a pension if you can last four seasons. You will see the center jump restored to professional basketball before you see another player last 20 years in this sport. Robert Parish, who announced his retirement yesterday, played in more games than anyone else in NBA history, and that record is not likely to be threatened by anyone alive, in the oven, or present simply in the gleam of someone's eye.
Robert Parish entered the NBA in the Gerald Ford administration. He predates the 3-point shot, not to mention the VCR, the microwave, and the ATM. He played against Sen. Bill Bradley. He played against John Havlicek. He played against Bob Love, Campy Russell, David Thompson, George McGinnis, Downtown Freddy Brown, Elvin Hayes, and countless other outstanding players from the pre-David Stern NBA. That reminds me of something else. Robert Parish even predated ESPN by three years.
He played for 21 seasons, but he won't really be remembered for the first four and the final three. His legacy will be the 14 mostly glorious seasons he spent as a member of the Boston Celtics, during which he contributed significantly to three championships while being a member of what we in Boston firmly believe was the greatest frontcourt of all-time. We called it the Big Three, and while he was always regarded as the No. 3 man behind Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, the fact is during their 12 years as a unit the Celtics won fewer games when he was out of action than when either of the other two was.
He was the perfect companion for Bird and McHale because, professionally speaking, it did not take much to make him happy. He sometimes made sly jokes about not getting the ball, but if he really did care, he never allowed it to show on the floor. His face registered the same Mt. Rushmore expression whether he was able to get off 20 shots, 10 shots, or even no shots. And if he wasn't getting the ball, he never forgot that a classic center's primary duties were to rebound and play defense.
Bird and McHale were co-presidents of the Robert Parish Fan Club because he was, above all, reliable. They knew that if someone allowed a man to get by on defense Robert would be there to cover, not occasionally, but every time. Larry knew that Robert would invariably make the correct decision on the pick-and-roll. Everyone knew that Robert was a selfless pick-setter. And everyone also knew that if the team needed a basket, Robert Parish would be ready with one of those altitudinous, unstoppable turnaround jumpers.
In his lengthy prime, Robert Parish was as consistent an offensive center as the game has ever known, his final points-per-game totals dependent solely on the actual number of shots he was given. From 1980-81, his first year in Boston, through 1992-93 his shooting percentage ranged from a low of .535 to a high of .598. Here are the percentages for his first seven years in Boston: .545, .542, .550, .547, .542, .549, .556. In the next four years he went up, as follows: .589, .570, .580, .598.
He did this with a very nice assortment of shots that included a requisite number of dunks and layups, not to mention a reliable running hook. But the bread-and-butter shot - what Bill Fitch would call his "basic" - was that astonishing turnaround jumper.
I am a believer that a player's final legacy winds up being the image he leaves behind, and in Robert's case one everlasting picture for the mind's eye will be posting up medium high and launching that killer turnaround, a shot he took with such force that his momentum often carried him right out of bounds.
He also will be remembered for his unmatched ability to sneak away from dozing rival centers for layups and dunks. There isn't a center who played in the NBA during the past two decades who wasn't beaten down the floor at some time or another by Robert Parish. No one loved exploiting this great ability more than Bird, but then Bird loved everything Robert Parish, a k a The Chief, did on the basketball court.
The Chief. What a splendid nickname, courtesy of the irrepressible Cedric Maxwell, who decided that Parish's dignified, deadpan demeanor reminded him of the noble Will Sampson character in "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest." It was a classic nickname, because with his West Point posture and never-crack-a-smile face Robert Parish looked and acted like a man who could lead troops into battle.
The game that defined Parish and established his legitimate greatness was Game 4 of the 1984 Finals. Robert had not been alone in submitting a subpar performance in Game 3, a humiliating 137-104 loss to the Lakers, but he had played poorly, and there was no question that the Celtics were doomed if he didn't step it up. Parish responded with 25 points and 12 rebounds in a 129-125 double overtime victory. It was a must game and a must individual performance.
There are two Parish baskets I will never forget. The first was a long - and I mean L-O-N-G - textbook Parish turnaround to provide the winning points in an epic 145-144 victory over Denver in February 1982. No other player in the history of the game could have so casually launched a turnaround from this distance. Parish then preserved the lead by blocking a Billy McKinney jumper at the buzzer.
The second shot said everything about his stature in the eyes of the people who mattered on the court. With the Celtics needing a basket in the late stages of the famed Michael Jordan 63-point game of April 20, 1986, Bird orchestrated a pick-and-roll and unhesitatingly fed Parish for a 13-footer despite the fact that during the first 57-plus minutes The Chief had not connected on a single outside shot. This time, of course, he swished it. "If Robert Parish is open," Bird shrugged, "you give him the ball."
The allegations of spousal abuse that came to light after he left Boston are not trivial, and they may very well prevent his famous 00 from being hoisted to the FleetCenter rafters. I can honestly say I do not know that Robert Parish, and I am truly sorry if he really does exist.
Today I can speak only of the ballplayer. That Robert Parish I knew very well. He was magnificent.