A Celtic Nation Exclusive – by Michael D. McClellan
There is an old saying in basketball, its originator lost to the ages, but one suspects it came moments after the legendary Wilt Chamberlain first walked on a basketball floor for Overbrook High in Philadelphia as a 7-foot freshman.
“You can’t coach size,” the saying goes, and it has yet to be disproved.
Coaches can teach you how to shoot, how to play defense, how to dribble and how to pass. They can teach you the zone defense and the dribble-drive offense.
They can’t teach you to be 6-feet, 11-inches tall and, and they can’t teach you to possess the raw-boned strength that makes in nearly impossible to back down such a force of nature in the low post. Such is the case with Greg Kite, a 6′-11”, 250 pound backup center for the Boston Celtics during the NBA’s Golden Age of the 1980s.
Kite, born and raised in Houston, was seemingly destined for the NBA from a young age. Always taller than most kids in his class, Kite had grown to be 6′-10” by the time he was 15, at which point he gave up other sports to focus exclusively on basketball. By his senior year at Madison High School, Kite was being recruited by many of the premiere hoops programs in the country. Duke wanted him. Kentucky. UCLA. Family connections to BYU led him to Provo, where he joined a program on the rise and led by hotshot junior guard Danny Ainge. As fate would have it, Kite would later join Ainge in Boston, a late first round draft selection by legendary patriarch Red Auerbach. The year was 1983, and the Celtics were loaded with All-Stars in search of their second NBA championship in the ’80s. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were all in their primes, and their focus was on beating the best teams in the East before the inevitable collision with the vaunted Lakers in the NBA Finals. They knew it wouldn’t be easy; Milwaukee was loaded with talent, and the Philadelphia 76ers were the reigning world champions.
Into this environment stepped Kite, the raw-boned rookie from Brigham Young. During his summers he’d played against some of the best college talent in the country, not to mention some of the bigger names in the NBA. So while the sight of the Big Three was certainly impressive, Kite was not star-struck. He arrived at that first training camp determined to earn a spot on the team, and to do whatever he could to help the Celtics achieve their goal.
Kite’s role was limited that first season, and his contributions often went unseen and unrecognized by the public. His size and strength were felt by the starters during competitive scrimmages, internal wars that only increased in intensity when Bill Walton joined the team two seasons later. And Kite also kept himself ready to play when called upon – no easy feat when your minutes are limited and sporadic at best, and you’re not a part of the normal eight-man rotation.
The Celtics clicked on all cylinders during Kite’s rookie year. The team had added Dennis Johnson via trade during the off-season, with the Phoenix Suns’ asking price coming in the form of center Rick Robey. For the Celtics, the addition of DJ proved to be brilliant. Johnson brought lock-down defense and clutch shooting to the back-court, something that had been missing the previous two seasons. It also created an opening for a big man, and Auerbach didn’t hesitate to select Kite late in the first round of the draft.
To call Kite’s rookie year a dream-come-true would be an understatement. He was a member of the greatest franchise in NBA history, and the Celtics would win regular season and playoff games in bunches. The 1984 NBA Finals brought together the league’s two most storied teams, and its two most marketable personalities. It was Lakers versus Celtics. East versus West. And, more than anything else, it was Bird versus Magic. This confluence of events is widely recognized as the launch point for the most successful period in league history.
And Kite, while he may not have played a large role in the outcome, certainly had one of the best seats to witness history in the making.
So many moments in that series: Gerald Henderson’s steal, which saved the series for the Celtics. Bird, calling his team out after a humiliating loss in Los Angeles. Kevin McHale, with his clothesline of Kurt Rambis in the next game. DJ’s huge shot with the clock running down to level the series and send it back to Boston 2-2. Cedric Maxwell’s bold Game 7 proclimation that the Celtics ‘get on my back’, and then backing it up with an awesome performance to help seal the team’s 15th NBA Championship.
For Kite, the next three seasons in Boston would end with annual trips to the NBA Finals – two painful losses to the Lakers with a victory over Houston sandwiched in between. And in each of those seasons Kite continued to work hard and make his mark as the consummate professional, always ready when called upon, always eager to help the team win. For those of us who saw those great Celtics-Lakers battles, who can forget the job Kite did on the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the NBA Finals?
