[Whenever Lebron James takes the court for the Lakers in 2023, TV announcers are quick to mention his advanced NBA age. He is . . . pregnant pause . . . 38 years OLD. While Lebron deserves all hail for remaining mostly spry and very productive into his late 30s, he’s hardly the first to stall the hands of NBA time.
A prime example is Robert Parish, who played until age 43. The Chief notched 21 NBA seasons, and that number wasn’t goosed by leaving college early. Yes, Parish slowed way down in his early 40s. But he remained statistically at or near the top of his game at age 38.
It’s easy to forget his freakish productivity. Parish had that low-key demeanor and never sought out the spotlight trained on Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Dennis Johnson. But the clip below, from the Providence Journal’s Mike Szostak, brings back just how great Mr. Double Zero was during his latter NBA years. (If you like Szostak’s prose, you’ll like his current Podcast “On Sports.”) Szostak’s story ran in late December 1991.]
On another night, Robert Parish’s 1,200th NBA game might have deserved an announcement and an ovation from the capacity crowd of 14,890 in Boston Garden. But last Friday night was Dennis Johnson’s night—his No. 3 was retired and raised to the rafters—so Parish’s milestone passed only with the scroll of lights on the Boston Garden message board. No announcement. No ovation.
It was fitting, however, that Parish played his 1,200th game without fanfare, fuss, or commotion because the Boston Celtics’ center is the ultimate low-key professional athlete. In an era of egos as dazzling as the brightest Broadway marquee, Robert Parish is a 25-watt bulb.
“I didn’t even know about it until someone told me after the game,” said Parish after the Celtics’ 117-97 triumph over the Seattle SuperSonics. He sat on a folding chair in front of his cubicle. Reporters formed a semi-circle around him and asked about Johnson, about Larry Bird, about Brian Shaw, about all the minutes the reserves got, about the game.
Hardly anyone asked about his 1,200th game. Parish didn’t seem to mind. He seldom has. Never in his 16 NBA seasons has he been the main man.
Only four men have played more games in the National Basketball Association than Robert Parish. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leads the list with 1,560. Elvin Hayes is second with 1,303, John Havlicek third with 1,270, and Paul Silas fourth with 1,254. Parish can catch Silas this season. If the Celtics extend his contract another year, Parish could pass Havlicek and Hayes next season.
Parish, at 38, is the oldest player in the NBA. He doesn’t mention it unless prodded. Robert Parish is no Jimmy Connors, who complained about busting his butt during the U.S, Open and not getting any breaks from the chair umpire. Parish stands above such petty behavior.
“I’m 38, and everyone is making a big deal out of it because I got a few gray hairs cropping in my sides,” he said. “I don’t think it matters how old you are as long as you keep yourself physically fit.”
Parish is fit, the results of a year-round training program. This season, he is tied for third in the league in field-goal percentage (.590) and is in the top 20 in rebounding (9.2 a game).
He relishes the opportunity to pit his skills against the game’s young centers, stars such as Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson. Parish keeps us with them all. Only Dikembe Mutombo, Denver’s 7-feet-2 rookie, gave him a problem because Parish had never seen him play. Five days earlier, though, Parish had embarrassed Miami’s Rony Seikaly.
“Robert, at 38, is still beating everybody down the court, “ said Seattle coach K.C. Jones. “He’s going at the offensive boards, challenging anybody that comes into that area, blocking shots, shooting the ball. At 38, that tells you everything you want to know. It’s unusual . . . VERY.”
He adds, “Not many can play the way he’s playing at that age. He’s playing like he’s 25. Some guy that age can go out there and shoot the ball, but is not that much on defense . . . or shoot the ball and not that much on running. The man plays defense, he goes to both boards, he runs the court. He just takes care of business.”
K.C. Jones knows all about Robert Parish. Jones was an assistant coach in Milwaukee in 1976-77 when Parish was a rookie with the Golden State Warriors. He was an assistant under Bill Fitch in Boston in 1980-81 when the Celtics acquired Parish. He was head coach in Boston from 1983-84 through 1987-88.
Jones watched Parish “become what he is now, one of the greatest centers ever to come along.” He noted, “Not many people consider him one of the greatest centers because his name has not been out there like a Kareem, like an Olajuwon, like a Robinson, who’s been around three years. But Robert is one of the greatest centers to ever come along.”
