Kevin McHale: Superstar in His Own Right, 1989

[The 1980s Boston Celtics. Kevin McHale. Larry Bird. Absolutely no need for an introduction, except to say that the Boston Globe’s Ian Thomsen wrote this fantastic article. It ran in The Sporting News Pro Basketball Yearbook, 1988-89.]

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Kevin McHale is going to say his piece, and there is nothing you or I or anybody else can do about it. The Boston Celtics’ standout forward is ready to talk. 

First, he would like to discuss money and how it relates to his needs, happiness, and career. “I love apples,” began McHale, spinning a moral tale of sorts. “But if you’ve got a bushel full of apples and you put 30 more apples on top, all they do is just fall off the sides anyway. So, what good does it do? That’s my philosophy on money. I’ve got all the money I want to spend right now, so why give me more (to play basketball)? I want to play until I don’t enjoy it.”

Having indicated that a passion for basketball—not a love of big bucks—is a driving force in his life. McHale now would like to talk about Cleveland. “I’ll probably retire one night in Cleveland,” he said. “It’ll be snowy and rainy and crappy and we’ve lost to the “Cadavers” by like 40, and I’ll probably say, ‘That’s it, and go home.” 

This is Kevin McHale, who will turn 31 years old early in the 1988-89 National Basketball Association season, talking about his future. 

“I look at players that play way past their prime, then all of a sudden the game turns on you like a bad lover,” he said. “All of a sudden, it’s not so good to you. Things aren’t working the way they should. God gave me the ability to play, He blessed me in so many ways, and I want to go out with that attitude rather than struggle to play another year so you can get another contract when you’re way past your prime and just kind of holding on.”

There’s more. “I’d hate to be 34 and think that I just lived the best part of my life, and that everything else is downhill from that point on. I hope you reach the summit in your life the minute before you die. Maybe, hopefully, that’s the best you ever felt about yourself, the best you’ve ever been to other people, the most that you’ve tried to help people, and everything in life that means something to you. Basketball isn’t all of it that means anything. 

“I hope I look back for the next 60 years and say, ‘Boy, I had fun when I played basketball.’ You know?”

Having a good time and finding a little perspective—who could argue with that? For one, there’s Larry Bird. Oh, it’s not that Bird doesn’t appreciate where McHale is coming from in philosophical terms. It’s just that the Celtics’ reigning superstar believes McHale, a fellow forward on Boston’s frontline for the last eight seasons, is wasting his athletic talent. 

“I feel like Kevin McHale could be, year in and year out, the best player in the league, but sometimes I don’t think Kevin wants to be the best player, or known as the best player,” Bird said on a Boston radio show over the summer. “I really feel that . . . there have been times Kevin plays games and goes against the best defensive player he goes out there and just starts joking around and still gets 25 points, 14 rebounds, and we win going away. And (if) Kevin really wanted to, I feel he could do that night in and night out against anybody in the league.”

The Celtics’ captain hasn’t confined his criticism to McHale. Boston guard Danny Ainge also has been targeted. “You’re trying to motivate these players in different ways,” Bird said. “The thing with Danny, Danny’s a great player. But if you get on Danny too much, he just sort of backs off and goes into his shell, and it hurts him. But Kevin, you can say just about anything.”

McHale claims he never hears directly from Bird. “He never says anything to me,” said McHale, a long-time support player behind Bird but now a genuine star in his own right. “The only thing I hear about is secondhand. If he’s got something to say, he doesn’t like the way I’m playing, he can say it to me . . .”

Even if McHale had heard the latest complaint, he would not have agreed with it. “. . . I’m the last person to leave that gym every day,” said McHale, defending his desire and work ethic. “I work out every day. I work on my moves; I work on my things. So, I can’t agree on that at all. 

“If I don’t play well, I’ll stay in the gym the next day and work on it. I’ll grab somebody and work on it for an hour. I do that a lot. That’s why I just can’t agree at all with what Larry said—‘If I would just work harder.’”

If results are indeed the payoff, then McHale seems to have a point—to say the least. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, even, to suggest that the 6-foot-10, 225-pounder has emerged as a player whose all-around contribution to the Celtics rivals that made by Bird. In the last five of his eight NBA seasons, McHale has averaged 21.6 points per game after scoring at a 12.6 clip over his first three years. He has made the NBA all-defensive team the last three seasons, top the league and field-goal percentage the past two years, and won All-NBA honors once. 

Furthermore, McHale has sizzled in the playoffs, showing a field-goal percentage of .568 or higher each of the last four seasons and never falling below .504 in postseason competition. Bird, meanwhile, has lost his touch in the postseason, dipping under the .500 mark seven times in nine years of playoff action. McHale scored 25.4 points per game in the 1988 playoffs, while Bird finished at 24.5. 

McHale, a first-round draft pick out of Minnesota in 1980 and the third player chosen overall that year, resurrected the issue of Bird’s criticism throughout an interview session and yet never grew angry. “Ah, everybody’s entitled to their opinion,” McHale said. “I know everybody’s different, but I just don’t take that stuff personal at all. Evidently, he has a very high opinion of my ability, you know, and I have a high opinion of his ability also, and I like him. He’s a good guy . . .” 

So, it all comes down to the fact that Kevin likes Larry, and Larry likes Kevin.

Bird’s knack of improving others around him is well-documented, but McHale insists it’s a two-way street. “I can tell you one thing—we’ve all made Larry a better player, too,” McHale said. “If Larry was playing with the Golden State Warriors, he’d still be a very, very good player, but would he be as good? I don’t think so. It’s great that way. Better players make each other better. I mean, you know, I’d love to play with a guy like Magic (Johnson). Magic would make me a better player because of the way he plays. Isiah (Thomas) makes you a better player the way he plays. Larry makes you better the way he plays. 

“In return, Robert (Parish, the Celtics’ center) and I make Larry much better the way we play. We’re covering up a lot . . . you know, blocking shots, helping out low defensively, allowing Larry to take more chances on defense, go for steals, and that kind of stuff. Well Robert and I are really drawing a lot of attention down low, it opens the outside for everybody. And so I think, yeah, if I was playing with a guy who wasn’t a good player, I wouldn’t be as effective.”

Having two players of the stature of Bird and McHale on one team doesn’t always ensure success. Quite the contrary. When the Philadelphia 76ers, boasting the superstar talents of Julius Erving and George McGinnis, blew a 2-0 lead to Portland in the 1977 NBA Finals, a shakeup of sorts was anticipated. A little more than a year later, McGinnis was dispatched to the Denver Nuggets. Then, less than a decade later, the Houston Rockets were thinking domination when they got their Twin Towers, Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon, in place. But the giant frontliners were together only three full seasons before Sampson was dealt to Golden State.

The Los Angeles Lakers, of course, have won three NBA championships with quiet no-name players opposite forward James Worthy, and the 76ers captured their 1983 title with unheralded Marc Iavaroni starting opposite Erving (although Bobby Jones was still a key contributor at forward). And Boston won league titles in 1981 and 1984 with steady-but-hardly-flashy Cedric Maxwell pairing with Bird at forward. Maxwell was the Most Valuable Player of the 1981 Finals, all right, but was he ever a threat to Bird? No way. 

Now here is Kevin McHale, one year younger than Bird, taller by an inch and, according to several NBA coaches, the greater threat than Bird in the Celtics’ offensive scheme. The last two years have been the most productive of McHale’s career (3,454 total points, a 24.5 scoring average), and, while the Celtics failed to add to their cache of championship banners in those campaigns, the club nevertheless compiled a 116-48 regular-season mark.  

Selfishness, often a trademark of teams with more than one standout player, hasn’t been a problem on this club. The Celtics have been able to share one ball happily. As McHale says, “It’s whoever has the best shot, whoever’s playing well . . . when you’re in sync, it just happens. That’s why if you have two or three or four good players, you’re a better team, because you can diversify your offense.”