Kite would eventually find himself waived by the Celtics, the team setting him loose on an eight-year odyssey with the Los Angeles Clippers, Charlotte Hornets, Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic, New York Knicks, and Indiana Pacers. It was a journeyman’s life to be sure, and Kite would never again sniff the NBA Finals, but this second act in his career also afforded him the opportunity to grow as a player and explore the boundaries of his athletic gifts.
And through it all, Greg Kite could be seen walking tall among the Golden Age of NBA Basketball.
Celtic Nation is honored to bring you this interview.
You grew up in Houston, Texas. Please tell me a little about your childhood – the sports you liked to play, the schools you went to, and what led you to the basketball court.
I was the youngest of four kids – I had one brother and two sisters. My parents moved to Houston in 1952, not long after they were married, and I was born in 1961. My dad worked for Exxon, but it wasn’t Exxon at the time, it was actually called Humble Oil Company. He was a big sports fan. My brother was five years older than me, and he played football, basketball, baseball. I always tagged along with him and wanted to play the sports he played. So I played little league baseball and football, and did some things in track, and we had a lot of other kids in the neighborhood who played all of those sports, too. We played a lot of pickup games around our house.I played on my first basketball team when I was 10 years old at the Southwest YMCA in Houston. From there I went on and played junior high ball at Pershing Junior High, seventh through ninth grades, and then went on to play three years of basketball at Madison High School. My brother did the same thing before me, so the high school coaches were familiar with our family and who I was. I was always hanging around my brother, so the coaches wanted to know who this big kid was that kept showing up.Growing up in Houston was a great basketball environment. When I was a kid, the University of Houston had some great basketball players. Elvin Hayes jumps to mind, who was one of the greatest players in the history of the college and pro games. Later they had guys like Otis Birdsong and Dwight Jones. So that was a strong influence on me, because in high school I’d get to play with a lot of those guys in the summer. And then you had the Houston Rockets coming to town in the early ’70s, as they relocated from San Diego, and that just spawned a whole generation of players like Clyde Drexler, who was from Houston, and Rob Williams, who as a top pick from the University of Houston. He was a 25-point per-game scorer with the Nuggets before he got into drugs.
In some ways it was surreal, because I grew up watching Elvin Hayes and ended up playing against him before he retired. He was one of my favorite all-time players, and then during my rookie season with the Celtics he was at the end of his NBA career and I got to guard him. That was a special moment for me.
You went to Madison High School in Houston, what memories stand out about your high-school career?
My brother was 6’5” and was a good player at those levels. He played football and was good at that, too, but he hurt his back during his eleventh grade season and didn’t play anymore football after that. I stopped playing football after my ninth grade season, and then played some organized baseball outside of school. I was about 6’10” tall when I was 15, playing in the baseball all-star game, and when I struck out three times chasing curve balls I realized baseball wasn’t my game. So that was the end of that. I learned later that the pitcher went on to become a pretty good pitcher for Texas A&M, so it wasn’t like I was getting smoked by a bad pitcher [laughs].I loved playing the other sports and in some respects wished I had continued, but I was so focused on playing college and pro basketball that I decided to specialize. The other seasons overlapped too much, and I didn’t want to miss any of the basketball season.It was a great team atmosphere, great camaraderie. We had an excellent coach in Paul Benton, who is now a member of the Texas High School Basketball Hall of Fame. He won over 800 games during his coaching career, and he was a very good teacher of the game.
We never won the state championship, but we had a lot of great players in that program. During my senior year Basketball Weekly had us ranked as high as 5th in the nation. In 1979 we were ranked number 1 in the whole state for the entire year. We were 39-0, but we lost in the state semifinals to Lufkin High School from Austin, Texas. That was the most disappointing time of my whole high school career.
In Texas you have hundreds of schools to fight through at all of the levels, so looking back on it now it was quite an accomplishment. We had 8 guys on that team who went on to play college basketball, and one who went on to play football at Alabama. I ended up playing college ball at BYU, one of the guys played at Oklahoma, one played at LSU, one played at Houston Baptist. So we had a lot of talent on that team. We were well-coached, moved the ball well, played really good defense. It was just that disappointment of not making it to that finals that stands out.
