While they were not mismatched like Oscar and Felix, playwright Neil Simon's classic "Odd Couple", Celtic greats Larry Bird and Kevin McHale combined their superb skills, size and talent, as well as disparate personalities, to form the greatest forward tandem in NBA history from 1980-92.
In a two-year span, Red Auerbach and the Celtics acquired two of the greatest forwards in league history through shrewd draft selections. Red picked Bird sixth overall as a junior eligible in 1978 but could not sign him until after he finished playing for Indiana State in 1979.
McHale was chosen with the third overall pick in the 1980 draft after Auerbach traded the top pick and a later first round choice to Golden State in exchange for center Robert Parish and the Warriors' number third selection.
Bird, of course, was the 1979-80 Rookie of the Year after leading Boston to a 32-game improvement from 29-53 to 61-21, a record season upgrade at that time. But Boston came up a little short, literally and figuratively, in their quest for the championship as they lost to the 76ers and their huge, younger frontline in the East finals, 4-1.
With the acquisition of the 7-0 Parish and 6-10 McHale to go with Bird and Cedric Maxwell, Boston got much younger and bigger, and laid the groundwork for more than a decade of dominance behind the greatest frontline in NBA history.
And the two greatest building blocks in that frontcourt were Bird and McHale.
In their first season as pro teammates in 1980-81, Larry and Kevin accomplished something neither did in college or high school despite playing on some top teams - they won a championship.
As a senior Bird and previously undefeated 33-0 Indiana State lost in the celebrated 1979 NCAA finals. Meanwhile, McHale's Minnesota squad lost to Virginia in the 1980 NIT championship in his senior season, back when that tournament was still very prestigious, not the also-ran tourney it is now.
In high school, McHale was named Minnesota Mr. Basketball in 1976, but his team lost in the AA state title game. The unsung Bird, in retrospect, obviously should have been Indiana Mr. Basketball in 1974.
But he was overlooked due to playing at a very small school that did not even make it to regionals in the Indiana all-classes state tournament. That he toiled in the under-respected southern part of the state also worked against Bird. Even though Larry averaged 31 points and 21 rebounds a game, he barely made the all-state team and was only given the last scholarship to Indiana University by Bob Knight when Steve Collier, the since-forgotten 1974 Hoosier Mr. Basketball, spurned IU and decided to play at Cincinnati.
Thus going into that 1980-81 campaign, the two eventual Hall of Fame forwards and members of the NBA 50 Greatest Players list were very hungry for a title. Second-year man Bird was the league's MVP runner-up and McHale was a top reserve and first team all-rookie selection on a powerhouse 62-20 Boston team.
Both played major roles as the Celtics rallied from 3-1 down to beat Philadelphia in arguably the greatest playoff series ever in the eastern finals.
In game six of that epic showdown with Boston clinging to a 99-98 lead, the long-armed and floppy-haired McHale made arguably the defensive play of the series. When 76er guard Andrew Toney drove in to shoot a runner that would have perhaps eliminated Boston, Kevin leaped high to block the shot of the Boston Strangler off the glass and then captured the rebound to save the day.
Boston held on to win 100-98 to even the series 3-3, then won a classic 91-90 decisive contest on Bird's 15-foot pull-up banker in the final minute. The Celtics then went on to beat back upstart Houston and Moses Malone in the Finals to capture their first title banner in five years, 4-2.
And so tipped off a great and incredibly productive pairing with great success. Even though Maxwell was Larry's forward starting mate from 1979-84, McHale always played key minutes as a sixth man, and Bird never won a title without Kevin, or Parish for that matter. It was with his lanky, loquacious forward runningmate that Bird would be at his most effective.
Maxwell was a fine inside scorer, a good offensive rebounder, underrated defender and good passer. But he was not unstoppable like McHale inside, nor as versatile defensively, nor as athletic. Because of his fine lateral movement, size, wingspan and leaping ability - not to mention his basketball intelligence - Kevin could guard small forwards like Adrian Dantley and Dominique Wilkins, big forwards like James Worthy or Kevin Willis, and centers of all kinds.
