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.
Robert Parish brought an almost regal presence to the basketball hardwood. He was a lanky 7-foot-one-half-inch center, whose trademark move was a turnaround, high-arching, majestic jump shot. His stoic demeanor led teammate Cedric Maxwell to dub him “Chief,” after the silent character in the film, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Even his uniform number stood out: he’s the only Celtic ever to wear 00.
And yet, the one thing that fans most remember him for might just be when he clubbed the crap out of the hated Bill Laimbeer.
More about that in a bit.
Parish was in the middle between forwards Larry Bird and Kevin McHale – known collectively as the Celtics’ original Big Three. They formed arguably the greatest front line in NBA history. In their 12 seasons together, the Celtics went to five Finals and won three championships.
As individuals, Bird and McHale were more celebrated during their careers, and Chief was the third option on offense among them. However, it’s clear that Parish’s contributions were just as important to the banners hanging in the Garden rafters. In those five Finals, Parish more than held his own against opposing centers Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – a trio of all-timers who combined for 10 NBA MVP awards.
Parish played 14 seasons with Boston, and 21 overall (tied for the most ever with Kevin Willis and Kevin Garnett). He’s also the NBA’s career leaders in games played at 1,611. Parish scored 23,334 points on 53.7% shooting, pulled down 14,715 rebounds (8th in NBA history), and blocked 2,361 shots (10th). The Chief was a nine-time All-Star, twice All-NBA, and was named to the list of 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. He also won a fourth ring, in his last season, with Chicago.
An example of Chief’s greatness came in the 1988-89 season, when Bird missed all but six games due to injury. At age 35, Parish played 80 of 82 games, averaged 35.5 minutes, 18.6 points and 12.5 rebounds while shooting 57.0%. He was named third-team All-NBA.
Before the NBA, Parish played four years at tiny Centenary College in his hometown of Shreveport, La., where he averaged 21.6 points and 16.9 rebounds. (It’s interesting how many Celtics legends, like Parish, came from small schools not known as hoop powerhouses: Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, San Francisco; Sam Jones, North Carolina Central; Dennis Johnson, Pepperdine; Larry Bird, Indiana State; and Reggie Lewis, Northeastern.)
The Golden State Warriors drafted Parish with the eighth overall pick in 1976. He was there for four seasons, averaging 13.8 points as the Warriors made the playoffs just one of those years.
Before the 1980 Draft, Parish came to Boston via a trade that turned out to be one of the most lopsided in sports history. For the compete backstory of how Red Auerbach pulled it off, see Rich Jensen’s profile of Kevin McHale, but the basics were:
- the Warriors sent Parish and the third pick in the first round to Boston;
- the Celtics used that pick to select McHale;
- the Cs sent the first and 13th picks to Golden State, which drafted Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown, respectively.
To recap, the Celtics got two future Hall of Famers while the Warriors got one guy whose play was so indifferent he literally became known as Joe Barely Cares, and a second guy no one remembers.
With better teammates, Parish thrived in Boston. Operating from the low post, he would launch his rainbow jump shot from the baseline, wheel into the lane for a hook shot, or suddenly spin toward the baseline with a long stride to the hoop. That spin move was executed so quickly that Parish would usually slam home a dunk before his defender could react.
Parish was also fast. He had a knack for jumping into passing lanes, stealing the ball, and streaking the length of the court for a jam. He also could fill the lane on a fast break and finish with authority.
Yet another of his favorite moves was to come out on the wing as if to set a pick for Bird; as soon as the defense adjusted to that, Parish would slip the screen, cut to the hoop, and collect a pass from Bird for an easy two before the weakside defense could react. Everyone knew it was coming, yet couldn’t stop it.
Parish was known for studying martial arts. “It’s given me a foundation for conditioning, flexibility, patience, focus, dedication,” he once explained. “And those carry over to my basketball career. Off the court, I’m more focused, patient, and understanding.”
The Chief was not patient – or stoic – when he beat down Detroit’s Bill Laimbeer in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. That series went seven games and was peak ’80s NBA: high-scoring, overly physical, no one backing down, a war in the paint.
In Game 3, Laimbeer had lived up to his reputation as the league’s dirtiest player by grabbing Bird around the neck and driving him into the floor. Now in Game 5, during a rebound battle, Parish took Laimbeer’s elbow to the throat and decided he’d had enough. For anyone who thinks Laimbeer didn’t deserve to be pummeled, listen to what the national TV announcer says about his reputation.
Shockingly, Parish was not called for even a common foul (the call being made was on someone else). The Chief stayed in the game, which the Celtics won when Bird famously stole the ball and fed DJ for a last-second layup.
Chief was suspended for Game 6 at the Pistons’ arena (probably just as well), but he played in Game 7, had 16 points, 11 boards and two blocks, and the Cs won.
There was another incident involving Parish, this time off the court, that could’ve been troublesome but was actually amusing. Parish was caught with marijuana when a police dog sniffed weed in a FedEx package addressed to his home. Charges were dismissed, and it’s unsure if he suffered any NBA penalties, but he was the butt of “Inhale to the Chief” jokes for a while.
After Parish’s last Celtics contract expired, he played two years in Charlotte before winning that fourth title with the Bulls. One more amusing story came from that final season. Parish wasn’t star struck by playing with Michael Jordan.
In one of his first practices with the Bulls, Parish botched one of the plays and was amused to find Jordan jawing at him just inches from his face.
“I told him, ‘I’m not as enamored with you as these other guys. I’ve got some rings too,’ ” Parish recalled. “At that point he told me, ‘I’m going to kick your ass.’ I took one step closer and said, ‘No, you really aren’t.’ After that he didn’t bother me.”
Parish was 43 when he finally hung up his sneakers. He remains the oldest player to win an NBA championship.
The retired numbers project: