Over a 30-year span from 1957 through 1986, the Boston Celtics won an unprecedented 16 NBA titles. And every crown the fabled franchise won was due in part to an innovation that has become a staple of basketball history and the sport’s lexicon.
Necessity was the mother of invention for Celtic head coach Red Auerbach. Due somewhat to an excess of guard talent in the mid 1950’s, he originated the sixth man role to help make a top non-starter happier and more importantly, to give his team a needed lift off the bench.
The sixth man might also be able to take advantage of other team’s reserve players who were not as good as him, or a bit tired when he entered. Substituting more also allowed Red to have his best players fresher at the crucial finish of games.
Almost every player prefers to start, and it is an ego boost to be introduced by the PA announcer as you trot out to center court in a pre-game moment where attention is focused solely on you for that moment. Thus it takes a special kind of player to sublimate his ego and come off the bench and play well, while not getting the same attention and respect as a starter.
Some fans harbor the often fallacious connotation that being a sixth man means a player is not good enough to start. Yet sometimes a coach feels the chemistry is better if he starts another player who is less gifted over a more talented sixth man. Or the coach may feel that a rare player who plays well in reserve can give his team a spark off the pine that the other team lacks.
One advantage of coming in as a sixth man is that such a player gets to watch and see what is lacking on the floor early in the contest. A watchful, hungry and intense player like John Havlicek could really see what was needed and with his well-rounded skills, provide those skills when he entered the fray. The more versatile the sixth man, the better he can provide whatever is needed when he enters the game - be it defense, scoring, passing, hustle, etc.
It is no coincidence that most of the Boston sixth men standouts played multiple positions, usually guard and forward. When Havlicek joined the Celtics as a rookie for the 1962-63 season, the team was in transition mode despite coming off its fifth consecutive league crown. John has often said that the team of his rookie year was the most talented Celtic team he played on during his 16 seasons - they boasted nine future Hall of Famers. High praise, considering Hondo played on eight championship clubs, and four others who lost in the conference finals.
But in John’s rookie season, Bob Cousy announced he was retiring at the end of the 1962-63 campaign. By 1961, his back court mate of over a decade, Hall of Fame sharpshooter Bill Sharman, had already retired and went on to coach Cleveland to the championship of the fledgling American Basketball League in 1962.
Original Celtic sixth man Frank Ramsey, a 6’3 swingman out of Kentucky, was also nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career. Ramsey played guard and forward, and his versatility gave the Celtics an extra weapon off the bench. Under the Celtic Way, Ramsey was expected to train his replacement, in this case, the athletic 6’5 Havlicek. The Celtics were unique in the NBA at this apprenticeship method which ensured the team would have seamless transitions as new replacements were inserted to keep the Green Machine running smoothly.
Thus Sam Jones replaced Sharman in 1962 and defensive ace K.C. Jones was set to supplant the uber-popular Cooz after the 1963 campaign at the point. High-scoring forward Tom Heinsohn, who would retire after winning an eighth title in 1965, would help train Satch Sanders and Havlicek.
And so the Celtics kept winning championships, with the sixth man playing a vital role. Soon other copycat teams were searching for their own sixth man, but found it was not so easy to find talented players willing and able to come off the bench. Philadelphia struck gold with future Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham, who like Hondo started out as a sixth man on the great 76er teams of 1965-68 before catapulting to superstardom as a starter. A perennial All-Star, Cunningham later was MVP of the ABA and named to the NBA 50 Greatest Players list in 1997.
In the 1980’s when Cunningham coached the 76ers, another Hall of Fame North Carolina alum named Bobby Jones would win the inaugural NBA Sixth Man of the Year award in 1983 - not coincidentally, the last time Philly won the championship.
Fittingly, the award was won the next three seasons by Celtic legends Kevin McHale and Bill Walton. Certainly, had the honor existed in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Havlicek and Ramsey would each have won the award multiple times.
Laker castoff Don Nelson was picked up by the Celtics in 1965 and by the 1966-67 season, he and Sanders replaced Hondo as the team’s top reserves when John moved into the starting lineup alongside future Hall of Famer Bailey Howell at forward. The resourceful, sweet-shooting Nellie helped Boston win five titles over 11 seasons in Celtic green. Defensive standout Sanders won 10 rings in his 15 years, but was a starter for a much greater portion of his career.
Nelson became a starter in the early 1970’s for a few years, then shared the sixth man role with fellow forward Paul Silas, acquired from Phoenix. A great rebounder and strong defender, Silas got the lion’s share of the starts at forward opposite the tireless Havlicek from 1972-76. But sometimes he was the sixth man, depending on the matchups against a given opponent.
The situation helped yield two more NBA crowns in the mid-1970s. By that time and the ensuing decade, a majority of teams employed a sixth man, often a player who played multiple positions well like Ramsey and Havlicek did.
Milwaukee swingman sharpshooter Junior Bridgeman became a standout sixth man - under Nelson’s coaching as he carried the Celtic tradition to the Bucks. Later on in the 1990’s, great lefty Lithuanian guard Sarunas Marciulionis filled the top reserve role admirably for Nellie at Golden State. Long-range bomber Fred Brown helped Seattle win the 1979 NBA title as a third guard behind the fine starting backcourt of future Celtic Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams.
A year before, rambunctious center-forward Mitch Kupchak was the top sixth man as Washington edged Seattle in the 1978 Finals. It was Kupchak, another North Carolina alum, who was on the floor contributing well in the tense final minutes of game 7 as the Bullets rallied to win at Seattle. He had replaced perennial All-Star Elvin Hayes, who fouled out.
High-flying swingman Michael Cooper of the Lakers was one of the best sixth men of the 1980s. None other than Larry Bird said the sinewy yet tenacious 6-7 Cooper guarded him better than anyone else did. Cooper became a good set shot three-point marksman late in his career, as well as a solid ballhandler.
Other top sixth man followed, with multiple award winners such as versatile German forward Detlef Schrempf and sharpshooter Ricky Pierce.
Spurs great Manu Ginobili vacillated between starter and sixth man much of his career, helping San Antonio win four titles this century with his all-around brilliance. Coach Gregg Popovich has stated that Havlicek was his favorite player growing up (he has a poster of Hondo in his office), and that Manu reminded him of his hoops idol. Ironically (like Manu), in the final years of his long 17-year career Hondo, reverted to the sixth man role often in 1977 and 1978 as the second Celtic dynasty wound down. He had come full circle.
In more recent years, high-scoring guards Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford have won the award three times apiece. But it all started with Auerbach’s ingenuity and Ramsey’s ability to score well off the pine.
Even Larry Bird served as a Celtic sixth man for a while in 1982. After suffering a fractured cheekbone courtesy of a Harvey Catchings elbow, Bird missed some games while second-year man McHale moved into the starting lineup. Meanwhile Boston was playing so well despite the change - in the midst of a club-record 18-game win streak - that superstitious head coach Bill Fitch kept the still-recovering Bird (wearing a see through mask at first before discarding it) out of the starting lineup when he returned to action. Bird stayed as sixth man for the rest of the streak, which ended at the hands of the 76ers, and shortly thereafter before Fitch finally put Larry back in the lineup.
When Bird retired a few months before the start of the 1992-93 season was to tip off, Celtic president Dave Gavitt came up with a clever idea to try to and squeeze one more season out of the all-time great. Gavitt proposed that Bird become the latest great Celtic sixth man, playing only in home games and regular season games that were close enough to drive to, since flying irritated Bird’s balky back. That way, his absence on faraway road games or due to injury would also be less disruptive to the starting lineup. But the proud and worn-out Larry turned the proposal down, tired of dealing with his debilitating back pain.
McHale, like Hondo, returned to a sixth man role in his final three-plus seasons. Since then others have tried to fill the Celtic role with some success, such as Rodney Rogers, Eddie House and James Posey. But Bill Walton was the last great Celtic sixth man.
In 2018-19, swingman Gordon Hayward volunteered to be sixth man as he recovered from a devastating lower leg injury. He showed occasional flashes of greatness reminiscent of Havlicek, interspersed with so-so play. He is expected to start again full-time in 2019-20.
Is it a coincidence that Boston has only won a single NBA title over the past 33 seasons, and has not had a real long-term sixth man of note since McHale in the early 1990s? The bad luck started in 1986-87 when Walton missed most of the season with a foot injury, as did seventh man sharpshooter Scott Wedman.
Walton actually injured a finger in that pre-season, then after riding the stationary bike furiously as he watched the others practice (and have all the fun) he broke a bone in his brittle foot. After helping Boston roll to the 1985-86 title with a 67-15 record (15-3 in playoffs), he was named Sixth Man of the Year.
But the next season as Boston was beset by injuries (and the death of top pick Len Bias), the big redhead played only 10 games and sparingly in the playoffs, where he was ineffective. Neither Walton or Wedman ever played again for the Celtics after 1987, when Boston gutted its way to the Finals before losing. It took 21 years before they returned to the championship series. And it will be a decade next spring since their last trip to the Finals...
So without further ado, here is my ranking of the top sixth men in Celtic annals. Players are ranked by the quality and length of their tenure as sixth men. Thus, although Walton may have been one of the three best for one season, he was hurt for most of his second and last campaign in green. Big Bill was better at his peak than Don Nelson, but Nellie played most of his 11 Celtic seasons off the bench, and did it well.
#7 M.L. Carr
Not just a cheerleader, the towel-waver could play
1979-81: 9 ppg, 3 rpg, 46% FG, 76% FT (started 27 of 56 games in 1981-82)
A good, long-armed 6’6 defender and an underrated outside shooter, Carr was the guard/forward sixth man when Boston launched its third dynasty during Bird’s rookie season of 1979-80.
The Celtics improved from 29-53 to 61-21 with the same roster as the year before, with the exception of the additions of Bird and Carr, who averaged 11.1 points and four rebounds a game in 24.1 minutes per outing.
M.L. made the two pressure-packed, winning free throws at the end of Game 5 in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals to keep Boston alive with a 111-109 win. The tense victory got the Celtics within 3-2 and provided the impetus for their next two nailbiting wins.
The always enthusiastic Carr was also a major league agitator, with his mouth and towel-waving antics from the bench. During the 1981 Finals against Houston, he was assigned to guard Mike Dunleavy, who had torched the Celtics for 28 points in a Game 4 upset that tied the series 2-2.
New York-native Dunleavy was a clever, savvy player who had a sharp tongue himself. As Carr draped his long limbs over the 6’3 Dunleavy, the exasperated Rocket guard said, “M.L., you have bad breath and body odor.” Carr replied quickly, “Good, I hope it bothers you.” Carr and Chris Ford held Dunleavy to 11 combined points over the last two games of the title series, both won by Boston to clinch Banner #14. Dunleavy had averaged 12 ppg over the first four games of the series.
At the end of overtime in Game 4 of the 1984 Finals, Carr provided the clinching play. With Boston up 127-124 in the final seconds, he made a huge steal and hammered down a resounding breakaway dunk to finish off the Lakers at the hostile LA Forum. As he ran gleefully off the court, he yelled at the CBS cameras “I told you we’d be back, we’d be back” for game 6, answering the many critics and fans who said the Celtics would lose in five. Although he only played 28 minutes in that memorable Finals and scored 13 total points, his big steal/dunk and constant encouragement from the bench helped the Celtics prevail.
While many remember him as an unsuccessful Celtic head coach in the post-Bird/pre-Pitino eras - or as an energetic towel-waving cheerleader at the end of his career - Carr was a very solid player during his first three seasons with Boston. His reputation as an agitator also detracted from his contributions on the court. In his first two Celtic seasons as the sixth man, he averaged 15 ppg per 36 minutes.
In his 2018 NBA TV interview with Kevin McHale, Bird called the always exuberant and encouraging M.L. “the best teammate he had in his career.” High praise from a tight-lipped teammate whom Scott Wedman once said threw compliments around like they were manhole covers.
#6 Paul Silas
The rebounding machine
1972-76: 11.5 ppg, 12.5 rpg but 11 and 12 in 1974-75 when he was coming off bench more
Silas was a top-notch rebounder, especially on the offensive glass, and a strong defender. He was a cagey player with good intangibles, and later was an NBA head coach with the Clippers, Cavaliers, and Hornets.
His acquisition in 1972 was the last piece that transformed the Celtics into title contenders. Boston won two crowns and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in all five of his seasons with the club. A smart and selfless player, Silas was not a good shooter. But he teamed with Dave Cowens to comprise one of the best one-two rebounding combinations in NBA history. They arguably were the best offensive-rebounding center/forward tandem in NBA history.
Paul’s defense and rebounding helped Boston beat the Bucks in 1974 and Phoenix, his former team, in the 1976 Finals. But he was then dealt in a controversial trade to Denver, a move that sorrowed his board-banging buddy Cowens. Not coincidentally, Boston failed to make the conference the rest of the decade after trading Silas.
A year later and in his late 30’s, Silas moved on to Seattle and helped lead the young Sonics to the 1978 Finals with his veteran experience, physical board play and winning know-how. In 1979, Seattle finally won its only title as Silas played a key role off the bench.
Paul retired in 1980 after a 16-season career as one of the league’s all-time leaders in rebounds (12,357). Over that time with the Hawks, Suns, Celtics, Nuggets and Sonics, his teams made it to the playoffs 14 times. In his last eight seasons, Silas played in four NBA Finals (winning three) and competed in seven conference finals. And in the other year, his Nugget team lost to eventual champion Portland in a close Western semifinal series. He simply made his teams better.
#5 Bill Walton
Former MVP turned 6th man returned to glory
1985-87: 7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 18 mpg, 1.8 bpg, 1985-86 Sixth Man of the Year
The big redhead was the missing piece for the 1985-86 Celtics. After a storied career at UCLA which included three Final Fours, two titles, most of an 88-game win streak and three Player of the Year awards, Walton was the first pick in the 1974 draft.
Known almost as much for his anti-war protesting as his immense basketball prowess, the hippie was expected to become the savior of the NBA, and perhaps be the Bill Russell to Kareem’s Wilt in an updated version of their great rivalry. But his first two seasons with the expansion Trailblazers frustrated everyone, including Bill.
After two injury-plagued seasons and a controversial conversion to vegetarianism, Walton put it all together in 1976-77, the first year of the ABA/NBA merger. A seventh-year franchise in its first post-season, Portland went on to win the championship over favored Philadelpha behind Walton, who was named Finals MVP. In the clinching sixth game vs. the 76ers he almost recorded an unheard-of quadruple-double with 20 points, 23 rebounds, eight blocks and seven assists.
Yet the next season the Blazers and Walton were even better. He was the regular season MVP as he led the Blazers to an incredible 50-10 start before injuring his foot. Rushing back for the playoffs before the foot was fully healed, he played a second round game against Seattle under the influence of painkillers and re-broke the damaged foot badly.
After filing a lawsuit against the Blazer doctors, he never played again for Portland and signed a free agent deal with his hometown San Diego Clippers. But he missed three of the next four seasons completely while undergoing several surgeries and failed comebacks. At one point he even enrolled in Stanford law school. Slowly he began to resuscitate his career with the Clippers, who eventually moved to Los Angeles. But after several years of losing - something which he was very unaccustomed to - Walton was desperate to escape the hapless Clips.
Big Bill originally approached his old friend Jerry West about playing for his Lakers in 1985 but West declined the offer, citing his frequent foot injuries. “I’ve seen your x-rays,” West told Walton, even though he knew LA needed a good backup center.
Walton then called Red Auerbach and practically begged the Celtic patriarch to trade for him. Larry Bird happened to be in his office at the time and when Red asked his opinion on the matter, without hesitation an excited Bird advised Red to go get the former MVP.
Acquired from the Clippers for disgruntled forward Cedric Maxwell, Walton fit right in with Boston as he took over Danny Ainge’s spot as the butt of team jokes - and loved every minute of it. After Boston rolled to the 1986 championship, for weeks a jubilant Walton would answer his phone by saying “Headquarters, Boston Celtics champions.” McHale and Ainge would call him up just to hear him say that.
As esteemed writer Bob Ryan has said, Walton was like an air tower who directed the defense and through whom you ran the offense with his superb passing. A great passer, defender and rebounder who could also score well, Walton played in a career-best 80 games for Boston in 1985-86. He energized the team with his infectious enthusiasm and intensity.
Even Bird was motivated by his high school hoops idol, moving well without the ball furiously when Bill was in the game in order to receive his deft passes. Their synchronicity was basketball beauty, and they easily comprised the greatest center/forward passing duo in league annals.
On one play at New York, Walton attempted a back door pass to Bird that Knick Ken Bannister deflected high into the air - and it dropped straight into the basket. It was that kind of perfect season for the Celtics, where nearly everything went right. Boston won 82 of its 100 games that season, including playoffs.
Walton led spirited practice scrimmages, claiming the Green Team (second unit) would beat the starters most days. McHale would kid back that the starters would kill the Green Team. When Walton would make a great play, McHale joked in his ear “flashback 1977”, referring to when Walton was the playoff MVP as he led Portland to the title. Now, nine long years and countless surgeries ago, he was back on top in Boston.
”A-a-a-bsolutely,” Walton would stutter in retort, breaking up the team in laughter. Of course, McHale had hung a poster of Walton in his dorm room at Minnesota, and wore number 32 with the Celtics as homage to Walton’s number at UCLA and his pre-Boston NBA days.
”I can’t believe I use to idolize you,” McHale would joke to Big Bill after burning him with a great move. Walton would often say McHale was the second-best low-post player he ever defended, behind only the 7’2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In one of his most inspired games of the season, Walton burned the team who had spurned him badly, the Lakers. In just 16 minutes vs. LA he made five of six shots, blocked seven shots, scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds as Boston routed the Lakers by 15.
He begged Jones to let him guard Worthy, and Walton shut the 6-9 forward down with incredible intensity, startling quickness for a 7’1 man aged 34, and basketball smarts. Walton, who idolized Bill Russell growing up in southern California, was a master at angling defenders to advantageous spots for him on their drives to the basket.
Earvin Johnson pointed to Walton as the difference between the 1985 Lakers LA beat in the Finals, and the 1986 edition. He observed that the normally grim Celtics were having fun and were re-energized behind the highly-motivated redhead.
He had great hands and was expert at blocking shots, snatching rebounds and out-letting passes in midair before he came down to ignite fast breaks. His unselfishness passing skills even inspired reluctant post passers Parish and McHale to share the ball well.
A 22-12-5 game late in the season in just 28 minutes vs. the Bucks showed Walton was back. The oft-injured Walton suffered a broken bone in his right wrist at the end of the regular season, but there was no way he was going to miss the playoffs, his first post-season since his initial bone break in 1978 for the defending champion Blazers.
He just taped the wrist up tightly (covering it with wrist bands) and soldiered on, playing well. Boston cruised to the Finals as they rampaged through the East with an 11-1 playoff mark.
But instead of getting a chance for revenge vs. the Lakers for the third consecutive year in the title round, they met the rising Houston Rockets, who had whipped LA 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals.
Late in the critical and close fourth game of the 1986 Finals at Houston, K.C. Jones inserted Walton into the contest for Robert Parish. Bill contributed a key offensive rebound and reverse layup, then teamed with Bird for the knockout punch in the closing minute. Drawing a double-team inside, Walton tossed a perfectly timed kick-out pass to an open Bird. Larry swished the three-pointer that broke the Rockets back in their 106-103 win, and they took a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.
Walton made all five shots he took in Game 4 and teamed with Parish and McHale to offset the vaunted Twin Tower duo of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. Boston won the series 4-2 and clinched its 16th title.
The loss of Bill’s skills and energy were apparent in 1986-87 as a depressed redhead could only watch most of the season while his injured comrades fought gamely to the Finals. Waiting all year for him to return drained the team of hope and energy as well.
