Kevin McHale: Greatest Sixth Man Ever (well, until Bill Walton came along)

June 1984

Kevin McHale feels fortunate. His role as the Celtics' sixth man might not be understood or even appreciated in another city. But in Boston, it is a tested path to greatness, and he enjoys the benefits it brings.

Certainly one of the keys to the Celtics' championship was their bench strength, anchored by the 6-foot-11 McHale. His ability to play forward or center gave Boston extreme flexibility in its inside game. It didn't matter if he replaced Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell or Larry Bird. Good things happened whenever Kevin McHale took the floor.

And that's what being a sixth man is all about.

"It's a unique role," McHale said. "I like it. You feel important in this city, especially, because people understand the role more than other cities.

"In other cities, if you're not on the court when the whistle blows, you're considered a scrub, a benchwarmer. Here, you're considered an integral part of the team. People say, Gee, just wait until our bench gets in there. We got a good bench. McHale is the sixth man.' There's enthusiasm about it from everyone; that's always nice."

Still, he was appreciated widely enough to receive the NBA's Sixth Man Award.

The increased responsibility given McHale this year by K.C. Jones is actually a continuation of a move last season by Bill Fitch, who liked what he saw so much he broke up a front line that in 1980 had helped win an NBA title.

McHale, the No. 3 overall pick in the 1979 draft, figured to spend his whole career in Boston as a forward, because Boston had Robert Parish and a good backup in Rick Robey.

But M.L. Carr got hurt early in 1982, which forced Fitch to make some adjustments. Also, McHale was continuing to develop, and playing him at two positions would help solve the problem of getting him adequate playing time.

During McHale's rookie season, he was the fourth option, as the plays then were geared around Bird, Parish and Tiny Archibald. Now, McHale is often central to the Celtics' success - on offense, with his jump hooks and rebounding; and on defense, with his long arms and shot-blocking ability.

"What happened to me was kind of a stroke of luck," McHale said. "I was in the right place at the right time. He (Fitch) started playing me at both forward positions and the center spot. Things started happening for me real quickly. I got into games early a lot.

"But I'm not surprised. Anytime you're No. 3 in the draft, you must be capable of doing something right.

"It's funny," he said. "Most places, when you go third in the draft, there is a big whoop-de-doo about it. But I came to a team that had the best record in the NBA the year before and had Bird and Parish and Archibald. I kind of fell into the background.

"But that's fine with me today, because I liked being low key."

McHale is enjoying this championship season and the increased responsibiliti es - and rewards - created by his sixth-man status. "I felt I was a part of it in 1980," said McHale. "The guys accepted me real well, and I ended up playing a lot. But anytime you become more involved with a team, it's just as much fun, if not more fun.

"This year was sweeter because the final opponent was a team of extremely high caliber. When we played Houston in 1980, I was kind of waiting for the games to be over with. Just kind of wondering when the thunder was going to strike and we were going to be there. The series did go six games, but it didn't seem like it went six games. It seemed like we could win it at any time.

"Winning this year is a great thrill. The biggest thrill of that year was beating Philadelphia."

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