McHale steps from Celtics' shadows to have his number retired

January 30, 1994|By Michael Arace | Michael Arace,The Hartford Courant

BOSTON -- In Boston, Larry Bird was setting up easy layups by threading half-court, behind-the-back passes. In Los Angeles, Magic Johnson was closing his eyes, turning his head and lofting sweet, underhand alley-oops for his forwards to jam. That was the NBA of the 1980s, a decade defined by two master passers, one on each coast.

Bird led the Celtics to three NBA championships. Johnson won five with the Lakers. Together, they dominated the game while ushering in an era of unselfishness, in which players were ultimately judged by the answer to this question: Does he make his teammates better?

In this setting, Kevin McHale played out his career. McHale, who never met a pass he didn't like -- as long as he was on the receiving end. McHale, who never met a shot he didn't like -- as long as he was on the shooting end.

McHale may have been the most lethal low-post scorer in basketball history.

Already, it's almost easy to forget how good he was. Why?

In the era of the master passers, McHale was both blessed and cursed: Blessed to be the recipient of Bird's offerings, cursed to be in Bird's shadow; blessed with unique ability, cursed to be an amazing scorer when superstars were measured by their court vision.

On top of that, McHale has never paid much mind to where he might be placed in history. No offense, but he has other things to do.

McHale retired May 5, 1993, moments after he and the Celtics were eliminated by the Charlotte Hornets in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series. His No. 32 will be retired on national TV Sunday at halftime of the Celtics-Suns game.

These days, McHale, 36, works for the Minnesota Timberwolves as a special assistant coach and broadcaster. He has been spotted on national television, headphones in place, eating an ice-cream cone on air. Invariably, one of his five children is seen sitting next to him; the kid, too, wears headphones and is eating ice cream. Life is pretty good.

McHale wanted to win titles. He wanted to have fun. He managed.

He still can't believe he never had to work for a living.

He grew up in Minnesota, which borders Canada and is known for its beautiful lakes, sprawling dairy farms and dark mines. More specifically, McHale was reared in Hibbing, a city of 22,000 that has spawned the likes of Roger Maris and Bob Dylan.

In his youth, McHale was like every other lad in Hibbing; he figured he could kill time playing hockey until he had to get a job. Then, he would follow his father into the iron mines. No big deal. Indeed, McHale never thought about playing basketball at any level until he was 13, when he was a mere 5 foot 9. By the time was 18, he was 6-10. Even as he sprouted, basketball remained just another way to occupy his time. He preferred hockey, which, as it turned out, was like Dylan opting for electric over acoustic.

When McHale led his high school team to the state championship game, college basketball coaches were just beginning to notice him. When the tardy scholarship offers were tendered, McHale counted himself lucky merely to postpone his job search until after he enjoyed himself in college.

As McHale once recalled, this was the way he made his decision to go to the University of Minnesota: "One day I just told my parents I was going to school and they said, 'Oh good, we'll be able to watch you play.' I thought it was great to get a scholarship. My parents wouldn't have to pay and, better than that, I wouldn't have to take out all those student loans and be broke."

After starting for the Minnesota Golden Gophers for four years, McHale was widely known among NBA general managers. The Knicks were hoping to select McHale with the 12th pick in the 1980 draft. Wishful thinking. The Celtics had the No. 1 pick and wanted a big man. They traded their top pick to the Golden State Warriors for Robert Parish and the No. 3 pick, which the Celtics used to take McHale.

This deal was probably Red Auerbach's greatest swindle. The Warriors wound up with center Joe Barry Carroll, who, at one point, had a good season in there somewhere -- it's just that nobody can recall. The Celtics wound up with two future Hall of Famers to put in the frontcourt with Bird, a fair player in his own right. Perhaps the greatest frontcourt in the history of basketball had been assembled. Instantly, the Celtics were a power lode.

The Celtics had invented the sixth man, the idea being that a potent scorer off the bench could rip the heart out of a tiring opponent. McHale was perfect in the role. He went on to become the best sixth man of his generation -- during a time when important reserves were ripping off sweats all over the league. His scoring average improved in each of his first six seasons.

"Making him the sixth man and selling him on it was important," said Bill Fitch, the Celtics coach in McHale's first three seasons. "You've got to have those bench points and have them every night. Kevin got them."

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