From now until February 11, Red’s Army will be posting stories about the players behind the Celtics’ 22 retired numbers and that one retired nickname. Stories will be posted in the order that the numbers were retired.
Basketball is kind of a weird game.
Although James Naismith was, as he claimed, just trying to find a way to keep a bunch of kids occupied and indoors in the middle of a Massachusetts winter, a few of the choices he made had long-term effects on the kind of people who excelled at the sport.
For instance, those ten foot high baskets.
That was the height of the balcony in that gym in Springfield, the most convenient surface to nail a goal to.
Naismith wasn’t setting out to find a suitable use for people of unusual height and build, but it kind of worked out that way.
Kevin McHale was one of them.
Not only was McHale 6′-10″, he came equipped with preternaturally long arms and a set of shoulders such that any time he wears a shirt it looks like he’s forgotten to take the hanger out of it. Kevin McHale would have been an awkward presence in just about any profession besides basketball.
Ah, but when it came to basketball…
When it came to basketball, Kevin McHale had his office, his black hole, his torture chamber down on the block, where he would get the ball and then get to work. Claiming to have as many as 50 different moves from the usual starting point right about where the big rectangle is on the free throw lane, back to the basket, McHale would make you look silly. Dodging and weaving, faking, twisting, with those long arms stretched out holding the basketball up above the fray, somehow–despite being guarded by the best big men in the league–McHale would fit himself into a little bit of daylight and, in twelve of the thirteen years he played, he would make a shot more often than he would miss one.
Once McHale got the ball down low, you would be money ahead betting on a basket on every shot, every season from 1980 to 1992.
At his peak, McHale was sinking shots at a 60% clip. In 1987, McHale became the founding member of the 60/80 club, shooting 60% from the field and 83.9% from the line. If you’re charitable and you round up his 79.7% the following year, he hit that 60/80 mark two years in a row.
Here’s a comprehensive list of players who’ve hit 60/80 since then:
And this wasn’t like DeAndre Jordan’s 70%+ shooting, where he’s a low volume scorer working in the relative freedom of today’s NBA low post. This was 60% shooting on 17 shots a night, in an era where the game was played very much inside out, with a tangle of guys right under the basket.
He did alright on defense too, although that was more Parish’s responsibility. McHale was named to three NBA All Defense teams.
McHale’s best years, statistically, came when the Celtics were past their peak. As Bird’s injuries mounted, McHale assumed more and more of the scoring responsibilities, and–like Bird–he opted to play through some injuries that unquestionably shortened his career.
In 1987, the year of the ‘junior junior sky hook’, McHale played the Finals on a broken foot that reduced him to using a patio chair from the hotel pool as a makeshift walker between games.
He still has a bit of a limp from that injury.
At the same time, McHale didn’t have Bird’s intensity on the court. Early in their careers, that used to drive Bird nuts. It took him a while to come to terms with the fact that a lot of the time, McHale was just having fun out there.
Larry had set the Celtics’ single game scoring record in ’84–53 points.
Two years later, in ’86, McHale broke Bird’s record, scoring 56 points.
After the game, Bird asked McHale why he hadn’t gone for 60, and McHale basically said, ‘I didn’t want to.’
Bird was, so the story goes, so ticked off by that answer that he went out and scored 60 points himself a few games later–just to make some point or another.
But that was McHale–he always seemed this close to breaking out in a grin out on the court. He was, Rambis clothesline notwithstanding, not a mean dude. And when he had you in his torture chamber, and pulled out one of those crazy maneuvers that left you wondering whether he got away with a travel and just why exactly it was you bought on that up-fake, he wasn’t gonna stare you down afterwards. Nope. There he’d go, jogging back on defense with a wry look on his face that kind of said, ‘that was pretty cool, wasn’t it?’
McHale is the second most famous native son of Hibbing, Minnesota (the most famous being Robert Zimmerman, although you probably know him by another name.) The son of normal sized parents, McHale hit a growth spurt in high school and just kept growing. The University of Minnesota, an outfit that–as a South Dakotan, I feel fully justified in saying this–has woefully underachieved in basketball for about the last hundred years, was then staffed by coaches at least competent enough to recognize McHale’s abilities (though they were on one of their periodic probations from the NCAA).
While at Minnesota, McHale, quite easily the best player in the history of the Gophers program, teamed up with Mychal Thompson, twitter maestro and former professional basketball center. Their paths would cross again in the NBA. Thompson was the overall number one pick in 1978 (five picks ahead of Larry Joe Bird). McHale was drafted two years later.
Of course, the Celtics ending up with McHale was the result of a pair of pretty nifty Auerbach deals. The first one was so outrageous it sent the other team’s coach out of the league and into broadcasting–he’s done alright there.
In 1978, Celtics owner John Y. Brown had made a deal for Bob McAdoo without telling Red. Red was so incensed by this that he dang near took a job with the Knicks.
At any rate, Red was stuck with McAdoo (a Hall of Famer, who probably would’ve thrived in Boston under different circumstances).
Then along came Dick Vitale and the Pistons. M.L. Carr had signed with the Celtics as a free agent, and under league rules at the time, Detroit was owed compensation for Carr. Since the rules didn’t specify the exact nature of the compensation, it turned into kind of a horse trading session.
The Pistons wanted Bob McAdoo in exchange for Carr, and the Celtics balked at that. Eventually, the Pistons, who, remember, were owed compensation by the Celtics, agreed to send Carr and two picks to Boston in exchange for McAdoo–a player that Red didn’t want on the team in the first place.
People talk about how the Parish/McHale/Joe Barry Carroll trade was legal grand larceny, well, look at that deal. That deal is how Boston ended up with the overall number one pick in 1980 in the first place.
As happened in 2017 with Tatum, Auerbach knew two things about the 1980 draft: He knew who he wanted and he knew who Golden State wanted. And he knew that he could con Golden State into sending him a solid player and still draft exactly who he wanted to draft in the first place. The solid player was Robert Parish–because the Warriors thought Joe Barry Carroll would be a far better center–and the pick turned into Kevin McHale.
After McHale retired he continued to sort of hang around the NBA, eventually landing with the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he drafted another power forward named Kevin–albeit one with a decidedly less sunny on-court demeanor. McHale did a bit of coaching, did a bit of general managing, memorably traded Garnett to Ainge for a package of players and picks that he probably would have used more wisely than his successor did.
To no one’s surprise he was a first ballot Hall-of-Famer in 1999.
McHale’s back in TV doing analysis and telling stories–a job that he’s particularly good at:
“Larry walks up to Albert King and goes, ‘don’t take this butt-whuppin’ personally, I been eatin’ hot dogs all day.'”
The retired numbers project: