Rick Robey: The Ultimate Backup Center, 1982

[During the 1981 NBA playoffs, Houston’s Robert Reid was asked about Boston’s backup center Rick Robey. His reply: “I don’t think Robey feels right unless other bodies are rubbing up against his. Teammates, opponents, ushers. He’s like Dave Cowens without brakes.” 

Robey was a classic banger inside who always gave the game his all, even though he liked to call himself, probably tongue in cheek, “a finesse player. Either way, Robey managed to stick around the association until age 30, logging five memorable season in Boston. In this article, the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan catches up with Robey in his third season as a Celtic, dubbing the former Kentucky Wildcat as “the ultimate backup center.” Ryan’s piece ran in the March 1982 issue of Basketball Digest.]


Well, sure, Rick Robey would like to start. Who wouldn’t? More playing time begets more ink, which, in turn, could conceivably beget more money. 

But Rick Robey also likes to win. He is an experienced net-cutter, and he likes the feeling. He was on a Louisiana state champion high school team (Brother Martin of New Orleans). He was on an NCAA championship team (Kentucky). He is currently a member of the NBA champions (Boston). He knows there is a lot to be said for winning the final game of the season.

In Boston, 6-feet-10 Robey is the backup center, playing behind a man Robert Parish, whom Robey acknowledges is “if not the best, then one of the top two or three centers in the league.”

Behind Robey, in a sense, is Kevin McHale, a young 6-feet-11 monster who occasionally usurps some of Robey’s pivot time but does most of his work at forward. At times, Robey can be a forgotten man. And yet, there are teams (New Jersey, Detroit, Dallas, and Utah, to name a few) that would have gladly welcomed Robey into their starting lineup.

“He’s certainly a starting-quality center,” says New Jersey general manager Bob MacKinnon, who got to know Robey during his stint as a Celtics’ assistant. “There are times, depending on the situation and the opponent when he comes off the bench, and the Celtics’ level of play goes up, not down.”

There is an art to being a substitute. It requires an entirely different mental discipline than starting, and there are those who cannot master the technique. Robey was no different from the next 10,000 people when he came into the league. 

As both a high school and collegiate All-America, he could not then possibly envision a life in which he would not be involved in the introductions. Getting used to entering the game at random was a new experience.

“When I was in high school and college,” Robey explains, “I was the guy to get all the attention. Now, I’ve got to be realistic about this situation. The key is maintaining my confidence, and I think I received a lot of confidence two years ago when Dave [Cowens] got hurt and I started for a month.”

Robey professes to be in love with winning: “There’s nothing like it. When I went home to Kentucky this past summer, I felt a lot better than I did the year before. To me, that’s what it’s all about. I could ask to play or be traded, but there are just too many good things about being in Boston. 

“When I first came here, there were a bunch of guys on the team that I’m glad are no longer around. Now it’s a dream team, full of guys who want to sacrifice in order to win games.”

Robey’s own game is an intriguing one. His obvious strengths are his ability to score from the low post and the way he runs the fastbreak lanes.

Though rivals often cite his physical nature as a plus, the truth is that his rebounding comes and goes, and his defense could be improved upon. He does set outstanding picks, and he is a surprisingly clever passer. In sum, his present value Is more offensive than defensive, a situation coach Bill Fitch would like to reverse.

“It’s the same now that he replaces Robert as it was when he used to replace Dave,” says Fitch. “I want him to play defense and rebound. If he could improve his defense and coordinate his rebounding, I’ll be more than satisfied. My opinion is that if he would set picks and go to the boards, his offense will take care of itself.”

It’s safe to say that anyone who last saw Robey in high school wouldn’t recognize his game now. He weighed 260 pounds when he first reported to Kentucky, and he was strictly a right-handed player. Now, when he is in shape, he weighs around 235-240 pounds—although staying that way has been a problem for him.

Moreover, he has become so adept with—indeed, so reliant upon—his left hand that his infrequent right-handed baskets look odd. Ninety percent of the time, his post-up attempts result in a left-handed shot, be it a jump hook (he’s got one of the best in the league), a standard hook, or a little flipper.

He credits his left-handed expertise to Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall. “Oh yes, it was Joe Hall,” Robey explains. “I couldn’t hit the rim with my left hand when I came to Kentucky. He said, ‘Rick, you are going to learn to use that left hand,’ and I must have worked on those left-handed low-post moves for a half hour every day for four years.”

But a strong left hand is not his only Kentucky legacy. He also learned what winning was all about, and that championships always begin in practice. When Fitch lists Robey’s assets, he always starts with the fact that Robey is his most-consistent hard-worker in practice. “Rick very seldom gets into any serious trouble with me because of his excellent practice habits,” Fitch says. “I love guys who go at it hard.”

Adjustment to the life of a sub requires a subjugation, not abandonment, of ambition, and it appears that Robey has acquired the perfect professional attitude.

Informed of Robey’s assessment of his situation. MacKinnon replies, “I’m not surprised to hear that, because Rick has always been a complete team player. I don’t think he’d settle for losing. I think he’d work as hard as necessary to help a team win. I believe he’s 110 percent for his team, that he puts the team first and his personal goals second. What’s unusual is that it’s normally guys with limited ability who adopt his type of attitude. But Rick has a starter’s ability.”

It may be that his first three months in Boston, when the team was run by John Y. Brown and losing was a way of life, so frightened or disgusted him that he made a determination never to be involved the bad situation again, if he could help it.

“It was bad,” Robey recalls. “I won’t name names, but I was sitting next to a teammate on a flight to the coast, and he said, ‘Maybe we can win one of these five games.’ Now, I’m on a team where guys say, ‘We’re going to win all five.’

“This situation, if you sat down and wrote out what you’d like on a team, you’ve got it. I think  even if things go badly, nobody would point fingers. They’d try to pick each other up.”

Robey’s challenge is to keep improving his game despite not getting the minutes he’d like—and needs—to become completely sharp. Fitch wants him to get better in all areas, while stating that “his defense and conditioning will determine if he’ll be a 10-year man.”

But while Robey might like those extra minutes, he reminds one and all that he’s into winning, not boat-rocking. “I believe Bill, Red, and everybody on this club knows what I can do if I had to play,” Robey concludes. “I think I’m a plus for this club. A good team needs depth, and I think I qualify.”

Twenty-two rivals nod in agreement.

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