Cornbread was clever, tough in the clutch and is one of the most underrated Celtics ever, but his shooting range was very limited. A good defender too, he didn't have the size, hops or bulk at 6-8 to guard centers like McHale could.
When Max failed to rehabilitate a knee injury to the team's liking in 1985, leading to his eventual trade for Bill Walton, short-handed Boston failed to repeat as champs.
McHale stepped into Cedric's starting spot and in the pressure-packed 1985 Finals vs. the Lakers, he averaged 26 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting a blistering 59.8 percent from the field. Bird contributed 23.8 ppg, 8.8 boards, five assists and 1.8 steals a game in that series, but shot just 45 percent from the floor, partly due to right elbow and finger injuries. Nevertheless, McHale was very arguably the best Celtic player in that hard-fought Finals.
When he fouled out in the fourth quarter of game six on a very questionable call, his 32 points and 16 rebounds were forced to the bench, all but ending Boston's comeback chance to repeat, and indeed they lost without his considerable services.
Yet the loss and trade of Maxwell may been best for Boston in the long run as McHale, who moved from super sixth man to starter, became a superstar almost immediately and continued to improve. In fact, amazingly his scoring average increased every season over the first seven years of his career, until a serious foot injury occurred.
Over 21 playoff games in 1985, Kevin averaged 22.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.2 blockers per game while shooting 57 percent from the field. Those numbers were up significantly from 14.8/6.2/1.5/52 percent in the 1984 playoffs.
A superstar was born.
At the behest of Bird ("you go get that guy" he reportedly told Red) when Walton called Auerbach saying he wanted to play for the Celtics, Boston acquired McHale's idol Walton for Maxwell, and the big redhead was a great sixth man in 1985-86.
The practice sessions were some of the best competition the 67-15 Celtics faced that year as they ran roughshod over the league. Walton led the Green team second unit against the first string in spirited battles while he and McHale faced off and enjoyed memorable trash-talking sessions.
"G-g-go Green Team," Walton would stutter. McHale would laugh with the easy confidence of a great player, and reply, "Oh man, we are going to kill the Green team today."
Every once in a while Walton would make a superb play, and as they ran back downcourt McHale would tease Bill by saying "flashback 1977" (when walton was playoff MVP for leading Portland to their only NBA title.
Walton would answer, "A-a-absolutely."
Bird would get in on the act and tease Walton about his past political viewpoints and his vegetarianism. Danny Ainge, relieved that he was now not the whipping boy and butt of the jokes, called Walton "Mask" after the Rocky Dennis character. And Bill, healthy for the first time in years and playing on a great team, loved every minute of it.
In the meantime, Maxwell never did regain anything close to his pre-injury form with the Clippers or Rockets.
Bird wore number 33, McHale donned 32, with both jerseys retired and hanging from the Garden rafters shortly after each retired. But other than their teenage mutual admiration of Walton as teenagers and love of needling the big redhead, Larry and Kevin had more differences than similarities.
One had blonde hair, the other coal black. Larry was a bit of a neat freak, while Kevin sometimes looked like he just rolled out of bed.
When drafted third overall by the Celtics in 1980, Kevin quipped, "What better place is there to play for a big, white guy with an Irish surname than Boston?"
Larry, on the other hand, was the consummate small-town guy who was tentative about living in Boston and stayed to himself when he got to Beantown (although the city eventually grew on him, as Celtic great John Havlicek, also from a rural background, told him it would). Bird originally stated he planned to only play through the course of his first contract, then retire.
Bird was the best passing forward ever, while Kevin was viewed through much of his career as a "black hole" who rarely passed the ball back out once he got it inside, ready to do his low post magic. In the two seasons Walton played in Boston, his infectious unselfishness and superb passing skills even got Kevin and Parish to pass more.
