The Robert Parish Interview
Michael D. McClellan
Wednesday, May 11th, 2005
Stoic. Dignified. Ancillary. Resplendent. Steady. Determined. Eternal. Robert Lee Parish was all of those things and more, a brilliant basketball player who anchored the greatest frontline in NBA history, a seven-foot wonder whose professional career began during our country’s bicentennial and ended 21 seasons later, during Bill Clinton’s second term as President of the United States. He arrived just as disco was heating up, played through the fall of the Berlin Wall, and won a swansong championship smack in the middle of Michael Jordan’s Second Coming with the Chicago Bulls. He played for four teams during his remarkable NBA career, a pursuit defined as much by its longevity as its superlative effort, but about this make no mistake: Robert Parish was a green-blooded Boston Celtic through and through, and while his time spent with the Warriors, Hornets and Bulls certainly merit comment, his true legacy will forever remain woven into the fabric of basketball’s proudest and most storied franchise.
Parish played fourteen stellar seasons in a Celtic uniform, many of them in serious pursuit of basketball’s greatest prize. He arrived, along with rookie Kevin McHale, as part of Red Auerbach’s famous heist job on the Golden State Warriors, teaming with the sensational Larry Bird to lift Boston among the NBA’s elite. The move fueled the Celtics’ magical seven year run, a stretch that produced five trips to the NBA Finals, three NBA titles, and, not coincidently, countless signature moments by this talented trio of big men. Mention Robert Parish today, and it isn't long before the names McHale and Bird are appended to the conversation. They remain the Holy Trinity of frontcourts, the "Big Three", the engine behind those Celtic powerhouse clubs of the 1980s.
Nicknamed “Chief” by former teammate Cedric Maxwell, Parish subjugated his own considerable game for the overall good of the team. He was quick to recognize that, while Bird and McHale would get most of the touches, he could quietly thrive in the shadows of their outsized personas. Parish thusly accepted this quasi-supporting role without hesitation. In doing so, he became the secret to the Celtics’ success, the player who, in many ways, set the tone for Boston’s decade of on-court excellence.
“Robert was special because he knew his place on the team,” said his former head coach, KC Jones. “He knew that there were only so many basketballs to go around, and that Larry and Kevin were going to get the majority of the shots. He also knew that Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson were going to take their shots. So Robert fell into his space on the team, which was to rebound, play tough defense, and to be a force in the middle. This isn’t to say that Robert wasn’t a great offensive player; he could have put up big numbers on other teams, so he wasn’t just a big body to clog the middle and stop the other team’s big man. Robert had a very good offensive game. He just understood what was expected from him and he went out and did his job.”
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on October 30th, 1953, Parish was no stranger to the segregated South. He learned quickly about money and prejudice, and he saw firsthand the differences between those with power and those without. Racism was prominent – an accepted way of life. Parish’s parents, however, refused to be defined by the fear and hate that had been inflicted upon the lives of so many Southern black families of the day. They worked hard to provide for their four children, and they worked even harder to ensure that theirs was a future ripe with opportunity, unlike so many of those that had come before them. As a result, young Robert grew up articulate, confident and secure, attributes that would later serve him well as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of All-Time.
Basketball, however, was barely on Parish’s radar screen. The 6’-6” seventh grader regularly skipped practices, and showed little enthusiasm for a sport that would later make him a household name. It wasn’t that Parish was lazy or unwilling to work; it was just that, like many budding teenagers before and since, Parish had a genuine distaste for the structure and commitment required to play organized athletics. Credit Coleman Kidd with changing all of that.
Parish: “If I had to pick one person who made the biggest impact on me in regards to basketball, it would have to be my junior high coach, Coleman Kidd. He stayed with me, kept encouraging me, and never let me give up on the game.”