Displaying a sunburn in Game 6 of the 1987 Finals at Los Angeles, the native southern Californian gamely tried to play for the hobbled Celtics after Parish was whistled for three quick fouls. But he was unable to run well or play effectively, and Boston lost the game and series to the Lakers.
Walton stayed on the Celtic roster for the entire 1987-88 campaign, sitting on the bench at home games, but never played another NBA game. After flirting with the idea of playing overseas and a comeback with the Knicks in 1990 that enraged Auerbach yet never materialized, Walton finally hung up his large sneakers for good.
Following retirement, he conquered his stuttering problem and became a respected NBA analyst for the Clippers and NBC. After over 30 surgeries, he had his feet fused and could not run anymore. In addition, terrible back pain caused the normally uber-positive ex-flower child to contemplate suicide, but he miraculously recovered and is now a popular analyst for ESPN’s Pac-12 telecasts and the annual Maui Invitational, featuring his high-energy, bombastic style.
Unable to run and jump anymore, he remains an avid and active cyclist. And for one glorious season in 1985-86 alongside Bird, McHale, and Parish in Boston, he was back on top and in basketball heaven.
#4 Don Nelson
The smart sub
1965-76: 11.4 ppg, 21 mpg, 49% FG 76% FT 5.2 rpg, roughly 10 ppg, 4 rpg as sixth man or sub
Nellie was one of the smarter players of his era. Cut by the Lakers after a standout career at Iowa in 1965, Auerbach picked him up off the scrap heap and was rewarded with 11 years of smart, sweet-shooting play.
At age 35, Nelson moved back into the starting lineup for much of the season and averaged 14 ppg. In fact during that 1974-75 campaign, when he started more than he came off the bench (trading roles with Silas), Nelson led the NBA in field goal percentage at 53.9 percent accuracy. He is the oldest and shortest player to do so in the last 50 years. It’s an amazing stat when one considers Nelson was primarily a mid-range jump shooter with a deft touch who was in his penultimate season, somewhat overweight, and a non-leaper at that point in his career.
But Nellie also ran the floor surprisingly well and sneakily, finding just enough openings to squeeze off his soft one-hander. Bulls/Lakers head coach Phil Jackson, a fine long-armed defender on the Knicks 1973 title team, told Keith Jackson in an ABC TV interview before game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals vs. Boston that Nellie was the hardest Celtic for him to guard because he was “very coy.”
Nelson went out as a champion in 1976 as the Celtics won their 13th title over plucky Phoenix. Less than a year later, he was the head coach of the Bucks and went on to set the league record for most regular season coaching wins. But he never won a title despite having great teams in Milwaukee, Golden State, and Dallas. Yet the outside-shooting oriented, small ball style that has taken over the NBA was started by Nellie with the “Run TMC” Warrior clubs of the early 1990’s behind Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway, and Mitch Richmond.
#3 Frank Ramsey
The Kentucky Colonel
1954-64: 13.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, 80.4 % FT
Ramsey was a very good shooter, a good runner who played forward and guard. He won the 1951 NCAA title in college at Kentucky and after serving a military stint for one year, went on to earn seven rings with the Celtics.
Ramsey was more comfortable coming off the bench, and so Auerbach decided to play him behind the Hall of Fame back court of Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, originating the sixth man role. He also played what is now called small forward, a term that did not exist at the time.
Auerbach thought highly enough of Ramsey to offer him the head coaching job of the Celtics when he stepped down in 1966. But Ramsey declined the unenviable task of replacing Red, choosing to return to Kentucky to help raise his three children and care for his ill father.
Four years later, Ramsey was lured into coaching the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA. His calm leadership and basketball smarts guided them to the 1971 championship series in his only season. But the Colonels lost to Utah in the Finals, and Ramsey retired.
Ramsey, K.C., Russell and Tom Heinsohn each went on to lead teams to professional Finals as head coaches, as did former Celtic reserve Paul Westphal in 1993 with Phoenix. Russ, K.C. and Heinsohn each won two NBA titles as Celtic head man.
#2 Kevin McHale
The funny man was the ultimate post player
1980-85, 1990-93: 17 ppg, 7 rpg, 55% FG, 78% FT, 2 bpg, 1983-84, 1984-85 Sixth Man of the Year
Kevin McHale had more moves than any post player in NBA history, many of which he named. The slippery eel and the white salamander were two of the best. A deadly fadeaway, up and under and jump hook complemented his arsenal. McHale had an uncanny knack of feeling where his defender was, and then countering their position with a series of unstoppable moves punctuated by great footwork, imagination, graceful body control and a soft shooting touch.
Growing up in hockey country in Minnesota, McHale learned his great lateral movement by playing the game and, in particular, goalie. But the gregarious McHale, son of a miner and Croatian-descended mother, joked that that his favorite move was against the “7-11 defense” - which came when his exasperated, beaten defender would simply throw both arms up (as if being held up) to wave the white flag, knowing that McHale was going to score.
Known for his long arms, McHale was also a very good and fast leaper, excelling at multiple jumps in a row to earn tip-ins or blocked shots. Those who want to undercut McHale’s great talent and skill often point to his unusually long reach as the main reason for his success. But there have been plenty of NBA players with very long arms who were not any good, not to mention a lot of long-armed people who never played at any level of quality.