Kevin hailed from Hibbing, Minnesota, the hometown of famed singer Bob (Zimmerman) Dylan, Charles Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, presidential candidate Gus Hall and baseball slugger Roger Maris. He was the son of an Irish-American iron miner and a mother of Croatian descent. Although its population was approximately 20,000, Hibbing was still roughly 10 times the size of Bird's hometown.
Larry was born in West Baden, Indiana and grew up in tiny, poverty-stricken nearby French Lick. He was the third son of a Korean war veteran who held many jobs, and Georgia Bird, who worked mostly as a waitress.
The eight-member Bird family moved 17 times in his first 18 years. His dad endured much mental anguish and job difficulty after killing an opposition soldier in hand to hand combat, became an alcoholic and committed suicide when Larry, reportedly his dad's favorite, was just 19.
Up to the 1930's, the French Lick area was booming economically due to its natural sulphur springs, famed hotels, Pluto water mail order business and gambling. Many major league teams held their spring training camps in French Lick during World War II, and the hotels were world famous.
The resort was a frequent spot for presidential campaigners, famous athletes, movie stars and other luminaries. FDR initially threw his hat in the ring for president at the French Lick Springs Hotel. A Bird family legend is that Al Capone tipped his grandfather $100 for carrying his bags, a lot of money back then.
But then when Pluto water was fond to contain lithium and the state government cracked down on gambling, the casinos suffered greatly and the area descended into severe poverty.
Thus even though McHale did not grow up with anything close to luxury, his household was more stable.
Larry was an introvert with a sharp, biting sense of humor, and McHale was a gregarious, loose, happy go lucky sort who nevertheless was a rugged competitor when between the lines.
McHale was the better individual defender and shot blocker, Larry the great team defender through position, smarts and anticipation. The hard-nosed Bird played the passing lanes well and was the consummate defensive rebounding forward, while the quick-leaping, long-armed Kevin was a beast on the offensive glass. Often McHale would jump quickly two or three times before finishing a putback.
And as always, better than any player in the history of the NBA, McHale never brought the ball down and always kept it up high. That way he got his soft shot off incredibly fast, and avoided letting smaller players reach in and knock the ball out of his hands or disrupt his shooting motion.
Many times McHale would take an entry pass from Bird and score with such a quick move and fast release that the defender would still be in mid-leap when the shot was nestling softly into the basket.
Although Bird could be a prankster himself, he was usually serious and reticent when it came to practice and games. Kevin was the one who put pieces of wadded paper in the open mouths of sleeping teammates while their heads reclined on airplanes, and kidded with opponents while lining up on the foul line during free throws.
Kevin ate pizza on the bench when hurt, joked with the opposition and was always talking to anyone in earshot. Bird was the great perimeter shooter, Kevin arguably the greatest low post player in NBA history.
"Kevin was the second-best low post player I ever played against after Jabbar," Walton has said many times. McHale actually switched from number 44 in college to 32 in the pros because Walton, who modeled 32 at UCLA and with the Blazers/Clippers, was his idol growing up. He had a poster of Big Bill on his wall.
Larry was a better leaper than given credit for, especially early in his career, but Kevin was the superior jumper, yet due to his long wingspan his ability to get up high and quickly is often underrated.
Bird was an instant success, earning Rookie of the Year and first team all-league in his first season. Kevin was a great sixth man for his first four years before the knee injury of Maxwell finally got him into the starting lineup in the 1984-85 season.
Sensing Kevin's vast potential, the harder-driven Bird tried to motivate the lanky 6-10 forward-center, saying he could "be the best player in the league if he worked harder."
"Why can't you be more like Larry?" asked Bill Fitch, coach of the Celtics from 1979-83, who was at times exasperated by McHale's less serious basketball dedication, at least compared to the no-nonsense Bird.
"Because I have a life," replied Kevin.
But of course the two also had some things in common. Both were extremely smart players, future NBA head coaches and GMs, with high skill levels and a ton of pride. Each was very good in the clutch and very competitive.