Take me back to your career at BYU: The 79-80 WAC Conference Championship Team had four future NBA players, three of whom would go on to play for the Celtics: Danny Ainge, Fred Roberts and Greg Kite. Please tell me a little about that team, and also about Danny and Fred.
I had a lot of choices of schools to go to, and was recruited by some of the biggest in the nation. UCLA, Kentucky, Texas, Houston and Duke to name a few of my final choices. They were all good schools with great basketball programs, but I felt that going to BYU was the right decision for me. Not only athletically, but socially, academically and spiritually. If I wasn’t playing basketball and it was strictly a school choice, I would have probably gone there anyway.It wasn’t an easy decision, but my mother had actually gone to school there. She finished at Kansas, but she went there, as so did her sisters. My older siblings went there as well, so we had something of a family tradition at BYU.Danny Ainge was a star at the school, and our head coach at the time was Frank Arnold. Frank was very knowledgeable, a great basketball mind. He’d been an assistant to John Wooden at UCLA during the teams 88-game winning streak. He brought a lot of the same teaching principals and discipline that they used at UCLA.
Before Coach Arnold arrived, the BYU basketball program had been mediocre during the ’70s. Coach Arnold, along with Danny, really helped to revive the program. There were other talented players in the program as well. Fred Roberts was a year ahead of me, and Devin Durrant was also there – Devin played NBA ball, too. We had a lot of guys who were signed to play overseas as well, so we had some talent at BYU when I played.
We went to the NCAA Tournament during my first two years there, with Danny leading the way. Danny’s senior year – my sophomore year – we went the deepest, making it all the way to the Elite 8 before losing to Ralph Sampson and the Virginia Cavaliers. The game before that, Danny had that famous full-court dash to the basket against Notre Dame, dribbling past Kelly Tripucka and John Paxson, and putting in that scoop layup around Orlando Woolridge for the win. It’s still one of the most memorable plays in college basketball history, but what people don’t remember about that play is that Steve Trumbo and I were both wide open underneath the basket but Danny shot it anyway. That’s Danny for you, Danny always shot it [laughs]. No, Danny made the right decision to take the ball to the basket.
It was a great college experience for me, no question about it. But in some ways I feel I may have underachieved from a basketball standpoint, especially when I compare it to my high school career and where I was at that point in terms of accomplishments, but I have no regrets. I enjoyed playing basketball at BYU and wouldn’t have wanted to play anywhere else.
Tell me about the 1983 NBA Draft. What was the experience like for you, and how has the draft changed over the years?
That summer the Celtics traded Rick Robey to the Phoenix Suns for Dennis Johnson and a first round pick. What that did was open up a spot for a backup center. Red Auerbach really wanted to pick Roy Hinson from Rutgers. Hinson was a heck of a player who ended up having some knee problems later on, and Roy had really long arms like Kevin McHale. He could reach four or five inches higher than I could, even though he was only 6′-9”. So Red really wanted him and hoped he would last until the Celtics could pick, but Roy was selected by Cleveland. I was the alternative. Red knew who I was – BYU played St. John’s and St. Joe’s in a holiday tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York, and Red had been there scouting. I didn’t think much about it then, but I must have made an impression on him.As I said before, I was disappointed in how I played at BYU, particularly on the offensive end of the court. I wasn’t much of a scorer in college – I could score here and there, but overall I was pretty erratic. So I don’t think a lot of people expected me to be drafted as high as I was. But I got was some good advice from various people, and after my senior year was over I really cranked up the workouts and stayed in great shape. I got to play in a couple of college all-star games and did very well in those, particularly one in Hawaii – the Aloha Classic – that had a lot of scouts there. I also played well in the Chicago pre-draft camp. So I think those things helped my stock, and probably helped move me from being a second round pick to a low first round pick.In those days they still had the draft on cable. I remember sitting in my in-laws’ house in Orlando, Florida. I’d had some conversations with teams but most of that had been over the phone. In those days they didn’t fly you in for workouts like they do today. So I really had no advance indication that Boston was going to pick me. The top ten or fifteen guys were in New York but I wasn’t there. I was just reached by phone immediately after being picked. So it was pretty exciting. I had some indication that I may go late in the first round, but I didn’t know for sure and I didn’t know which team I might be going to.
