clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hail to the Chief: How stoic center Robert Parish helped the Celtics win three NBA titles in the 1980's

The reliable, least heralded member of the greatest frontline in NBA history did his damage while shunning the spotlight

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

After the highly successful 1979-80 rookie season of Larry Bird turned the floundering Celtics around, Red Auerbach pulled off one of his best trades in a career full of steal deals that set Boston up to dominate the NBA for the next decade.

With veteran center Dave Cowens nearing the end of his great career, hobbled by injury and undersized, Red realized Boston needed to get bigger and younger in order to take the next step to an NBA title.

The Celtics actually possessed the number one overall pick in the 1980 NBA draft, and were trying to persuade 7-4 Virginia standout Ralph Sampson to declare early.

The pencil-thin, highly-touted center had just finished his freshman season by leading the Cavaliers to the then-prestigious NIT title over Minnesota and Kevin McHale. His potential acquisition was thought to be the final piece in the rebuilding of a new Celtic dynasty.

At that time, it was very unusual for a collegian to forego his last two seasons of eligibility, let alone three. When Sampson rebuffed Auerbach's entreaties to leave early, a spurned Red turned his attention elsewhere.

His solution turned out better than if he had drafted the often-injured Sampson, whose NBA career turned out to be something of a disappointment after a strong start.

Red really wanted to pick McHale once Ralph decided he was enjoying college, but did not wish Kevin to be saddled with the pressure of being the number one overall pick. Golden State had the third pick, with Utah second.

The Warriors were interested in Purdue seven-footer Joe Barry Carroll, a good-shooting big man who had led the Boilermakers to the 1980 Final Four. But they were not sure he would still be there at number two, with Utah and Boston also needing a big man.

Auerbach proposed sending the number one overall pick to the Warriors and a later first round pick in exchange for the third pick overall, and enigmatic seven-footer Robert Parish.

The quiet Louisiana native out of tiny Centenary College was known as a good shooter who had a tendency to loaf. In four seasons with Golden State, he had averaged 13.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in just under 26 minutes, solid but not star numbers.

In the two seasons prior to 1980, he had put together improved averages of 17.1 ppg, 11.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Still, there were whispers that the stoic center did not put forth full effort and would never realize his potential.

Ironically, the same things would be said about Carroll, who was not as good a rebounder, shot-blocker or floor runner as Parish. Carroll was tagged with the nickname "Joe Barely Cares" for his unemotional and languid style. But in 1980, he was considered the prize of the draft.

Incidentally, the Warriors had drafted Parish in the first round of the 1976 draft with a pick received as compensation from the Lakers when LA signed veteran Cazzie Russell away from the bay as a free agent. Parish would end up tormenting the Lakers down the road.

So the Warriors pulled the trigger on the trade with Boston and picked Carroll while Utah took Darrell Griffith, who had led Louisville to the 1980 NCAA crown. Boston then chose McHale third, whom they coveted all along, and his career clearly exceeded both players chosen ahead of him.

"There is no better place for a big white guy with an Irish last name to play than Boston," joked Kevin as a rookie.

It turned out to be one of the more one-sided deals in NBA history. Parish ended up out-lasting the younger Carroll by several productive seasons, and Rickey Brown was the forgettable second pick by Golden State in the first round.

Parish and McHale blossomed into Hall of Famers, won three NBA titles and were perennial contenders for several other banners. The duo formed two-thirds of the famous "Hall of Fame" frontline with Larry Bird, the greatest one in league annals.

The tall and talented trio set the standard for all frontcourts to be measured against, and none have been up to snuff since.

Cowens retired from the Celtics during training camp in the fall of 1980, relieving some of the logjam of talent from a deep frontcourt. At the time, third-year center Rick Robey was considered the best backup big man in the NBA.

Cedric Maxwell was one of the most underrated players in the league, Bird was already the NBA's most complete player, Parish was a star in waiting, and few if any knew McHale would be as great as he became.