Bird had good low-post skills too, which he exhibited often from 1979-83 or so. But with the emergence of Kevin as a superstar, he moved his game mostly outside to accommodate the double low-post offense of McHale and Parish.
Ironically, had a few things gone differently, the two unsung and under-recruited high school stars might have even been college teammates.
Bird went to Indiana University briefly in the fall of 1974, while McHale was recruited by IU, one of only two out-of-state major schools to pursue him at all, with Utah being the other. Yet the Utes also had 6-10 future NBA star Tom Chambers and another NBA forward in Danny Vranes on their roster.
Bob Knight thought Kevin was too thin for the rugged Big 10 and did not offer him a scholarship, so McHale accepted a late offer to stay near home at Minnesota. Thus their potential career overlap from 1976-78 at Indiana never materialized.
Both had interesting ways of drying their hands before shooting free throws. At times Larry would wipe his hands on the bottoms of his shoes. After he was fouled in the act of shooting, McHale always immediately went to the ballboy under the basket to get a towel before launching his foul shots and wiped his hands off religiously.
As mentioned before, both also looked up to Walton, their future teammate on the 1986 champion Celtics, in high school and on into college in the younger Kevin's case.
The tight-lipped Bird also had admitted to his mom that he admired Walton's all-around game, unselfishness and great passing skills as a star at consolidated Springs Valley High when Bill was leading UCLA to two titles and three straight Final Fours.
In 2003, a decade or so after they had all retired, the outspoken redhead had a short-lived reality TV show called "Bill Walton's Long, Strange Trip." On one episode they visited McHale when he was general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
On this episode, Walton's intentionally annoying and unathletic sidekick Al repeatedly tried to get McHale to admit he was better than Bird, whom he proddingly stated was overrated.
But Kevin would not take the bait, insisting that Larry, who carried all the pressure of being Boston's leader and was the focal point of the opposition, as well as the caretaker of the Celtic tradition, was the team leader and the greater all-around player.
"When I first started practicing with Larry, I would call my friends back home and tell them you gotta see this guy Bird, he is unbelievable...he pulled the hidden ball/fake pass trick on me. Larry also had a very quick first step.
"He was our unquestioned leader," he added.
Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura also was featured in that episode.
In another episode Walton visited Bird at his home in Indiana, where Larry upset Bill, a fine chess player, in a match - then laughingly refused to grant him a rematch.
McHale and Bird both loved to tease and torment Ainge, whom they saw as the proverbial bratty little brother, as well as Walton. But although there was mutual respect, there was also competition between Larry and Kevin.
When McHale put together his superb first team all-league campaign in 1986-87, some observers thought Kevin had surpassed Larry, the three-time reigning league MVP, as the Celtic MVP. Kevin even came close to fulfilling Larry's prediction that he "could be the best player in the league if he worked harder."
But after suffering a broken navicular bone in the second half of the season, Instead of possibly winning the award, Kevin slid to fourth in the MVP voting with 254 points, right behind Bird in third with 271 points. It was the first time since Bird's rookie season of 1979-80 that he did not finish first or second in the MVP season voting.
In that season, Bird and McHale became the only forward duo from the same team to make first team All-NBA. McHale shot a league-best 60.4 percent from the field and tallied a career-best 26.1 points a game.
He also snared 9.9 rebounds, passed out 2.6 assists and blocked 2.2 shots per game while making 83.6 percent of his tries from the foul line. Oh, and he also made first team all-defense.
Not bad, especially since he broke a bone in his foot late in the campaign, an injury he soldiered on with bravely throughout the grueling 1987 playoffs. Off-season surgery caused him to miss the first 18 games of the following season, and still causes him to limp to this day along the sidelines while coaching the Houston Rockets.
Bird narrowly topped McHale statistically and in the MVP voting that magical campaign, averaging 28.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 1.8 steals per game. He shot 52.5 percent from the field, 91 percent from the foul line and 40 percent beyond the arc.