To be selected by the Celtics was fantastic. What an opportunity, with Bird, McHale, Parish and DJ being there and with all of that championship tradition. To join a championship-caliber team as a rookie was very fortuitous.
What was it like to meet Red Auerbach for the first time? What do you remember about him the most?
The Celtics used to have their rookie camp in Marshfield, Massachusetts, and I believe that’s the first time that I met Red. I think he was driving around on a golf cart, because we’d play our day games on the outside courts and then we’d play our night games at the gym at Marshfield High. We were there for five days. The first time I saw Red he was sitting on that golf cart smoking a cigar. I guess if you’d take that cigar away from Red he’d probably tip over [laughs].Red was very, very wise. He was very sure of himself, too, but he could obviously afford to be. But I think the wisdom and foresight to know that the team needs the right parts and the right chemistry to truly be successful is what set Red apart. You also had to have the individual experience of the player, and also the collective experience of the team. Red was a master at finding the right pieces and putting them together. That’s what helped to create all those championship teams in Boston. They were the right individual pieces that fit together to form a great team. Red was a genius at recognizing talent and understanding people.
Tell me about your first NBA head coach, KC Jones.
I loved playing for KC. I’ve always said that if you were a basketball player and you couldn’t get along with KC Jones then you couldn’t get along with anyone. He’s about as nice a guy as you could imagine. Guys really enjoyed playing from him. He was a very good basketball mind. He probably doesn’t get the credit that he deserves, but he was a great fit for that team and those years. We had some very experienced veteran players, so we didn’t need someone leaning on us.There are a lot of great stories from those years. I remember occasions during games when KC would call a timeout and huddle us up, and he’d start to draw diagrams on his clipboard. He might tell Larry to inbound the ball, DJ to run to the corner, Chief to go to the low post and set a screen, and Danny to rotate over on the wing. And then he’d tell Larry to come off a screen, and then everyone would realize he’d just put Larry in two places on that inbound play – he’d have him inbounding the ball and coming off the screen [laughs]. Which wasn’t a bad idea, because if you could get Larry in two places on the court at the same time you’d do that every time. We had a big laugh over that one, but all in good fun.But seriously, KC was a great basketball mind. He’d played his college ball at the University of San Francisco with Bill Russell, and then he’d come to the Celtics via the draft and played his entire NBA career for the Celtics. So he knew about winning from his days at USF, and as a Celtic player he’d absorbed the culture that Red had developed in Boston. That really helped make him the perfect coach for us, because he knew what made people tick and he knew how to manage people. He really knew how to lead in that regard, which was what we needed because of the great players assembled on that team. He could get everyone to check their egos at the door and put aside individual goals in favor of team goals. I loved playing for KC.
Dennis Johnson joined the Celtics the same season as you. Please tell me about the late Dennis Johnson.
Dennis was a great teammate. All of those guys were good guys and we all got along. We had fun, we rode each other hard, and DJ was a big part of that. He had a great sense of humor and he was a fun guy to be around, but he was also an excellent player. He was a player who wasn’t afraid of the big-time situations and who wasn’t afraid of the pressure. He excelled well in those circumstances.He was also a good guy who was concerned about the other guys on the team, including the rookies and the guys who weren’t ever going to be stars in the league. He was always willing to give you a little advice here and there, whether it was on the court or off the court, and we really liked him as a teammate.The interesting thing with DJ is that Red and Larry both recognized the things that made DJ tick. Larry is famous for calling DJ the best player he’d ever played with. One of the things that was important to DJ was him getting that recognition for what he brought to the team. And that was especially important in Boston with so many future hall of fame players on the roster – guys like Bird, McHale, Parish and later Bill Walton. So if DJ wasn’t getting that recognition, those were the times when he might be down a little bit. But it was briefly, never more than a game or two, but Red and Larry understood how important it was to keep DJ upbeat and motivated, so they were very quick to recognize DJ publicly for the things he brought to the team.