After a very good college career, Kevin wowed the scouts at a pre-draft camp with his unlimited post game, soft touch, shot-blocking, impressive leaping ability and speed.

The gregarious McHale and the laid-back Parish would soon find out that second-year head coach Bill Fitch, a former Marine drill sergeant, would be the toughest coach they ever played for.

Boston was a running team in the early 1980's, and Fitch drove his players exceptionally hard in pre-season conditioning. Only Bird seemed to like his hard-driving style. "That man liked to kill me," Parish mumbled as he slumped against the wall after a set of sprints one day in his first season in Boston. McHale commiserated.

But the hard work helped lengthen Parish's career. "I was lazy when I got here," he admitted. Learning to run the floor hard helped him improve his effectiveness and wind, and trained him to last 21 seasons. The Chief went on to play in an NBA record 1,611 games as he turned out to be very durable and never had a serious injury to his lower body.

His high-knee running style wasn't overly pretty and he did not appear to be running that fast, but with his long strides Parish ate up court space quickly, and he was a surprisingly nimble finisher in transition with thunderous dunks and finger rolls.

He always possessed an excellent jump shot out to 16 feet and a very soft touch, as well as a good jump hook. The ball held well over the head, the Chief's uber-high release jumper was almost un-blockable. In addition, his shot had a very high arch. And it usually ended up swishing through the nets softly.

His favorite move was a turnaround jumper off the left baseline, a shot he very rarely missed. Parish was a fine rebounder at both ends and a very good shot-blocker. He was the back line of the Boston defense, its silent and reliable backbone.

When motivated in the early 1980's, he was a beast and as good a center as there was in the NBA, including Malone and Jabbar.

He received the nickname Chief from Maxwell, who noted that the stoic Parish resembled the strong, quiet Native American "Chief Bromden" from the popular mid-1970's movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" starring Jack Nicholson, both facially and in his gait as well as his dignified, quiet demeanor.

In one scene as the inmates played pickup basketball, the Chief dunked powerfully, then strode back on defense with an impassive look, much like Parish did.

Few NBA nicknames have been as appropriate.

Parish and McHale made an immediate impact, particularly Robert. For his part, Parish was glad to come to a team with no major chemistry or personality problems. "It was like going from the outhouse to the penthouse," Parish said of the trade.

In his first two Warrior seasons, the team was led by difficult superstar Rick Barry, whom Parish felt was probably the most arrogant person he had ever met.

When he got to Boston, he feared Bird might be another blonde prima donna. But he soon found out that Larry was the opposite of Barry in most ways, to his relief. With the team's best player also a great shooter and an even greater passer than Barry (but also a better rebounder) as well as humble, hard-working and incredibly unselfish, everyone else fell in line.

Parish averaged 18.9 points, 9.5 boards and 2.6 blocks per game and with his improved conditioning played every contest in his first Celtic season.

Boston posted the best record in the NBA at 62-20, swept the Bulls and 7-2 Artis Gilmore 4-0 in the east semifinals and then rallied from 3-1 down to beat the rival 76ers in arguably the greatest series ever.

In the Finals, Parish and the Celtics faced off against rebounding machine Moses Malone and the slowdown Rockets.

Robert played solidly, averaging 18 ppg in the final two games, bth Celtic wins.

His solid, unsung defense on Malone helped limit the Houston center to meager 40.3 percent shooting and 6.3 ppg less (28.5 to 22.2) than he had averaged in the 15 playoff games prior to the Finals. Moses had also shot 50.7 percent from the field in the 1981 playoffs up to the championship series, so he dropped a significant 10.4 percent in accuracy against the Celtic defense, led by Parish.

In the final minute of game six at Houston, with his team on the verge of the title, during a timeout huddle the seldom-satisfied Fitch motivated his team even more, showing he was aware that he had been extremely tough on them.

"You're one (defensive) rebound away from putting a smile on my face," he said, which brought a laugh from the excited team, who no whad extra incentive to make their dour coach - who was even more crabby than usual due to a painfully bad back - happy.