Boston went 59-23 and fought its way through three rugged playoff series wins before injuries and fatigue caught up to them and cost the Celtics a chance to repat in the Finals vs. the Lakers.
At times, their private competition spurred one other to greater heights. On March 3, 1985, Kevin burned Detroit for 56 points to break John Havlicek and Sam Jones's club record of 54.
On McHale's record day, he made an astounding 22 of 28 shots from the floor, as well as 12 of 13 free throws, while also pulling down 16 rebounds. In that same game, Bird scored 20 points and dished out 10 assists as the Celtics won a 138-129 shootout.
"He should have scored more; the record will soon fall," warned Bird.
Just nine days later, Larry made sure that predicition come true. He torched Atlanta for 60 points, his career high and still the Celtic club record, in New Orleans. He buried 22 of 36 from the floor and hit on 14 of 15 free throws while also canning half of the four triples he tried.
Perhaps the best shot he made, an off balance 26-foot left wing trey while falling into the Atlanta bench after a Hawk fouled him, rimmed around and in. But the potential four-point play was waved off as the continuation was disallowed.
"It is the greatest shooting exhibition I have ever seen," marveled Hawk announcer John Sterling. "A lot of guys have scored 60 points in a game before, but he made so many tough shots. And Bird isn't a selfish player who shoots all the time. He passes, and is a great passer."
McHale only took 14 shots that day, and scored 14 points, as Boston won 126-115. Larry broke Kevin's mark of 56 at the foul line, and received congratulatory hand slaps from McHale and Ainge after maing the first of two shots.
"Lar-ry, Lar-ry, Lar-ry," chanted the crowd at the New Orleans Arena.
On the last play, Dennis Johnson passed up an open shot to hit Bird as he stepped into a 19-footer straight on from the circle. Larry squared up and swished it perfectly into the center of the basket at the horn.
Happy for the driven superstar, Bird's teammates mobbed him and mussed up his blonde man, including a smiling McHale, DJ, Quinn Buckner and Rick Carlisle.
The year 1986 would be the pinnacle for the Bird-era Celtics, as they rolled to a 67-15 regular season, blew into the Finals with an 11-1 playoff mark, and then took out the Olajuwon/Samposn Twin Towers with their own Hall of Fame frontline, augmented by Walton.
With the death of Len Bias and crippling injuries to Walton and Scott Wedman the next season, Boston swept Chicago and Jordan, then heroically endured consecutive seven-game battles with rivals Milwaukee and Detroit just to reach the Finals. Meanwhile, the Lakers swept two sub-.500 teams in Denver and Seattle, and beat a 42-40 Golden State squad 4-1 in a relative cakewalk to the championship series.
With McHale hobbled by a broken bone in one foot and a sprained ankle on the other foot, even the ultimate grinder in Bird (and the team doctors) advised Kevin not to play through all the injuries.
"If I was Kevin I wouldn't play, he might ruin his career," offered a grim and prophetic Bird, but it was unlikely Larry himself would have followed his own advice.
Undoubtedly McHale earned an even higher level of respect from Bird for gritting through such painful injuries as Boston still almost won the title. If not for the injuries and some bad officiating calls, particularly in the pivotal game four 107-106 epic loss, Boston might have pulled off the guttiest title in franchise annals.
Perhaps underneath the carefree exterior, the foot injury brought out the intensity and seriousness in McHale that Bird always possessed and wished Kevin would show more regularly. After Bird had played with back problems for three years, an injured Kevin could now understand his gravitas and occasional grumpiness.
Gutting out 39.4 minutes in 19 playoff contests that brutally hot spring and summer, McHale still made 58.4 percent of his shots, grabbed 9.2 rebounds and played solid defense while scoring 21.1 points a game.