What was it like for you to join a team such a tremendous tradition, and also one loaded with future hall of fame players?
I’d been playing basketball a long time by the time I made it to that first training camp, so in a lot of ways I wasn’t star-struck by playing for the Celtics or playing with the guys that I’d seen on TV so often. But every now and then I’d catch myself just thinking about these guys, and how big they were to fans all over the world. It was in those quiet moments that it usually hit me the hardest.I remember playing in an exhibition game in Philly, and we were in the pre-game shootaround, and Dr. J comes up to me and says, ‘Hi, Greg’. I couldn’t believe that one of the greatest players in NBA history actually knew my name [laughs]. It was a little bit of a surreal feeling to think that I’m a part of this.From a rookie standpoint, the players accepted us and did their best to make us feel like a part of the team. It wasn’t too bad – we had to handle the team’s practice gear and haul around the video equipment – the ball and chain, as we referred to it, [laughs].
I remember someone asking Kevin McHale if he’d ever passed out practice gear when he was a rookie. He said, ‘Nah, if they had wanted a bellhop they would have drafted a bellhop’. Whether he did or not, I don’t know [laughs].
The biggest adjustment as a rookie was the long season. You’re used to the long practices as a rookie, because most college practices are long. But there are just so many games. And I think it’s actually harder on rookies who aren’t playing a lot. If you’re not playing much it can get to be a little bit tedious, because you’ve got to be patient and keep yourself ready. You’ve got to continue to work hard. You don’t have a lot of live practice time. That’s something that I did as rookie – I worked hard to keep myself in shape, and I stayed after practice for extra work and things like that.
But mentally, in college you may play 30 games or something like that. In the pros, if you make it to the Finals you might play more than 100 games, counting exhibition games and the playoffs. So that’s a long period of time with a lot of games. After a couple of years you get used to it and it seems normal, but during that rookie year it’s a bit of a transition.
One of the biggest things for me was being too nervous offensively. I think I struggled with that to a degree my entire career, but it was really an issue during my rookie season. I found myself rushing and pressing too much. I think the transition for big men from college to the NBA is the most difficult adjustment to make. The biggest reason is because of the size and length of the players. Getting a shot off in the NBA is very hard on the inside. And back when I played, with fewer teams and more depth on the teams, it was a real challenge to produce offensively. It may look easy on TV, but there’s so much size that it takes time for big men to develop. It’s difficult to get a rebound, and it’s difficult to get a shot off. You go up against guys like Parish and McHale every day in practice, with those long arms, and then you face more of the same when you go out to play the real games. It’s a different world.
That 1984 Finals between the Celtics and Lakers was unbelievable. Bird-Magic, East Coast versus West Coast, a renewal of the greatest rivalry in basketball. Take me back to that series; what was it like to be part of a championship team in your rookie season?
The two championships that we won in ’84 and ’86 were definitely the highlight of my career and the best thing that could ever happen to me in basketball. It’s all about winning, and just the chance to go to the Finals for four straight years is something that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. It was a great era, with great teams, and it was special just to be a part of that.From the beginning of training camp, that ’83-’84 team was completely focused on the goal of winning that championship. And it was everyone, not just the stars. Guys on the bench like M.L. Carr and Quinn Buckner. The team conversation was about having the best record, not losing two games in a row, and where were we in the standings versus the Sixers and the Lakers. Home court advantage was so important and everyone knew it, so that was the big area of focus for us.I remember M.L. Carr telling me to enjoy the ride, because not all rookies end up playing in the Finals and having a chance to win a championship. And that was very true. He had been in the league a long time and had never been close to winning a championship. And then, when he makes it to the Celtics his dream is realized. But he was quick to point out that it doesn’t always work out for everyone. And so, for me, I was in the NBA Finals four years in a row, but over the next eight years the closest I ever got was the Eastern Conference Finals with the Pacers. And during some of those years my teams didn’t even make the playoffs.
But it was a great experience. Having that great rivalry with the Lakers and meeting them in the Finals, that was big for everyone at that time. And playing against those great teams in Philly and Milwaukee, that was tough as well. Great basketball atmosphere, and it was great to be a part of it.
