September 7, 2003
It's easy to remember the golden days of the Chief. The Celtics didn't win a title in the Bird era without him and they would have gone titleless without him. But to listen to Parish speak Friday prior to his Hall of Fame induction was to listen to someone who not only never thought about the Hall of Fame, but also was contemplating a new line of work before he ever came to Boston. That's because Parish spent the first four years of his career on a dys-functional, selfish, going-nowhere team in Golden State, playing for an owner who did not want to pay anything to keep him.
"I seriously thought about retirement," Parish said. "I wasn't enjoying the game."
He wasn't a particularly enjoyable player to watch at that time, either. Think Vin Baker, last year, and combine him with the under achieving Michael Olowokandi of last year and you sort of get the Robert Parish of 1976-80. He was your basic rotisserie player for the Warriors, filling up the stat sheet for a losing team.
No one could have envisioned 17 more NBA seasons for him. No one could have anticipated him becoming one of the top 50 players of all time, being an MVP candidate, being a pivotal part of three world champions. And even in his early days in Boston, it was a struggle. Bill Fitch called him a big stiff. Fitch ran him ragged, including one memorable stretch in an exhibition game after the sudden retirement of Dave Cowens when Parish picked up foul after foul and Fitch made him stay out on the floor.
But Fitch turned him into one of the best running centers of his time. That's an oxymoron these days; there are few centers and fewer teams that actually run. It didn't hurt that Parish found the perfect atmosphere in which to blend, which had always been his idea of hoop nirvana. He could be himself, cede the spotlight, and go about his business.
And did he ever do it well - and regularly. Unlike Larry Bird or Kevin McHale, Parish never broke down. He never played fewer than 74 games as a Celtic. He was into taekwondo when it wasn't cool because he didn't feel he was quick enough getting to rebounds. He cared about nutrition and gave up wine. He took care of his body to the point where doctors and trainers marveled at his healing prowess. And he played the first seven years in Boston not knowing he had only 80 percent extension in his right (shooting) elbow.
Fittingly, durability and longevity meshed with a sufficient amount of talent to guarantee Parish a spot in Spring-field. McHale said he admired the durability and reliability of Parish more than any other teammate. The Chief made it to the Hall in his first year of eligibility, joining another unsung player in James Worthy. You may not like Parish's behavior off the court, but basketball is the only yardstick for Springfield, and Parish was clearly a quality candidate.
He left the Celtics in 1994, just as things were starting to disassemble. My only regret: that he wasn't here when Rick Pitino came. Now that would have made for one interesting relationship. (Wonder whether Pitino would have called Parish "son.") He spent two years in Charlotte and then added another ring as a bench warmer/guru for the Bulls. Former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause loved Parish and called him "Bob."
Parish said he wants to get back into the game. Those of us who knew him when he played for Boston swore he'd never set foot in a gym once he retired. He just didn't seem to enjoy it with the appropriate zeal. But the guess is now that he's enshrined and has a renewed dedication, Parish's Wilderness Years will come to an end. Someone, somewhere, should be able to find a place for a guy who learned so much and is eager to pass it on.
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