The Celtics’ basic offense has been to (1) work the ball inside and (1a) take the best shot. McHale refuses to paint a greater sophistication to it, and the largest controversy has been the occasional criticism from Bird that McHale has failed to kick the ball outside when double-teamed. McHale always has maintained there is no science to his decisions—and that he often is unaware of double-teams. “Coming down with a six-foot guard is a joke,” McHale said. “I can’t even see him.”

While the Celtics generally have remained true to their team-basketball principles, problems nevertheless are casting a shadow over this club. The Celtics appeared tired and uncertain last spring while making a disgraceful 41.1 percent of their floor shots in a six-game loss to Detroit in the Eastern Conference championship round. 

“Last spring was the first time in a long time we weren’t recognizing what was going on out there,” McHale said. “Basketball’s a game where, if you’re playing and you think about it too much, you’re not going to do well. 

“It’s like the golfers on TV . . . putting is like you’re standing up there and there’s the hole and you’re looking at the thing and you’re saying, ‘Oh, my God, where is this thing going to go?’ I think it’s the same thing in basketball. You see guys with the ball, and they’re measuring it. A golfer should just putt it through, swing threw the ball, and a basketball player’s just got to shoot it. Having four or five good offensive players doesn’t help, because we weren’t In sync with each other. 

“When you find somebody that’s hot, you’ve got to stick with him, and that’s something we didn’t do this past spring. We were diversifying our offense, one guys shooting one time, this guy shooting the next time, and we never really got into a situation where this play’s working, so let’s work this play and when they stop that, we’ll go to something else. It wasn’t anybody in particular. In fact, a lot of times we were out of position. It was a strange thing, is strange, strange thing.”

Detroit forward John Salley, who was guarding McHale in the 1988 playoffs, probably understands. “We’re standing at the other end of the court and (Boston coach) K.C. Jones calls down to play,” Salley remembered, “and he (McHale) tells me it’s for Danny Ainge. He says, ‘Can you believe that? I make four shots in a row, and they’re calling for Danny. And I’ve got you guarding me, Salley. Now that’s not fair.’”

Could the Celtics have won a set of rings by going through McHale?

“Last spring, we weren’t the best team in the NBA,” McHale said. “We probably weren’t even one of the top two or three teams in the NBA. Talent-wise we were, but the way we played together, we weren’t. 

“I’m not going to play that many more years. As you get older, you realize the opportunities to win championships and fulfill your goals are just not there. When you first start out, you think every year you’ll win a championship, and, as you get older, it gets harder and harder.”

It is not in McHale’s carefree image to allow the losses to hurt him, but they do exact a toll. And if the disappointments continue, if the Celtics keep wasting championship opportunities, then who knows? McHale might just one day announce that he has retired, so long and goodbye. 

McHale obviously isn’t playing this game for glory. Satisfaction will do nicely. 

A four-time All Star game performer who waited 4 ½ years to become a Celtic starter, McHale says he cares not one bit about scoring points. In fact, in the wake of posting his top two NBA scoring averages in the last two seasons—26.1 in 1986-87 and 22.6 in ’87-‘88—and shooting a dazzling .604 from the field each year, the man from Hibbing, Minn., still seems to pine for a substitute role. 

“I actually liked coming off the bench,” said McHale, two-time winner of the NBA’s Sixth Man Award. “It was really nice. It was fun. It was pretty relaxing to me. I got to watch the flow of the game develop, and I felt real comfortable with going in there and doing what I felt needed to be done to help the team.”

The Celtics ask more of McHale these days. His low-post turnaround jumper, jump hook, and all of the hook’s twitching derivatives have become the anchor in Boston’s half-court offense. “Those two shots are awful tough to stop,” said McHale, “so what the guy has to do is take chances before you even shoot, which allows you to do other things.”