Bill Walton joins the Celtics during the summer of ’85. Tell me a little about that ’86 title team, and also a little about Bill.
I think it was one of the greatest teams of all time. There were five future hall of fame players on that team – Bill, Larry, Kevin, Robert and DJ. And then you had other guys like Ainge and M.L., who had been All-Stars.We were really cooking that year. Having Bill was huge. Bill had battled so many injuries with his feet, and he’d had so many surgeries that had derailed his career, but he’d come into town that season finally healthy. Bill was easily the best defensive rebounder I’ve ever seen, even at that stage of his career. His timing was unbelievable. You couldn’t grab a rebound any quicker than Bill Walton could. He was such a fundamentally sound player, and one of the greatest passing big men in league history.Bill also brought a lot of life and a lot of fun to the team, just because of his background and history. There was a lot of give and take on that team, and a lot of ragging each other [laughs]. Bill had his own great sarcastic wit, but everyone got on him as much as he got on them.
One of the fun things I remember that season is that we had a great practice rivalry. The white team versus the green team. The subs versus the starters. It was Bill, me, Sam Vincent, Rick Carlisle, David Thirdkill, Jerry Sichting, Scott Wedman. We’d really push those guys in practice, and there were stretches during games when the subs would be out on the floor, and Bill was the leader of that second unit. We’d keep score during the scrimmages and practices and we’d keep a little tally in the locker room. And the green team would always beat the white team, but the white team would always cheat and go in and erase some of the tallies [laughs]. They did have the handicap of scrimmaging, and maybe having played 40 minutes the night before, and they were a little tired and maybe not as motivated, but we approached it to win and made it very, very competitive.
The leadership that we already had on that team, well Bill just took it to a whole other level that year. That year it was very much a goal that we never lost more than two games in a row. We almost went the entire season and achieved that, but it was late in the season and we already had everything wrapped up and KC decided to rest some of the starters. So we dropped some games late that season heading into the playoffs.
We were pretty much unstoppable in the playoffs. We beat everyone in the East handily, and then went to the Finals and beat Houston in six games. I remember the brawl in Houston that started with the fight between Ralph Sampson and Jerry Sichting. It was a different era then; if that had happened today they wouldn’t be playing in the next game because they’d be suspended.
Houston had a great team that season. That was before Ralph had all of the knee problems, and he was at the top of his game. And they had Olojuwon in the middle, easily one of the greatest big men in NBA history. You talk about size on that team – they had the Twin Towers in Sampson and Olojuwon, and their other starters were all over 6′-6”. I think they started Robert Reid, Rodney McCray and Lewis Lloyd. So that was a very big team. They were a very big team, and they had upset the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals with that last second shot.
A couple of other funny things about Bill. Bill was a big Deadhead, and when the Grateful Dead would travel they’d go somewhere like Providence or Worcester and camp out. And they could be there for a week doing two or three shows at each place. And when they were in Boston they’d come to our morning practices. You’d look over and see guys in the band like Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. But you wouldn’t see Jerry Garcia. And someone would ask where Jerry was, and Bill would say, ‘Jerry hasn’t seen daylight since 1968′. [Laughs]. I didn’t go, but several of the guys went to the Dead concerts with Bill. Robert was actually up on the stage with them, playing maracas and the tambourine [laughs].
June 19th, 1986 – Len Bias dies from a cocaine overdose and everything changes for the Celtics. Where were you when you learned that Bias was dead? Was Bias ever a topic of conversation among the team later that fall?