For his part, Bird played a record 1,015 minutes in that draining post-season, averaging 44.1 minutes, 27 points, 10 rebounds and 7.2 assists per outing in 23 intense games while shooting 48 percent from the field and 91 percent from the charity stripe.
Both looked gaunt and worn by the unprecedented run. Bird had lost 17 pounds in an effort to get quicker on a 7-Up and popcorn diet. An occasionally unshaven McHale helped point up newly-dark circles around his large brown eyes, and a bout with the flu also sapped him of strength and weight.
"That 1987 year was our best 'team' effort," Bird would say years later in an interview with Walton for an NBA TV show on his 50th birthday.
The next year, with McHale lacking some of the quickness and lift he previously possessed due to the foot injury, hemissed the first quarter of the season, and Boston failed to make the NBA Finals for the first time since 1983. They lost to Detroit in six games during the Eastern finals round.
In their first eight seasons together, Bird and McHale made it to the Eastern Conference finals seven times, went to five NBA Finals, and won three championships. In year nine Bird missed all but six games with double Achilles surgery, and when he came back in 1989-90, the duo still made the All-Star Game. Although they were still the best forward tandem in the game, they were not quite the same due to age and infirmities.
In their final three seasons together, McHale often returned to his sixth man role, but they still formed the best offensive forward tandem in the NBA. Alas, Boston never got past the eastern semifinals during this time as Father Time and injury plus the rise of the Pistons, Bulls and Cavaliers caught up with the Celtics.
Yet the duo and Boston played on valiantly to the end, never making excuses for their problems against hungry, younger foes eager to bury the Celtics.
In 1991, McHale was unstoppable in a six-game, second round series loss to the Pistons, which ended in an overtime heartbreaker at the Palace. If not for a grossly blown goal-tending call on a McHale tip-in at the end of regulation that would have won the game, Boston, who was playing without Parish, would have forced game seven back home and been favored.
Still, Kevin scored a game-high 34 points in that sixth game, shooting 11-19 from the floor and 11-14 at the foul line. Bird, struggling with a balky back against the bruising Piston defense, was held to 12 points.
In 1992, their long and fruitful partnership came to an end after a seven-game loss at Cleveland in the eastern semifinals. But in game six, they turned back the clock one last time as Bird and McHale teamed up on a superb pick and roll play. Putting on a passing clinic that turned out to be his final home game, Bird dished out 14 assists amid a myriad of superb passes, and McHale scored 22 points on an efficient 9-12 shooting.
"Professor Bird is teaching Passing 101 today, and it ain't fiction baby," crowed Celtic announcer Tom Heinsohn from courtside.
However, two days later the duo played their final contest together, scoring a combined 27 points in the 122-104 game seven loss at Cleveland.
It isn't like the duo never had their problems. When 1988 acquisition Jim Paxson, a former Portland All-Star slowed by a back injury of his own, allegedly accused Bird of being selfish and "tearing the team apart" early in his 1989-90 comeback season from injury, McHale was thought to have been one of the players behind the scenes who was allied with Paxson, although that later turned out to be false.
There was fricition at times since Larry had long felt the uber-talented Kevin did not work hard enough. As he aged after the foot injury, McHale gained weight each year while Bird got leaner.
In the decisive fifth game of the 1991 first round series with Indiana, Bird made a miraculous second half comeback from a bad back and head-first collision with the parquet floor that literally knocked him out, and led Boston to a tight 124-121 victory.
But in the fourth period Larry chewed out Kevin for not coming to the ball on a baseline pass from a fired-up Bird that was picked off by Indiana. Boston almost blew a late lead, but hung on to advance behind 32 Bird points, plus nine rebounds and seven assists in 33 minutes.
As with any 13-year alliance, there were bound to be bumps in the road, especially with two different personalities. Yet they still remained a great tandem and friends.
"When I am done and sitting on my porch on cold nights in Minnesota reminiscing about my career, I will reflect on just how great it was to play with Birdie," said Kevin admiringly.