With his soft touch he made 55.4 percent of his shots, and converted 79.8 percent at the foul line. Over his last five seasons he shot just under 84 percent at the line and in the 1990-91 season, he even made 40.5 percent of his three-point tries.
Holding the ball high over his head on a textbook jump shot release, his shot was almost impossible to reach, let alone block. The only way to defend Kevin was with greater size and physicality. Patrick Ewing was one of the few who had any success containing Kevin.
”He was a good competitor, very skilled, and above all, he was smart,” said Auerbach of McHale’s basketball virtues.
McHale was the third pick overall in the 1980 NBA draft out of Minnesota. He had been lightly recruited out of high school, with only Indiana, Utah and the home-state Gophers pursuing him among the power-conference schools. He went on to a fine career at Minnesota, but was still under the radar until he played exceptionally well at the pre-draft camps in Hawaii.
Once Virginia freshman Ralph Sampson, a 7’4 center, told Auerbach he would stay in college and forego entering the 1980 draft, Red decided to deal the team’s overall number one draft pick to Golden State for Robert Parish and the Warriors pick, the number three choice. After Sampson snubbed the Celtics, Auerbach secretly wanted McHale all along. But getting Parish in the trade allowed him to snatch the underrated Minnesotan with the third pick, which alleviated the pressure of being the top overall choice that would have burdened McHale - especially since he would be the seventh man at best on a stacked roster as a rookie.
Joining a strong team that had posted a league-best 61-21 record the year before, Kevin became part of a crowded front court at the start of his 1980-81 rookie season. Bird, Cedric Maxwell, Cowens, the newly-acquired Parish, Rick Robey and McHale comprised arguably the deepest front line in NBA history. There did not seem to be many minutes available with that front court, but then Cowens retired in the pre-season to lessen a bit of the logjam.
At the time, Robey was also one of the best backup centers in the league, and coach Bill Fitch favored the bruising Robey over the carefree Kevin. McHale averaged 10 points and 1.8 blocks a game off the bench (in just 20.1 minutes a night) as Boston went 62-20 and won the NBA title.
”You are a great player, rook. He (Fitch) just doesn’t know it yet,” counseled then-assistant K.C. Jones wisely to the frustrated McHale.
Kevin’s incredible block and rebound of a potential-series clinching shot by Philadelphia guard Andrew Toney late in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals vs. the 76ers saved the season for Boston as they tied the epic series up 3-3 with a 100-98 road win. It took his great play and a high-bouncing 18-foot leaner by Bird to end an 11-game Celtic losing streak at the Spectrum.
McHale took over the sixth man role from M.L. Carr full-time in 1981-82, helping Boston register a league-best 63-19 mark. He averaged 13.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.7 blocks a game in 28.4 minutes. In 1983-84, McHale won the second NBA Sixth Man of the Year award after averaging 18.4 points and 7.4 boards a game. He also earned the first of his seven All-Star nods, three of which came primarily as a sixth man.
Bird often tried to motivate the happy-go-lucky McHale by saying he could be the best player in the league if he worked at his game harder. ”Why can’t you be more like Larry?” asked exasperated coach Fitch one time of McHale. “Oh no, I have a life,” replied McHale.
In the 1984-85 season, Maxwell injured his knee and McHale moved into the starting lineup for 31 games after never missing a contest over his first four seasons. He never looked back as he blossomed into a superstar with the increased minutes, averaging 19.8 points and nine rebounds in 33.6 minutes.
In the 1985 Playoffs, he upped those numbers to 22.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. Eventually he would peak in the 1986-87 season, earning first team all-league honors alongside Bird. He averaged 26.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks a game, also while winning the first of two straight field goal percentage crowns (at a whopping 60.4% clip).
The 1986-87 season is still the only time two forwards from the same team were voted first team all-league as the NBA’s “odd couple” turned the rare trick.
Unfortunately the foot injury and subsequent surgery took its toll and robbed Kevin of some of his lift and quickness. He missed the first 21 game of the ensuing season and by 1990, he was back in the sixth man role for most of his final 3.5 seasons.
But Kevin showed how intense he was between the lines when he played the grueling 1987 playoffs with a broken bone in his foot - against doctor’s advice - as well as a sprained ankle and the flu. Even the gritty Bird advised McHale to sit out and not jeopardize his future. Yet McHale played on, and played well. McHale still limps today after trying to lead Boston to a repeat title in 1987 with a broken navicular bone in his foot.
McHale was also a tremendous and versatile defender. He could guard anyone from power forwards like Karl Malone to centers and small forwards like Adrian Dantley due to his great footwork, reach, leaping ability, timing and intelligence. He was named to the NBA All-Defense team six times, and was a superb shot-blocker and offensive rebounder. He holds the Celtic record for blocks in a game (nine), although blocks were not kept when Russell played.
Had he been a starter all or most of his career, his statistics would be even more impressive. He only averaged 31 minutes a game over his 12 seasons. His career 17.9 ppg average was upped to 18.8 ppg in 169 playoff contests on 56.1 percent field goal accuracy. Averaging just 23.3 minutes a game in his very last season (his first without the retired Bird), McHale still managed to lead Boston in scoring during the intense 1993 playoffs vs. Charlotte.
