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3.23.2014

Robert Parish, Bill Walton, and the Issue of Race

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January 18, 1998
By Dan Shaughnessy

It's been ovation after ovation for the Chief. Boston basketball fans, a predominantly white crowd, always overcompensated in their appreciation of the Chief. He was, and is, the beneficiary of white guilt. Fans felt so guilty about their applause for Bird and McHale - both better players than Parish - that they went overboard when it came to the Chief. Parish never needed it. He was a great enough player on his own. And he was a player who chose to stay in the shadows. That's the way he liked it. He'd sneak out the locker room door while Bird and McHale were handing out the great quotes.

Chief was embraced anyway, but it was never enough. He'd occasionally stick the needle in, making a comment about how this was a city that likes its white stars. He was particularly irked at the response given to Bill Walton. In truth, Walton was cheered to a level beyond his contributions, but it's not because he was white. A latter-day Ernie Banks, playing for the Red Sox, would have been similarly adored. Still, whenever the Chief made a little dig about Boston liking white stars, lemmings at the Garden would just cheer even louder for Parish. They didn't want him to think they don't appreciate black stars. There was obviously nothing Parish could do to insult his Garden constituents. 

Now this is a juicy topic. One I don't believe I've seen addressed before in the blogosphere. So let's have a go at it.

Let's begin our analysis with an admission. Anyone who has read this blog for even a short period of time knows I am not a neutral observer when it comes to the subject of one William Theodore "Bill" Walton III. Like Bob Ryan, I believe that when healthy Bill Walton was the greatest center in the history of the NBA. At the same time, I thought Robert Parish was an outstanding center, too, definitely deserving of being named one of the 50 Greatest Players of All-Time. Without Robert Parish, the Boston Celtics are no longer in the discussion of the most talented frontline in league history. Without Robert Parish, the Celtics don't win 3 NBA titles in the 1980s. Without Robert Parish, Red Auerbach probably doesn't even make the deal for Bill Walton during the summer of 1985 and Beantown is probably not on Mountain Man's short list of teams to play for the following season.

With that said, let's repeat the question:

Was Bill Walton cheered beyond his contributions to the Boston Celtics (and largely because he was white)?

The answer to this question must come from his contributions during the 1985-86 season when he was healthy and actually played meaningful minutes (We can hardly evaluate how much he was cheered in 1986-87 when he rarely suited up or left the pine due to injuries). On surface, Robert Parish played more minutes, scored more points, grabbed more rebounds, blocked more shots, and had more steals than Bill Walton. Robert Parish was the starting center on a team that finished the regular season with a 67-15 record, 82-18 overall including the playoffs, and 50-1 at home. But somehow it was Bill Walton who was cheered like he was the Second Coming.

So maybe Robert Parish was justified in being irked. Bill Walton was "over-appreciated," assuming there is such a thing.

But let's keep going just for fun.

If we examine the contributions of the two players on a per-minute basis, our perspective changes a bit.


 


Walton actually outperformed the Chief in rebounds per minute, blocks per minute, and assists per-minute. Steals per minute were a virtual draw, and while Parish scored more points, Walton's assists more than made up the difference, where Mountain Man's output almost doubled the Chief's. Add in Walton's advantage in blocks per-minute, and one could argue that Walton was also responsible for denying more points than the Chief on a per-minute basis.

But these are just numbers, and someone might rightly point out that Double Zero's consistent and reliable play enabled Walton to play a limited role, one in which he could give full effort every second he was on the court without worrying about being asked to do more. Fine.

The question remains:

Was Bill Walton cheered beyond his contributions? Were Boston fans cheering more loudly for Bill simply because he was white?

My answer is simple.

Absolutely not.

When Red Auerbach stole Bill Walton from the Clippers, Celtics fans immediately understood the potential impact. If Bill Walton could stay healthy, the Celtics will have added a former league MVP, a former Finals MVP, and a team player the magnitude of someone else already on the team -- Larry Bird. Holy shit, Boston fans thought. This is gonna be fun. And we were intent on letting Bill know what we thought. This was gonna be a party from the opening bell of game 1. We loved what he brought to the team, and we were going to encourage the Big Readhead every chance we got. With Bill Walton, you never knew how long the party would last. So you better have fun while you could. And we did.

But, again, I must ask:

Was Bill Walton cheered beyond his contributions, and, if so, largely because of the color of his skin?

No way.

Bill Walton turned what had been a very good to occasionally great team from 1980 to 1985 into an historically great team in 1986, and not just historically great in basketball. This was one of the greatest teams in the history of sports. The level of mastery, artistry, and dominance has been seldom seen before or since. The 1985-86 team was as close to perfection as you will find.

Jordan's Bulls won more games, but they started Luc Longley at center. I mean, come on. Luc Longley? Right. Like he was gonna stand a chance in the playoffs against Walton, Parish, Bird, and McHale. Even if we throw Dennis Rodman into the mix, it's not as if Rodman could have single-handedly shut down the Big Four by himself. And this is the real reason we screamed so loud for Bill Walton.

We understood.

From the moment Bill Walton donned the Green, Celtics fans understood we were about to watch the '27 Yankees, Vince Lombardi's Packers, and the John Wooden's UCLA Bruins for an entire season. Up close and in person. Every time Bird and Walton were on the floor together, we had two players either one of which had a skin in the game for best all-around player of all-time. Only this season, they both played for Boston.

It was like teaming up Babe Ruth with Ted Williams.

Bobby Orr with Wayne Gretzky.

This is not to ignore or dismiss Boston's history of treating African-Americans disrespectfully. That history is very real and repulsive. Just ask Bill Russell and Dee Brown, among others.

But the reason we cheered so loudly for Bill Walton was not the color of his skin. We would have cheered just as loud if it had been Kevin Garnett wearing #5 and playing 19 minutes per game. If you  you need reminders as to why we cheered so loud, stay tuned...

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