I think I was down in Orlando, I’d go back down there after the season and play summer league ball. That was a shocker. I had a chance to meet him briefly when he came to Boston during the playoffs. He was on a business trip. We knew a little about him from his college days, but Red had seen him play a lot because he lived in the D.C. area and Len was from that area as well. Red would go to most of the Maryland games, and Red thought that this guy was a 6′-8” Michael Jordan.I can remember it being talked about a little bit when we came back to training camp, but I don’t remember it being talked about a lot. But Len Bias was a really big key in the Celtics’ transition to the next generation of players. He was going to provide that continuity as the Big Three were starting to get a little older. And then a few years later you had Reggie Lewis passing away, so you look at the passing of those two guys and you wonder what might have been.We got into that 1986-87 season, and the health issues really started kicking in. Bill only played about 10 games. Kevin finished the season and ended up with a screw in his foot after the season and was never quite the same again. Larry’s back and Achilles issues were hurting him, and Chief a constant ankle sprain during that playoff run. Scott Wedman had some sort of leg injury. So a lot of those key guys were over thirty with a lot of NBA miles on them, and their bodies were starting to break down. So having someone like Len Bias on the team would have made a big difference for the Celtics that season and in the future years.
The Celtics were incredibly banged up during the 1987 playoffs, and you played some key moments during the run to the Finals. You also battled Kareem during that run. What memories stand out with you after all of these years?
Playing in the playoffs and in the Finals was the highlight of my career. The thing about the NBA is that it’s all about match-ups, so when you get into the playoffs you may suddenly find yourself playing more minutes because of the way you match up against certain teams. That’s what worked out for me, because we were going up against some of the bigger centers in the league and my size helped in terms of defending the post. Most of the times in the playoffs we wouldn’t double-team the post when I was on the court, because I could do a decent job of using my body to defend the basket. I couldn’t stop Kareem, but I knew I could make him work for his shots and maybe make him take them from spots he wasn’t used to. And that Lakers team was such a great passing team that you really couldn’t double-team anyone. They’d make you pay. Whether is was Kareem making a pass out of the post or Magic from the key on the fast break, the Lakers were always dangerous and capable of breaking down the doubles.That season Bill was unable to play, so I was logging backup minutes at center behind Parish and McHale. In the playoffs, not only is it the match-ups but it’s also about injuries and health. Not that we would have beaten the Lakers that year, but our health situation was such an issue for us. The health of the key guys handicapped us a little bit. Even at that, it was close. Magic hit the baby hook, we gave up an offensive rebound on a missed free throw. I remember Mychal Thompson playing great during that series. If we’d had a couple of things go our way, who knows, maybe it would have been a different result, but the Lakers were very deserving to win that series.
A year after Bias’ death, the Celtics drafted Reggie Lewis. Please tell me a little about Reggie.
I spent just a short time with Reggie before ending up with the Clippers. He was a quiet guy, a very nice guy, not afraid to get out there and assert himself. He had the athletic skills and the body and the length, and you knew right from the start that he was going to be an excellent player. It was just going to be a matter of time and seasoning. It was sad what happened. I was gone by the time he really started to blossom, so I really didn’t get a chance to work with him that much.
Which player were you the closest to on the Celtics? Do you still keep in touch?
I stay in touch with Danny and Fred, because they were college teammates as well. I’ll have occasional contact with Rick Carlisle, and will send the occasional Christmas card to Bird and McHale. I saw M.L. Carr this summer at a golf event that we were both at. I have great memories of all of those guys, I wish we could have a reunion or something of that nature.
What is your favorite Larry Bird moment while playing with the Celtics?
Larry was a great teammate with a lot of common sense, on the court and off. As far as a player, he’d have stretches when he was at the top of his game that would leave you shaking your head. Probably the thing he did best was pass the basketball. He was also one of the best defensive rebounders. He’d have some stretches where he’d have 10 or 11 assists, a dozen rebounds and 30 points. He was just phenomenal to watch. Just some of the things he could do were amazing, but he also wasn’t afraid of trying and possibly failing. He wasn’t afraid of that at all.Larry’s from Indiana, and where he’s from fishing is a big thing. Down there, if you can’t fish and if you can’t mow then you don’t have game [laughs]. Rick Carlisle tells a funny story along those lines. Rick went down to French Lick with Larry one summer to hang out, and he said that they’d get up at 6 a.m. and run a few miles, come back and shoot, lift some weights, play some tennis. Rick said that by 10 a.m. they’d done more work than he was used to doing in a whole day [laughs]. Then they’d go play golf in the afternoon and then more basketball in the evening. This would go on every day except Thursday, because Thursday was mowing day. Larry had something like 10 acres, and he and his brothers would get out on these riding mowers and go town. So Rick felt bad because he wasn’t doing anything to help. He asks Larry what he can do to pitch in, and asked if he could help mow the lawn. Larry turned him down cold, and told him that he wasn’t going to touch one of his mowers [laughs].Great on the court story: We’re playing the Knicks, and the Knicks had a trainer named Mike Saunders, and they were messing around on the court before the game. Larry was a great trash talker. He and Saunders were going back and forth, and Saunders bet Larry five bucks that Larry wouldn’t bank in a three-pointer during the game. So, we get in this game. It’s a close game, and there’s like 40 seconds left when Saunders catches Larry’s attention from the sideline. He was smiling and holding up five fingers, because Larry hadn’t banked one in at that point. And with about 20 seconds left Larry banks in a three-pointer to win the game, and he just turns to Saunders and smiles and holds up five fingers of his own. Larry had that kind of nerve and confidence [laughs].