Bird came down with the rebound and on the strength of its great frontcourt, Boston clinched banner number 14, its first since 1976.

The 1981-82 campaign was Parish's finest in a long career that spanned from 1976-97. He averaged a career-high 19.9 ppg, pulled down 10.8 boards a night, blocked 2.4 shots and shot 54.2 percent from the field.

The Chief finished fifth in the NBA in blocks and sixth in rebounds, and for his efforts, he finished a career-best fourth in the MVP voting behind Malone, Bird and Julius Erving. He was also named second team All-NBA for the first and only time. Once again, Boston led the NBA in wins with 63.

But an injury to Nate Archibald led to a seven-game loss to the nemesis Sixers in the eastern finals, ending their chance of repeating and facing the Lakers in a dream Finals.

Parish enjoyed his best post-season with career-high average marks of 21 points, 11.3 rebounds and four blocks in 12 post-season contests. But it was not quite enough.

The next season Parish posted 19.3 points, 10.6 caroms and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting 55 percent from the field. However, 1983 was Philly's year as the newly-acquired Malone, playing like a man possessed, led the 76ers to the NBA title.

The worn-out Celtics rebelled against the drill sergeant tactics of fourth-year coach Fitch, nicknamed "Captain Video" for his long and frequent video sessions, and imploded in an embarrassing 4-0 sweep at the hands of Milwaukee.

Sensing a change was needed, Red and the Celtics replaced Fitch with laid-back but serious assistant K.C. Jones, a former great Boston defensive guard who was extremely popular with the players. The less-tense, low-key managerial style of Jones meshed well with the veteran club.

In his Hall of Fame induction speech, Bird said he was thankful for being able to play for K.C., whom he called "one of the greatest people walking the face of the earth."

McHale echoed those sentiments at his Hall induction speech, saying the team would run through a wall and play with injuries "when they knew they shouldn't have, for K.C."

In Kevin's 10 ppg rookie season, the care-free Minnesotan was occasionally in Fitch's doghouse. "Why can't you be more like Larry?" he asked McHale, wishing Kevin would be as basketball-obsessed as Bird.

"Heck, I have a life," quipped Kevin in return.

"Rook, you're a great player, he (Fitch) just doesn't know it yet," Jones told McHale, building his confidence in the down times.

In 1983-84, a rejuvenated Celtic team rolled to the league's best record for the fourth time in Bird's five seasons. They stomped the Bucks 4-1 in the eastern finals to avenge the previous year's sweep, and reached the championship series for the long-awaited matchup against the Lakers.

In the final seconds of overtime in game two, with Boston down a game and clinging to a 122-121 lead, Parish came up with a game-saving defensive play. Laker Bob McAdoo took a pass in the left corner and started to drive for a potential winner against the bigger Parish, and a commanding 2-0 series lead.

But the Chief quickly snaked his hand in and poked the ball away cleanly from the 6-9 McAdoo, then retrieved the loose ball for a critical steal. Boston passed upcourt to Bird, who was fouled and made both foul shots to tie the series with a thrilling 124-121 OT triumph.

LA led 2-1 after Parish scored just nine points in a 33-point blowout loss in game three. Boston had its back against the wall at a hostile Forum in game four, trailing most of the way in a fierce battle that featured multiple melees.

Through much of the series to that point, Chief had been too passive, playing as if he was almost intimidated by Jabbar. Yet he came alive when the Celtics truly needed him most.

Things looked dire as Boston trailed by five points inside the final minute when Parish came up with the biggest play of his career. He missed a short baseline jumper, got his own rebound, missed a short shot, rebounded AGAIN and scored a power layup while drawing Kareem's fifth foul.

After nailing the free throw with 39 seconds left, Boston trailed by only 113-111 in a must-win game. When LA missed, a flustered Jabbar fouled out when he pushed Bird senselessly from behind on a defensive rebound.