Th clutch big man came off the pine to average 19 points, 1.8 blocks and 7.3 rebounds a game in just 28.3 minutes vs. the young Hornets. He canned 58.2 percent of his field tries and 85.7 percent of his foul shots in the series. His last great game was a 30-point, 10-rebound performance in Game 2 vs. the Hornets of Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson, an efficient and creative 13-18 shooting night as Bird cheered him on from the Garden seats. But Boston would lose 99-98 in overtime.
In the last play of his swansong a few days later at Charlotte amid a very hostile atmosphere in game four, Boston rallied with a 33-16 fourth quarter to within 104-103 with a second to go.
Coach Chris Ford chose McHale to throw the all-important in-bounds pass from half court. Kevin threw a perfect 50-foot overhead lob pass to the high-flying Dee Brown, and the well-executed backdoor screen for Brown and subsequent alley-oop would have won the game and tied the series 2-2 heading back to Boston for a decisive fifth game. Although Brown was clearly fouled and the play also was probably goaltended, no call was made as the home team and fans celebrated wildly. No instant replay reviews existed then to reverse bad calls. McHale argued, then walked off the court for the last time with 19 points (8-14 shooting) and six rebounds.
It was an eerie repeat of the 1991 Boston playoff finale exit, an overtime loss at the hated two-time defending champion “Bad Boy” Pistons of Detroit. With Parish unable to play and the Celtics down 3-2, McHale still came off the bench and was unstoppable in Game 6 at the Palace. His 34-point, 11-19 FG, 11-14 FT tour de force game led the Celtics to another gritty fourth period rally on the road. With the game tied at the end of the fourth period, McHale then sank an impressive baseline tip-in directly in front of the arguing Piston bench (which, along with the frenzied home crowd influenced the official) that would have won the game, but the basket was waved off, despite the ball obviously being below and off the rim when McHale tipped it back in.
Even Detroit Piston announcer George Blaha conceded that the home team had gotten a break on the critical missed call. In OT, a lucky bank shot three-pointer by Isiah Thomas buried Boston in a bitter 117-113 defeat.
As the Celtics filed off the court, Thomas and the Pistons congratulated a frustrated McHale on his great performance. But Boston did not complain or make excuses as their last good chance at a title in the Bird/McHale era came to an unceremonious ending.
Kevin went on to an underrated, successful career as a general manager and NBA head coach. As GM, his Timberwolves made the 2004 Western Confernce Finals before losing to the Lakers, the best Minnesota playoff showing in their 31-year history. Later, he coached Houston to its first Western Conference Finals in two decades in 2016 before becoming an entertaining, informative and humorous NBA TV analyst.
McHale was fittingly named to the NBA 50 Greatest Players list in 1997 and was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1999. Charles Barkley always says McHale is the best player he ever played against.
Larry dubbed Kevin the black hole since the ball never came back out and disappeared (usually into the hoop) when he passed it in to McHale. But the moniker was largely unfair needling because for much of his career - especially in his early years - Kevin came off the bench and had to make an instant impact to stay in the game. Parish, for example, was an even more unwilling passer once he got the ball in the low post. But no one wanted to bother the stoic Chief, while the easygoing McHale was a much easier target for such kidding.
Had he not been so long-armed and a sixth man for over half of his career - and mostly, had he not played alongside the greater and more lauded Bird - McHale would have been far more acclaimed and recognized for his unique, exceptional pool of talent and skills. But he also would not have won as much, nor benefited from Bird’s incredible passing and leadership.
#1 John Havlicek
The green running machine
1962-66: 18 ppg, 6 rpg, 42% FG, 75% FT as 6th man
1977-78: 17 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4,5 apg, 45% FG, 82% FT as 6th man/occasional starter
1962-78 overall career stats: 20.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 4.8 apg, played 1,270 of possible 1,304 games, 43.9 FG% 81.5 FT%, 36.6 mpg
All time Celtic leader in points (26,395), 8 titles, 13-time All-Star, 11-time All NBA, 8-time All-Defense
This top of the line Hall of Famer made second team All-NBA as a sixth man in 1963-64, just his second season. No sixth man has ever done that rare feat since.
By his second season of 1963-64, supersub Johnny Havlicek (as he was often called until around 1974 when he was well into his 30’s) actually led the uber-balanced Celtics in scoring with 19.9 points a game, and was second in minutes played.
By his fourth season, John was already the most well-rounded and very arguably the second-most valuable player on the Celtics - and he played the most minutes of anyone not named Bill Russell. Plus, he was almost always on the court at the end of the game, especially if it was close. As Hondo and Auerbach used to say, it was more important to be on the court at the end of the game than at the start. Yet in much of the public’s eye, Havlicek was still somehow “lesser” because he did not start. Perhaps that helped drive him to play so well for so long.
But for the first quarter of his long career, Havlicek was still the sixth man on a team that became the first in NBA history to start five African Americans regularly. Auerbach, a noted contrarian, likely supported the solidarity that an all-black lineup created at a time when the league was still just over 50 percent composed of white players.