Midway through the 87-88 season you were released by the Celtics. Please take me back to that period in your NBA career. What was it like leaving the only pro team you’d ever played for?
The Celtics had picked up Artis Gilmore, so I was waived by the Celtics and picked up by the Clippers. The Celtics kept me on the injured list for a few weeks and tried to keep me, but the NBA and other teams were questioning whether I was legitimately injured or not. So I went on to the Clippers. It was the exact opposite of the Celtics in that it was chaos as an organization, and it was a team that wasn’t winning and didn’t have a winning tradition. But it was good for me from the standpoint that I actually got to play significant minutes for the first time in my career. Same thing with Sacramento. So those next two-and-a-half years were good for me in terms of getting to play. I got to go out there and make mistakes and get minutes on the court. So that really helped me to develop in some areas and also help establish me in this league as a backup who could come in and help a team in an eight or nine man rotation.From there I signed a one-year contract with Orlando, which was great because it’s where my wife was from. We met at BYU where she played basketball on the women’s team. It was great to be able to come home there, because we had a young family. I ended up getting a four-year deal and ended up playing three of those four years there. I was very thankful for the opportunity. That first year I started all 82 games. Orlando was a second year expansion team, and that’s the year we had Scott Skiles and Sam Vincent on the team. The next year is when they selected Shaquille O’Neal, so I got to back up Shaq for a year and a half. That’s when I hurt my Achilles tendon, which was the only serious injury I ever had, so I had to sit out the rest of that year.
Orlando added Penny Hardaway, and I ended up being released by the Magic. I played briefly for the Knicks and then ended up with the Pacers. That’s the year the Magic made it to the NBA Finals, beating us in the Eastern Conference Finals to get there. So it was a good experience there.It was a fun experience all the way around. I was lucky to marry the woman that I married, and fortunate to play for the Magic those years because it was so close to home. We have 10 children from 26 to ten years old. Two sets of twins. My wife said she wanted a big family, so I think we covered that pretty well [laughs].
During the 1989-90 season you were perfect from the 3-point line. What were you doing shooting the ball from downtown?
I led the league in three-point shooting one year. I was 1-for-1 shooting threes for the Sacramento Kings. So I quit while I was ahead. I like to say the only guys holding me back from a career behind the arc are the guys in suits and ties coaching the team. I could make some threes in practice, but I wasn’t a shooter. Just happened that I had the ball in my hands behind the arc with the clock running down so I let it fly. I just don’t understand why they didn’t run the same play the next time down the court. I guess they wanted me to keep that league-leading percentage [laughs].
Let’s compare the NBA today to when you played for the Celtics.
Just look at the Miami Heat. Today they get all of the media attention. They’re pretty good and have a lot of talent, and they’re going to get better, but when I look back at the NBA in the ’80s there were some pretty good teams that never made it to the NBA Finals. Just look at the Milwaukee Bucks. That team was loaded with All-Stars – Jack Sikma, John Lucas, Terry Cummings, Sidney Moncrief. They talk today about teams like the Heat with their Big Three, and I’d put a team like the Bucks up against them any day of the week. And I will always believe that our 1985-86 Celtics team was the greatest team that ever played.
Boston, and all points beyond