The torch had been passed, the old had given way to the young. But before he left the court Wednesday night to celebrate the elimination of the Boston Celtics with his Charlotte Hornets teammates, Alonzo Mourning showed a touch of class. He paused to pay tribute at a moment tribute was due, the last game of an all-timer.
He hugged Kevin McHale.
Speaking of McHale and the other venerable Celtic, Robert Parish, Mourning said, "With all they've accomplished, all they've done for the league, it was an honor just to be on the floor with them."
Nice. Apparently, there's depth behind that fierce game face and truculent on-court demeanor.
Just a few seasons ago, it seemed the Celtics fabled front court would play forever. But back miseries ended Larry Bird's career, and now, aching feet, ankles and just about everything else, souvenirs of 13 seasons on the hardwood floors of the NBA, have forced McHale to retire. He's 35, but an old 35. "It was so much fun when I was healthy. . . and so hard when I wasn't," he said.
Though he played in Bird's huge shadow, McHale is a Hall of Famer, a seven-time All-Star who excelled on both ends of the floor, either as starter or sixth man. He is 6-10 but played inches taller because of his extraordinarily long arms. When he got the ball down low with his back to the basket, he was virtually unstoppable.
That's not my word. It's the one Pat Riley used for McHale during those glorious Lakers-Celtics wars of the '80s.
Miami Heat center Rony Seikaly made a pretty move from the low post this season, eliciting a rare hyperbolic outburst from broadcaster/league elder Jack Ramsey. "The McHale of the '90s!" Ramsey suggested.
Drink the decaf next time, Jack. Seikaly has nice moves, but McHale was the best low-post player these old eyes have ever seen, and they've seen them all, going back to George Mikan. McHale would fake, spin, pump, slip, slide, shake, slither, quiver, vibrate, levitate, agitate until he was going one way and his defender the other. He was doyen of the drop step, prince of the pivot, equally adept at shooting over or under his man, driving to the hoop or stopping and popping a fadeaway jumper.
When Danny Ainge was with the Celtics, he used to joke that throwing the ball in to McHale was like throwing it into a black hole -- it never came back out. But the Celtics never complained. McHale finished with a .554 career field-goal percentage. They just kept throwing it in to him.
McHale was easy to kid. For one thing, he was kind of funny-looking. In addition to those outlandishly long arms, he has a large, squarish head and shoulders that approach ear level. Once, while shooting a foul shot, an opponent looked at him and said, "I know you. You're Herman Munster."
It fit and stuck.
But Munster could give at least as well as he got, and no Celtic, not even Larry Legend, was immune from a jab or a quip. That made McHale a writer's dream, which is why he regularly made the all-interview team selected annually by NBA beat writers.
But he wasn't picked for just his wit. His intelligence, candor and perspective were sought out and appreciated. He could be evocative, too, rare for a professional athlete. I'll never forget McHale talking about what was most gratifying about winning a championship. He said it wasn't the money, fame or even the ring. It was those few minutes alone with teammates in the locker room before the rest of the world came crashing in. It was the overwhelming feeling of oneness, the rush, the high only that a small band of players and coaches could share.
But if you couldn't share it, McHale enabled you to at least imagine what it must feel like.
There won't be any Celtics championships to celebrate in the foreseeable future. Terrible misfortune has decimated the NBA's most storied franchise. The death of Len Bias before he ever played a game left a hole that has never been filled. Then came Bird's forced exit. Now, two more hammer blows.
Before games, they list players out with injuries on the scoreboard in the Charlotte Coliseum. Usually,they're ankle sprains or twisted knees. Wednesday, under Reggie Lewis' name, it said, "cardiac abnormalities."
Lewis was selected team captain at the start of the season, with the approval of elders McHale and Parish, who, at 39, is nearing the end. Lewis was to be the Celtics' star around whom they would rebuild. Now, it appears his career is over just as it was taking off.
McHale's career is over, but there are no regrets. His body told him it was time.
So long, Herman Munster. Thanks for taking the high road in the low post.