McHale, whose contract runs for three more seasons, is aware that many so-called experts see a dry spell just ahead for the aging and depth-shy Celtics. Could he cope with mediocrity?

“You have to play on a team that you enjoy playing on,” he said. “You might be playing on a team that wins 41 games a year, but that’s the best you can do. I think you can live with a team where you go home and say, ‘Damn, we played like hell, but they’re better than we are.’

“That’s why I was disappointed last year, because we were not mentally and physically as good as we should have been. Like, after the season was over, it felt, up to that point at least, that we could always beat them in the close games. Now you definitely would have to say they’ve been a better team in the ‘80s than we’ve been, just by what they’ve accomplished. But there’s that fine line between us a lot of times.”

Publicly, McHale gives the impression of a player who forgets the score five minutes after the game. Isiah Thomas remembered seeing McHale outside the Celtics’ locker room after the Pistons had one the first game of the 1988 Eastern Conference title series. 

“McHale was with his wife, and I guess a friend of his, and he was laughing,” Thomas said. “His wife was next to him, his friend was there, and he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ I’ll be glad when I reached that stage, where after a game I can be happy and know that I did all that I can do. I thought that was beautiful. Kevin’s going to live a long time.”

“Nobody really knows me,” McHale said. “If I’m going to be upset and think about the game, I’m going to do that at home. Unfortunately for my wife, we end up sitting up talking until 3 or 4 in the morning about how badly we played and stuff like that.”

McHale may replay games from time to time and agonize over what might have been, but his perspective returns quickly. “God’s given me a lot of ability for some reason,” he said. “He kind of stuck me in the NBA—I’m 6-foot-10. It’s just something I’ve been kind of blessed with. It’s a gift almost. 

“I’ve been fortunate to be doing things I’ve enjoyed doing my whole life. I’ve had a really good life, and basketball’s just been part of it. 

“I don’t think basketball’s any more enjoyable than my children are, than my marriage is. The feeling that I’ve had when I’m really hot in basketball isn’t nearly as good as the feeling that I have when I’m sitting with my kids and they’re on my lap and we’re sitting there playing . . .”

McHale says it’s necessary to “derive some sort of self-satisfaction and everything away from basketball . . . you’ve gotta feel good about yourself in order to be confident, in order to stay away from drugs, in order to make good decisions. 

“I tell kids, don’t play basketball because all your friends play basketball. Heck, if you want to play the piano, play the piano. 

“Maybe one kid thought that ‘all I have to do is play basketball to feel good about myself, but I don’t like basketball, I like computers.’ For him to go home and tell his mom, ‘Hey, Mom, you know I don’t want to go to basketball camp next week. I’d like to go to computer camp.’ Maybe he’ll go on to find a successful job and feel good about himself.”

Maybe such a youngster will become so successful that the world will question whether he could be even better than he is. In the same vein, could Kevin Edward McHale evolve into something more than he is?

Two years ago, as an ever-widening stress fracture threatened his career, McHale turned introspective. “At that point already,” he said, “I’ve gotten so much from basketball, so much from it financially and personally, and I loved playing so much, I said to myself, ‘Could you ever not play another game and be happy?’

“I said, yes. If I never played another game of basketball in my life, I could be a happy person, because I had so many other things in my life.”

McHale as said he never again will play with such a severe injury. But . . . 

“But it’s almost like childbirth,” he said. “My wife says she hates having babies, she hates being pregnant for nine months, during delivery she hates that. She sees the little baby and she goes like, ‘Oh, when are we going to have another one?’

“Once it’s over you think, that wasn’t that bad. So, if I have another injury, yeah, I’d probably play again.”

Whether he’d play well enough to suit critic Larry Bird, a man whose abilities McHale seemingly has eclipsed at times, is another question. McHale surely wouldn’t fret about such matters, though. He’d simply put it all in perspective, go out and have some fun, and, as usual, produce. 

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