Unfortunately a gimpy 34-year old McHale was not chosen to play on the Original Dream Team, denying them one last chance to go out together on top with a gold medal. Bird won a gold medal and retired shortly after returning to America from the Barcelona Olympics.
The next season, his first in the NBA without Larry, would be McHale's last. Without Bird around to feed him his perfect post entry passes, Kevin became a bit discouraged, gained weight and saw his minutes dwindle to their lowest level since his rookie campaign over a decade earlier.
Yet he still averaged 10.7 points in 23.3 minutes a game.
McHale had one last great performance up his sleeve in game two of the first playoff round vs. young, up and coming Charlotte in 1993. With Boston up 1-0 but playing without the heart-stricken Reggie Lewis, McHale was the best player on the court. After all but ignoring Big Mac all year, the Celtics were forced to go back and lean on old Mr. Reliable, and he delivered.
In doing so, he showed the team and coach Chris Ford that they had made a mistake in under-using him all year.
Kevin canned 13 of 18 shots from the floor in game two, almost singlehandedly leading them to a 2-0 lead. In the final seconds of regulation with Boston down a basket, he outleaped a younger Pacer to corral an offensive rebound off a Parish miss as Bird cheered on from the Boston Garden stands.
Utilizing unusually good body control for a player his size and age, Kevin turned and in one motion and sank his patented fadeaway from 12 feet out on the right baseline to force overtime.
McHale also yanked down 10 rebounds but could not prevent a devastating 99-98 double OT loss to the Hornets of Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues and Alonzo Mourning. It turned out to be his last game at the hallowed Boston Garden.
Four days later in Charlotte with the Celtics down 2-1 and facing elimination in the best of five series, McHale tossed in 19 points on typically efficient eight of 14 shooting, and also snared six rebounds.
The Hornets led 88-70 heading to the fourth period, but McHale helped lead a gutty, final stand Boston comeback. The aged Celtics chipped away until they took a 103-102 lead in the final seconds. But Mourning's step-back 20-footer gave Charlotte an apparent 104-103 win with just a second left.
But before the Hornets celebrated wildly with a pile-up near the top of the key, the officials ruled there was still a fraction of time left. Boston had smartly called timeout and thus advanced the ball to halfcourt for a final chance to even the series and stay alive.
A play was drawn up for Kevin to take the ball out of bounds and throw a 50-foot pass to former dunk champion Dee Brown on a backdoor alley-oop play.
McHale, knowing it was very potentially the last play of his NBA career, rose to the occasion and tossed a perfect two-hand overhead pass to Brown. Dee cut off of a back screen and broke wide open for a short shot and the game-winner. The long 50-foot pass was right on target, but Brown was fouled as he caught it, and his muted try was also possibly goal-tended as the clock expired.
Yet despite the Celtic pleas, no call was made, not in a raucous Charlotte Coliseum. So just like in 1991, McHale and company were eliminated on the road in a gut-wrenching barnburner on a missed goaltending call. This was the last time.
Worn out, he then retired and limped back to Minnesota. Once there, he led the Timberwolves to the 2004 western finals before losing to the Lakers. Bird coached the Pacers to their three best NBA seasons from 1997-2000, and guided them to their only NBA Finals appearance in 2000. But they also lost to a familiar foe in the title round, the hated Lakers, in six.
After a three-year hiatus, Bird returned to the Indiana front office and rebuilt the Pacers into one of the league's consistent winners. McHale went on to coach the Wolves and then lead Houston to great success as head coach from 2012 to the present.
In their 12 seasons together as players, Bird and McHale averaged over 43 points and 18 rebounds per game and won three titles, while coming close several other times.
During their prime seasons as a starting tandem, those numbers improved to roughly 50 and 20 while making an uber-efficient over 55 percent field goal and 85 percent at the foul line.
McHale came into the league as a so-so free thrower, shooting 67.4 percent as a rookie. But he became a career 80 percenter at the charity stripe in part due to the inlfuence of Bird. In 1989-90, Kevin made an impressive 89.3 percent of his foul shots. Over his last seven seasons, he shot 83 percent from the foul line and he even became a dangerous three-point shooter.