Parish should become the 16th player in NBA history to score 20,000 points. That’s impressive because in his 12 seasons with the Celtics, Parish has rarely been the first option on offense. Not with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale on the floor.
“If you didn’t call a play for him the whole year, he wouldn’t complain,” coach Chris Ford said. “He goes about his job quietly and few do it any better.”
Parish passed the 12,000 rebound mark earlier this season. He will reach 2,000 blocked shots any day. Then he will join Abdul-Jabbar as the only players in NBA history to get 12,000 rebounds and 2,000 blocks. Worth noting, however, is that blocked shots were not recorded as an official statistic until 1977, which explains the absence of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Nate Thurmond from the short list.
Parish was the eighth player selected in the 1976 draft. Golden State picked the 7-feet, one-half inch pivot man from Centenary College in his hometown of Shreveport, La. He was a Sporting News All-American, despite playing for a program that had been put on probation by the NCAA.
Parish spent four years in Oakland. His best game occurred on March 30, 1979, when he scored 30 points and grabbed 32 rebounds against New York. On June 9, 1980, Red Auerbach made a steal that was the front-office equivalent of John Havlicek’s famous steal in 1965. Auerbach sent two first-round draft choices, the first and 13th overall picks in the draft, to Golden State for Parish and the Warriors’ first-round choice.
Golden State used the No. 1 pick for Joe Barry Carroll and the No. 13 for Rickey Brown. Auerbach used the No. 3 pick from Golden State to choose Kevin McHale.
Not a bad swap, not bad swap at all.
[If you’re interested, here is Rick Barry’s synopsis of Parish at age 38. His synopsis comes from Rick Barry’s 1991-92 Pro Basketball Scouting Report.]
If Parish is a fine wine—and indeed he seems to get better with age—the 1990-91 vintage was another very good year . . . In his 15th season, the oldest player in the league (38), showed no evidence of letting up, no trace of decline . . . The future Hall of Famer was one of nine players to average double figures in points (14.9) and rebounds (10.6, seventh in the NBA) . . . Set career marks in field-goal percentage (an amazing .598, second in the league to Buck Williams’ .602; he also shot .598 in the playoffs) and free-throw percentage (.767; career norm is .720) . . . And according to close observers of the Boston scene, the man they call Chief was the Celtics’ 1990-91 most valuable player . . . If called upon to score, Parish scores . . . But, he’s perfectly content with his modest allotment of shots (10.0 a game) . . . Considering his shooting percentage, you’d think he’d get the ball more, but he doesn’t demand it or complain about not getting it . . . Parish very much at home in Celtics’ running attack: still consistently beats opposing centers upcourt . . . At least once a game, he’ll spin baseline from the right block for the jam or the finger roll . . . Retains the patent on that impossible-to-block, behind-the-ear turnaround 12-footer . . . And in 1990-91, was again up there with the league’s leading offensive rebounders (3.3 a game, third, per minute, among starting centers).
Since it’s been a while since he’s been a big-time shot blocker (best year was 1978-79, when he placed fourth in the league with 2.9 a game), often not given credit for his defensive prowess . . . Savvy man-on-man defender who pushes opponents off their sweet spots, takes away their strengths . . . Acts as “middle linebacker,” barking out defensive signals to teammates; in other words, he does what most good defenders do: communicates . . . More comfortable, however, in the post than the perimeter . . . A “5” who likes to step out and drive—say, Miami’s Rony Seikaly—can give him trouble . . . Blocked 103 shots in 1990-91 . . . Tremendous defensive rebounder—per minute, fourth in the league (among those who played at least 500 minutes).
THE FLOOR GAME:
As if every team doesn’t know it by now, Parish will occasionally release early on the shot and complete the play with dunk on the other end . . . Adequate passer and ballhandler . . . Not a high-post center who could take opponents off the dribble from the foul line.
Parish’s longevity is no accident; he keeps himself in superb condition (enjoys karate to maintain flexibility) and works himself to death in practice . . . Not a rah-rah type, the Chief leads quietly by his shining example . . . Belying his stoic on-the-court persona, has a good sense of humor and was once called “the nicest man in pro sports.”
When Celtics signed him up to a three-year contract in 1989-90, concern was they’d be paying big dollars to a player who would be 39 in the final year of the deal . . . Management can relax . . . As long as his minutes are kept to a reasonable length (30.1 the last two seasons), Parish has given every indication that he’ll more than hold up his end of the bargain.