Clutch Larry canned the two crucial foul shots to tie it. But the Lakers still had a chance to win on a final shot. As Earvin Johnson dribbled down the clock on the right side, he looked to feed the post to James Worthy, who was being denied the ball aggressively by Parish.

When Johnson tried to force a sideline pass into Worthy, the Chief anticipated it well, reached over his right shoulder and picked it off easily with his right hand to force overtime. The Celtics went on to win 129-125 in OT to tie the series and change the momentum of the epic Finals.

"Johnson threw the ball right to Parish," exclaimed Laker announcing legend Chick Hearn in disbelief, lamenting another big Celtic steal.

Parish scored 25 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked two shots in that pivotal win. Bird led Boston with 29 points and 21 boards, and hit the winning shot on a fadeaway jumper over Johnson late in OT. But if not for the persistent three-point stickback by the quiet and steady Chief, Boston probably would not have won.

That play became a microcosm of how Boston dominated the rest of the series. They crushed the Lakers on the boards, particularly the offensive glass, to score easy points and also deny the Laker fast break.

In game five, the infamous sauna contest at the 97-degree Boston Garden, the Celtics pounded LA 121-103 as they out-rebounded LA 51-37. Bird scored 34 points on red-hot 15-20 shooting and snared 17 caroms, while Parish grabbed 12 boards (to seven by Kareem) and McHale added 10 rebounds.

In game seven at Boston, Parish out-rebounded Jabbar 16 to six as the Celtics pulled down a whopping 20 offensive rebounds en route to a decisive 52-33 advantage on the boards.

Yet late in the contest, the Lakers rallied from 13 down within 105-102. Johnson drove into the lane, looking to draw a foul as he left his feet. But Parish and McHale teamed up to stuff the Laker guard while cleverly avoiding body contact. DJ picked up the loose ball, was fouled and made two free throws. Bird added four more free tosses in the final seconds to clinch the championship.

Bird scored 20 and grabbed 12 caroms, while Maxwell poured in 24 points as the Celtics clinched title number 15 with an extremely sweet 111-102 victory.

Over the memorable series, Parish averaged 15.4 points and 11.4 rebounds a game to go with his three huge, late-game defensive stops that helped secure three of the four Celtic wins.

Bird tallied 27.4 ppg and 14 rebounds to win Finals MVP. The Chief out-rebounded Jabbar by exactly four boards per game while taking 56 less shots, and helped hold Kareem to 48 percent field shooting.

The next season, LA turned the tables and beat Boston 4-2 in the Finals with Maxwell injured and Bird hampered by elbow and finger injuries to his shooting arm. Jabbar won series MVP honors after being embarrassed in game one.

In that off-season, Boston acquired 1977 Finals MVP and 1978 season MVP Bill Walton to give the Chief some help. The big redhead immediately assured Parish he was not there to take his starting job, only to back him up and give him more rest in his 10th season.

The two meshed well, and Walton's infectious enthusiasm and unselfishness even got the reticent Parish and McHale passing. Big Bill was an easy choice as Sixth Man of the Year, adding another glorious chapter to Celtic lore.

Very arguably the best team in NBA history, the 1985-86 Celtics rolled to a 67-15 record in a pre-expansion league that was much tougher than the diluted 1990's NBA the Bulls ran roughshod through.

The Celtics went 15-3 in the 1986 playoffs as they swept Jordan and Chicago 3-0, crushed Atlanta 4-1 and thrashed Milwaukee 4-0 in the eastern finals.

They then whipped Houston 4-2 in a Finals that was not as close as the score indicates. Bird won Finals MVP and McHale dominated Sampson with a series-best 25.8 ppg on 57.3 percent shooting compared to just 14.8 ppg and 44% FG by Ralph to avenge that NIT title loss from six years before.

"I won't ever ask you again why you never won an NCAA title with Sampson," crowed McHale after the series to Celtic teammate Rick Carlisle, who played with Ralph at Virginia from 1981-83.