In fact, Kevin possessed a textbook high-release shot well above his head, elbow tucked in perfectly. Over the years, Bird's unusual shot release point moved from the top of his head down to the right side of his head and ear.
The already impressive numbers of the duo would have been even greater had McHale not spent about half of his career as a sixth man. The pair also combined to earn nine all-defense selections, six for McHale and three for Bird.
Over their 11 full campaigns together (sans the 1988-89 campaign where Bird missed 76 games), Boston averaged 59.9 wins a season, best in the NBA during that span despite playing in the much-tougher Eastern Conference of that era.
Due in large part to their partnership, Boston won three NBA titles, five Eastern crowns and nine Atlantic Division championships.
When they lined up on the same side of the floor on offense, defenses had an unenviable, impossible conundrum to deal with - whether to double down on McHale or go one on one with either one? If they focused on Bird, he would burn them with passing or improvisation.
It was a problem no defense ever solved.
Bird's precise post entry passing usually led the nimble McHale into his vast array of unstoppable post moves, smartly throwing the ball away from the defense as well.
He had the jump hook, the turnaround jumper, the up and under, the slippery eel, the shite salamander move, and more.
If the defense collapsed or sagged in on Kevin, Bird would kill them with his deadly perimeter shooting. Both were very good rebounders, with Larry being the consummate defensive board man and McHale a fine offensive carom-collector.
Thus no forward duo has ever been as tall, as talented, as skilled, as smart and as productive, and they did it consistently at a high level for 12 years. And they did it all despite being quite different on and off the court.
Two years after McHale retired and three years after Bird hung them up for good the ratty, 67-year old Boston Garden was razed and replaced as the home of the Celtics.
Accordingly, after the deaths of Lewis and Bias and the injury-forced early retirements of Larry and Kevin, the suddenly snakebitten Celtics missed the playoffs nine of the first 10 years without Bird, and never won a playoff series without them again until 2002.
If a Celtic fan from that era closes their eyes, they might still be able to imagine Larry feeding Kevin in the post and watching him go to work for an up and under, fadeaway or jump hook...Bird leading him to the basket with a perfect angle bounce pass on the pick and roll ending up in a McHale dunk...Number 32 passing out of a double team to number 33 on the left wing for a 22-foot swisher.
Or Kevin leaping high, arms well above his head, for a soft putback...Bird driving and making a left-handed runner...Larry launching a buzzer-beating jump shot for the win...
Perhaps it was only fitting that the duo and the old stadium went out just a few years apart since the league will never see the likes of another forward tandem as good as Bird and McHale, nor a venue as historic.
There was no way to begin to replace either, and although the hallowed hoops hall was torn down shortly after the best forward duo in NBA history finally quit wearing the green and white, the memories of their basketball greatness still live on through the ghosts of the old Boston Garden.
Greatest NBA Forward Duos, with team and years played together
Larry Bird/Kevin McHale, Celtics 1980-92
Julius Erving/Bobby Jones, 76ers 1978-86
Billy Cunningham/Chet Walker, 76ers 1965-70
Elgin Baylor/Rudy LaRusso, Lakers 1960-66
Bird/Cedric Maxwell, Celtics 1979-85
John Havlicek/Bailey Howell, Celtics 1966-70
Maurice Stokes/Jack Twyman, Royals 1957-59
Dave DeBusschere/Bill Bradley, Knicks 1968-74
Havlicek/Tom Sanders, Celtics 1963-73
Chet Walker/Bob Love, Bulls 1971-76
10 Best Celtic forward duos (years played together)
Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce, 2007-13
Bird/Scott Wedman, 1983-87
Havlicek/Paul Silas, 1972-76
Tom Heinsohn/Sanders, 1960-65
Havlicek/Don Nelson, 1966-76
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