McHale, Parish symbolize Celtics' decline Veterans struggle along with team

January 03, 1993|By Boston Globe

SEATTLE -- When he takes the court these days, Kevin McHale looks like a man toe-dipping his way into an ice cold pool. His steps are tentative and he often winces. Just last week, he spun himself into the lane during a scrimmage, a move he has made perhaps a million times, but his shot barely nicked the rim and he came away limping.

McHale's daily battle against the inexorable deterioration of his left ankle has come to mirror that of the Celtics.

The team's difficult struggle against its own obvious decline has never been more evident than on the just-completed road trip, which included lopsided defeats at Utah, Sacramento, Seattle and a six-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

One Sacramento writer sarcastically compared the significance of the last-place Kings' 118-102 win over Boston to the changes in Eastern Europe.

The effect of the trip has been not only to further expose Boston's fall from grace but to highlight the team's deficiencies, some of which have little to do with well-documented point guard problems. Management took a step toward alleviating part of that problem last week by activating 32-year-old John Bagley.

Asked whether he would describe the Celtics as poor, mediocre or good right now, Robert Parish responded:

"Well, we're definitely not good, and I wouldn't say we're poor. I would call us average. I don't want to use the word 'mediocre' because it makes you sound like you're talking about a church league or something."

More than anything, the Celtics' age and lack of athleticism have been showing. In the Utah game, the team had no one to match up with Karl Malone.

Few teams do, but the point was driven home the next game when Sacramento's Wayman Tisdale and Lionel Simmons, talented but hardly premier players, combined for 60 points against Xavier McDaniel and Alaa Abdelnaby.

During the first half Sunday, while Simmons was slicing through the Boston defense for 19 points, McHale was working out on one of the Kings' stationary bicycles, unable to play because of his chronically sore ankle. Whether he will be able to provide the offensive and defensive help that Boston so obviously needs now is another matter.

When asked about McHale after the Sacramento loss, Parish actually said, "We missed him, but I don't think Kevin McHale would have mattered tonight," an unthinkable statement in recent years. McHale himself is so uncertain of his status he is unable to even guarantee that he will not retire before the end of the season.

"Right now, I still feel like I'd like to be out there playing," he said. "But health is a big part of it."

Because of what the Celtics went through leading up to Larry Bird's retirement, there is a tendency to overlook McHale's significance. "To me, he's the second greatest post player in the history of the game, after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar," said assistant coach Jon Jennings.

"If you watch what some of the young guys in the NBA and in college are doing, they're using stuff that Kevin created. Kevin is a unique breed; he's a revolutionary player."

One of the finest defensive players during the '80s, McHale could shut anyone down on any given night.

Now, as he himself admitted before the start of the season, his ankle has limited him severely. He said wistfully, "I wish I could go out there again and just lock someone up. Just say, 'There is absolutely no way this guy will score on me, no matter what he does.' "

Those days are obviously gone. At this point, the obvious question for McHale, who has done everything, is financially secure and is now playing out his historic career on a team in transition, is 'Why?' "I just like to play," he said. "I don't think there's anything of biblical proportions about it. I just like to play basketball."

To this point, the changing of the guard has been symbolized by Reggie Lewis, the team captain, but Lewis has been strangely quiet lately, continuing the question of whether he can assume the role that is expected of him.

Lewis' shooting slump may be just that, something he will shoot his way out of. The point guard problems also have contributed, but it may be that Lewis is having trouble adjusting to different defenses that are being thrown at him.

Chris Ford has said that teams have been playing Lewis differently than last year, using different people against him throughout the game.

Meanwhile, it is still difficult to tell what is happening with Parish. The oldest player in the league at 39, he was virtually no help offensively on the trip, tried to find his range, missing short, then long, then long again on his fallaway, never to find it, really.

The team hopes now that Bagley can be the agent to address many of these problems.

Bagley said that his goal would be, "to make sure that everybody gets off with their game." If he can't, it will be difficult to continue foisting most of the blame on the point guard situation.

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