In 1987 injuries and the death of top pick Len Bias decimated the Celtics, yet they made probably the guttiest run to the Finals in the fabled history of the franchise with a valiant effort to repeat as champs.

In a brutal post-season, McHale played with a sprained ankle on one foot and a broken navicular bone on his other foot. Parish sprained both ankles multiple times in the playoffs.

Ainge sprained his knee and missed several games.

Seventh man Scott Wedman missed the entire season basically, and sixth man Walton barely played, and was ineffective due to recurring foot problems on the rare occasions he did play. The short bench forced Bird and the rest of the starters to play even more minutes, and it took a great toll.

Bird played a record 1,015 minutes over 23 grueling playoff games. Boston swept Chicago and Jordan again in round one, then nearly blew a 3-1 lead to Milwaukee. In game five, Parish scored 30 points and grabbed 16 boards, but Boston lost its chance to end the series and get some needed rest.

With Parish injured and out for game six in Milwaukee, the Bucks evened the series. The Chief came back for game seven yet the C's trailed by nine late in the game. But then they gutted out a great comeback to beat the Bucks 119-113.

Parish was heroic in the win as despite two ankle sprains, he pulled down 19 rebounds (11 offensive), scored 23 points and blocked four shots.

As he limped off the floor, the quiet Parish waved off interview requests, wanting only to get to the safety of the locker room where he could rest, get treatment and savor the victory quietly. He would leave the credit for the others.

Boston went straight from the frying pan to the fire. Coming off their 12-day series vs. the Bucks, they played four games in six days against the younger, healthy and hungry "Bad Boy" Pistons.

Parish fired in 31 points in game one to help Boston jump to a 2-0 lead. But at Detroit in back-to back-weekend games, the tired team's lead quickly evaporated. Parish was ejected from game three with four points, followed by Bird, who was thrown out after his vicious takedown by Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman.

Larry, for the only time in his career, totally lost his cool and rifled the ball at Laimbeer. Sitting alone in the Celtic locker room and not watching the game, Parish saw Bird stalk in. He looked up at Larry and said one word. "Laimbeer?"

"Yep," replied Bird.

In game five, an angered Parish slugged Big Bill three times after one too many pushes under the boards, breaking the Piston center's nose. Amazingly, he was not even called for a foul or a technical in the game for the punches, such was the universal enmity toward Laimbeer.

But the NBA suspended him for game six in Detroit, which the Pistons narrowly won as K.C. attended his mother's funeral.

Back in Boston for game seven, the weary and bruised Celtics were playing their 14th playoff game in 26 days. Yet they found a way to grind out a 117-114 victory as Parish scored 16 and snagged 11 rebounds to clinch perhaps the most rancorous series in league history.

Waiting for Boston in the Finals just two days later were the rested and healthy Lakers, eager to regain the title. They raced to a 2-0 lead with a pair of easy wins. Back in Beantown, Parish scored 17 points and pulled down 14 rebounds to help Boston win game three.

In the pivotal fourth game, Parish scored 16 but had just two boards. Boston blew a 16-point second half lead and lost 107-106 in one of the greatest games in Finals history, but not without the aid of some very curious officiating.

LA shot 14 fourth period free throws to just one by Boston, and six questionable calls all went the Laker way, including one obvious goaltending call that took a basket from the Celtics.

In game five the angry Celts came out with a vengeance and won fairly easily as Parish scored 21 points with seven boards.

Against all odds with game six, and game seven if necessary in LA, the Celtics carefully crafted a 56-51 halftime lead with nearly-perfect halfcourt execution. If they could somehow even the series 3-3, all the pressure would be on LA to win at home against a crippled team.

The halftime lead was built despite the fact that Parish, Walton and Greg Kite all were whistled for three fouls.

The Chief fouled out on a second bad foul call when Jabbar led with his off arm and rolled in a three-point lefty hook that all but buried the Celtics. LA outscored Boston 30-12 in a wipeout third period and took the title as Kareem tallied a season-high 32 points.