Hondo was obviously better than Willie Naulls, who started at forward in front of him. Larry Siegfried, his Ohio State teammate, roommate and best friend, was arguably better than K.C. Jones at guard. Yet both came off the bench at the time, paying their dues and gaining experience while also becoming hungrier as they waited their turn to start.
Yet by 1967 Hondo was entrenched as a starter, and would be an All-Star for the next 12 seasons. He led Boston to two championships for the often-overlooked 1970’s era Celtics, sandwiched between the Russell and Bird eras.
Coached by Tom Heinsohn, his rookie year roommate, Hondo’s relentless running and movement stimulated the offense and set the tone for the hard-driven team. Heinsohn called those clubs the quickest in franchise history, as led by Hondo, JoJo White and the fastest center in the NBA, the 6’9 Cowens.
Ironically as his long career finally wound down, Havlicek found himself in a familiar role again, as sixth man.
”I’m coming off the bench again,” said Havlicek in his predictably understated profile for the 1977 book “Echoes from the Schoolyard: An Informal Portrait of NBA Greats.” The book was written by Dustin Hoffman’s ex-wife Anne Byrne-Hoffman, a former ballerina.
”There’s been no one able to do that since Silas left...no one could assume that role with any consistency,” he told her. “So it’s given me another lift. I like the feeling of being versatile.”
When he retired in April of 1978 John had played more games than anyone in NBA history, all with Boston. He noted that growing up in a small Ohio town of coal miners and mill workers near the western Pennsylvania and West Virginia borders, sports was the main outlet for people - so he played them all the time and became all-state in football, basketball ,and baseball.
The 1973 NBA player rankings book “Computerized NBA/ABA Players’ Guide” by Compu-Scout noted that Havlicek’s “hustle, ideal attitude,” skills and bottomless drive made him the best all-around forward in pro basketball. The computer ranked each player in the NBA and ABA at the time in a variety of categories, with a perfect score of 5.0. After his 11th season in 1973, Hondo rated at 4.5 overall, a testament to his exceptional conditioning and athletic ability, not to mention his varied skills. At an age when most pros were retired or in serious decline, Havlicek was still peaking.
One can’t help but conjecture that spending his first few seasons as a sixth man contributed to his already nearly-bottomless drive to succeed. Hondo’s Ohio State teammate and Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight also hypothesized that John was driven in part to prove he was better than Jerry Lucas, his much more celebrated college teammate and a fellow Hall of Famer/50 Greatest Players member.
Ironically, it was Jerry’s Knicks who ended the Celtic title hopes 4-3 in the 1973 Eastern Conference Finals after John injured his right shoulder badly. It was a blind but clean screen set by Dave DeBusschere, who later became a close friend when they retired to the same Florida town, that injured Hondo. Havlicek got the last word a year later when he came back to carry Boston past New York 4-1 in the 1974 Eastern Conference Finals, pouring in 33 points in the clincher. Determined to avenge that 1973 loss to their rival, Hondo averaged a series-best 29.6 ppg (on amazing 59.6 field goal and 96 percent free throw accuracy) to lead Boston past the defending champion Knicks. Havlicek made 62 of his 104 field goal tries and converted 24 of 25 at the free throw line in the five-game series.
It turned out to be the last go-round for Lucas, who retired after the 1974 season along with fellow Knick Hall of Famers Willis Reed and DeBusschere. Thus, Hondo’s revenge helped put a period on the 1969-74 Knick dynasty, especially after New York had eliminated the Celts in 1972 and 1973.
”At least we lost to a great team,” said Knick guard great Walt Frazier after the 1974 defeat.
At 34, Havlicek kept running and then earned the 1974 NBA Finals MVP by leading the Celtics past Milwaukee in a classic series, 4-3. It was the first Celtic title of the post-Russell era, led by the man who bridged the gap from Russell and Cousy to Cowens, and then almost all the way to the glorious Bird era, in Celtic lore.
The humble Havlicek finally felt completely vindicated after that victory, his first without Lucas or Russell at center. In a phone conversation with his college coach Fred Taylor after winning the 1974 title, Hondo confided to him that he was “finally a winner” on his own.
A surprised Taylor, still coaching Hondo, replied, “John, you were always a winner.” As proof, in the decade of the 1960’s, Havlicek played in three NCAA championship games from 1960-62, then won six NBA titles in his first seven seasons from 1963-69. In only one season during the 1960’s did his team not make the championship round. And he won seven pro and college titles in that decade.
Hondo retired in 1978, but said that had he known Bird was coming less than two years later, he would have stayed around to play with him. One can only imagine how well the constantly moving Havlicek would have meshed and benefited from the slick passes of Hick from French Lick. Perhaps his presence would have been enough to put a 61-21 Boston club short on playoff experience over the top for one last title in 1980. There is little doubt that Hondo, who still averaged 16.1 ppg in his last season at age 38, could have played at a high enough level at 40 off the bench to contribute greatly in Bird’s rookie campaign.
To contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.