The smile on Kevin McHale's face says a lot. His contract hassles are a thing of the past. He no longer feels inhibited in a Celtics offense that is imaginative and allows him to take advantage of all his skills. McHale seems to be having a ball coming off the bench for the Celtics, either as backup center to Robert Parish or backup power forward to Larry Bird. Backup, perhaps, isn't the right word. For, what McHale is doing is a reincarnation of the traditional Celtics "sixth man" principle, with a slight twist that has given the concept a new meaning.
The role was made famous by legendary Celtics Frank Ramsey and John Havlicek, both swingmen who could play either guard or forward with equal dexterity. In the '70s, the Celtics hung the tag on inside players Don Nelson and Paul Silas, because they also could play two positions. But both had liabilities no matter where they played. Nelson, a guard-forward, could shoot but not jump. Silas, a forward-center, could hold his own underneath against anybody, but some nights needed radar for a layup.
McHale is a combination of Nelson and Silas, but taller. His current role is ideal, with his college training and overall talents. McHale played forward for two years at the University of Minnesota because the Gophers had Mychal Thompson, now with the Portland Trail Blazers, playing center. McHale then shifted to strictly a center, until he became a swingman in his senior year because of Randy Breuer, now a reserve center with Milwaukee. The fact that McHale stands 6 feet 10, weighs 225 pounds and is willing to gallop with the Celtics' greyhounds fits in with what coach K. C. Jones wants to accomplish on both offense and defense.
Ramsey and Havlicek created mismatches with their size and speed. McHale accomplishes the same thing inside. He is strong enough to overpower many forwards who cannot stop his hook shots and other inside moves. Because he is basically a finesse player, big centers can muscle McHale. But he makes them pay for it, because he can also hit the jump shot, particularly the fade-away variety that only the pure shot blockers can reach, because of his unusually long arms.
"He's just like Ramsey and Havlicek" said Jones, "in that he can play two positions and score and play defense in both of them. But he gives us an added dimension in that he is a shot blocker and intimidator. "The thing I like most about him is that he gives us options. Coming off the bench, I can use him in various combinations, either with (Larry) Bird or (Robert) Parish."
McHale has been itching to play this kind of role for the Celtics since he arrived. But it was not possible as long as the Celtics had a legitimate backup center in Rick Robey. As a rookie, McHale averaged only 20.6 minutes. The next year, he averaged 28.4 minutes, alternating mostly with Cedric Maxwell at forward. Last year, he played 28.5 minutes a game, as former coach Bill Fitch began to use Robey less. Jones eliminated the middle man, and McHale is averaging 29 minutes for the first seven games. Rookie Greg Kite, the other center, has been in only one game.
"I do feel I can do more with my game," said McHale. "In the past, I've been inhibited somewhat by what we were trying to accomplish, but now I can go either inside or outside, depending upon the situation. I feel real comfortable. "I know it sounds corny, but I can't do any of this without my teammates. None of us are one-on-one players, and we need help to get a shot off. They're pressing and working hard to get the ball up the court. They make sure I get it in a position from which I can score."
McHale's thought reflects a basic philosophy, which he says is a return to a style of play that the club used often in winning the NBA title in 1980. "We fast break a lot because of the pressure," said McHale. "And that's where we get so many of our points. It's up to us big men to get out and run and get in position. That way, even if the break doesn't go, we're in a spot to do some damage."
The Celtics will be seeking their seventh straight victory and a measure of revenge tonight (7:30) in facing the Detroit Pistons at the Garden. The Pistons (3-3) handed Boston (6-1) its only defeat in the season opener in Detroit. Wednesday night, the Pistons stunned defending champion Philadelphia at home, 120-116. "We've got to be ready," said Jones. "They'll come here confident after beating us three times last year, and once already this year in Detroit. They ought to be feeling pretty good after beating Philadelphia. We've got our work cut out for us." . . . M.L. Carr has been in 500 NBA games, but he says he should also be credited for the 74 games he played in the old ABA with St. Louis.