A weary Parish scored 16.7 points but only grabbed 6.5 rebounds per game in the 1987 Finals.

In 1988, the thuggish Pistons finally broke through and ended the Celtic run of four straight Eastern titles with a 4-2 series win in the conference final.

Parish averaged 14.3 points and 8.5 boards that season, both Celtic lows for him. He appeared to maybe on the way out at age 34. To make matters worse, just six games into the 1988-89 season, Bird went down for the year with double Achilles surgery.

Parish stepped up big-time and turned back the clock to average 18.6 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, while shooting 57 percent from the floor.

For his efforts, he made third team All-NBA in his 13th season, one of the oldest players to ever earn that high an honor. He also finished 11th in the MVP voting. None of the 10 players ahead of him were older than 29.

The Celtics squeaked into the playoffs without Larry and lost to the eventual champion Pistons in round one.

Parish played five more seasons with the Celtics, averaging just under 14 points and nine boards per game from 1989-94. But an aging, beat-up Boston club never got past round two again. Yet the big three remained arguably the best frontline in the league despite being the oldest and most-injured trio in the NBA, a tribute to their great skill, hoop smarts and chemistry.

Bird retired in 1992 after losing to Cleveland in seven games in the eastern semis. The next season, Charlotte eliminated Boston in a controversial first round playoff finish, and McHale hung them up for good.

Yet the ageless Chief kept on rolling as the last of the Mohicans. Parish hung on for one more season in Boston in 1993-94 and rung up 11.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in 26 minutes a game. But with his frontline mates retired, the Celtics missed the playoffs for the first and only time in his 14 seasons trodding the parquet.

At age 40, many people thought Parish would retire. But he signed as a free agent instead with Charlotte to signal the end of the real big three in Beantown. Robert played two seasons in teal with the Hornets.

He then hooked on with the Bulls and played 43 games in his final season of 1996-97, winning a fourth ring despite missing most of the playoffs while Chicago edged Utah 4-2 in a memorable Finals. The title made Parish, at 43, the oldest man to ever win an NBA championship.

During that final season, Parish was also voted to the prestigious NBA 50 Greatest Players list, joining frontline mates Bird and McHale once more. In 1998, the Celtics retired his 00 jersey.

One can't help but wonder if his unusual double zero jersey number somehow also spoke for and represented his reticence.

After 21 seasons, 1,611 regular season games and 184 more playoff battles, Parish finally retired at age 43. His 14-season average numbers in Boston were 16.5 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, along with over 55 percent field goal shooting.

Per 36 minutes as a Celtic, those numbers improved to 18.8 points, 11.4 caroms and 1.8 blocks a game. He was extremely durable, missing just 42 regular season contests from 1980-94 as he averaged an impressive 79 games per season.

His point (18,245) and rebound (11,051) totals rank fourth and second in team history, respectively. His Celtic career 55.2 percent field goal percentage is second only to McHale (55.4) in club history.

His 168-game playoff averages with Boston were a very solid 16 points and 9.8 rebounds with 1.7 blocks per outing.

Parish was fittingly inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2003, his first year of eligibility, and is permanently enshrined in Springfield with Bird and McHale.

The taciturn Chief eschewed the limelight during his exceptionally long, productive career. He usually managed to quietly slip out a locker room side door after a game while the media interviewed Bird, McHale or Dennis Johnson.

He preferred anonymity, and let his play do his talking. Yet his stoicism masked a style that had become hard-driven in Boston under the influence of Bird, Fitch and Jones. In particular, he ran the pick and roll beautifully with Larry Legend.

"I probably got at least 5,000 points off passes from Larry," he happily recalled after retiring.

Just how valuable was Parish to the 1980's Celtics as he helped form one-third of the best frontcourt in NBA history?

"We don't win any of those three NBA titles without Robert," summed up Bird succinctly. Like Parish's patented high-arching turnaround jumper, Larry's assessment was short, sweet and right on target.

If you want to contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Celtics Blog Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Boston Celtics news from Celtics Blog