With Coleman prodding his young protégée, Parish began a mesmerizing transformation; he entered the desegregated world of Woodlawn High School unsure of his athletic prowess, but quickly found himself capable of competing with Woodlawn’s varsity players. Suddenly, the game that had once seemed like drudgery was now an obsession. Parish flourished both on and off of the court, and he seemed to grow taller with each passing day. With Parish dominating in the paint, Woodlawn reached the state finals two years running. As a senior, Parish led Woodlawn to a state championship, capping his 1972 dream season by being named Louisiana’s Player of the Year. With nearly 400 scholarship offers to choose from, he shocked recruiters all over the country by deciding to play collegiate basketball at tiny Centenary College – a mere six miles away from home.
With just over 900 students, campus life at Centenary was a far cry from what Parish could have experienced at UCLA, Kansas or North Carolina. But a small student body and familiar surroundings appealed to Parish’s desire to establish his own identity. He had little interest in following Lew Alcindor as the Bruins’ next great center. Nor did he want to disappear in a sea of students, finding it hard to receive individualized attention in the classroom. He wanted a place that allowed him to spread his wings, yet remain close to those who meant the most. Centenary proved to be the ideal environment. He fit neatly into this predominantly white, Methodist school, walking to his classes while learning to be a student-athlete and, as hard as it may be to fathom now, generally disappearing from the nation’s basketball landscape.
While Parish continued his low-profile metamorphosis into one of the country's best centers, the Centenary basketball program was about to fall on hard times. As a small, independent school with no conference tie-ins, Centenary already faced a myriad of logistical problems, such as recruiting blue chip players and scheduling games that didn't require extensive travel. Then, just days after Parish's signing, the NCAA punished the school for a series of rules violations. The ensuing probation, which would last for four years, looked to be the basketball program’s death knell. Then, during the athletic department’s darkest hour, something truly remarkable happened; given the option of transferring to another college with his eligibility intact, Parish instead remained loyal to head coach Larry Little. His teammates followed suit. The program survived as a result, and over the next four seasons Robert Lee Parish played an increasingly superior brand of basketball.
Not that anyone noticed; you have to remember that it was a different era back then, decades before twenty-four hour sports coverage, multimillion dollar endorsement contracts and recruiting wars that reach down to the junior high level. Only the biggest programs warranted mention in the press. Parish thrived in this virtual obscurity, an unknown to everyone in the country except those closest to the collegiate basketball scene. He averaged 21.6 points and 16.9 rebounds during his career at Centenary, being named to The Sporting News All-America first team as a senior. He also led the nation in rebounding twice.
The Golden State Warriors wasted little time snapping up Parish with the 8th overall pick in the 1976 NBA Draft. Stoic and dignified, the rookie joined a veteran team that had won a championship in '75. To his dismay, his initial role was that of spectator. He rarely got into games during the first half of the season, but his coach, Al Attles, kept encouraging Parish to practice hard and wait his turn. Parish took the advice to heart, and his minutes began to climb as the season progressed. He averaged 9.1 points and 7.1 rebounds as a rookie – impressive numbers for a young center logging just under 18 minutes-per-game.
His four years at Golden State were a mixture of promise and disappointment. The team was in decline, as players like Rick Barry were kept past their prime and young talent such as Jamaal Wilkes and Gus Williams were traded before reaching their full potential. Individually, Parish continued to blossom. He became a starter, and he began to play like one of the premiere centers in the league. By his third season he was averaging 17.2 points and 12.1 rebounds per-game. Veteran center Clifford Ray took the young Parish under his wing, educating his teammate on how to conduct himself as a professional. Ray also stressed the importance of diet and exercise, introducing regimens that would help Parish log more NBA games than any other player in history.
By 1980 the Warriors were in disarray and looking to rebuild yet again. The Boston Celtics possessed the top pick in the 1980 NBA Draft, two spots ahead of Golden State. Red Auerbach seemed set on drafting Purdue center Joe Barry Carroll, and yet he was hardly convinced that Carroll was the answer to Boston's own championship aspirations. So he shopped the pick. He offered to switch selections with the Warriors, on the condition that Parish was included as part of the trade. Golden State eagerly complied, touching off the single most lopsided trade in NBA history: While Carroll would go on to have a serviceable career with the Warriors, Rockets, Nets, Nuggets and Suns, it was Auerbach and the Celtics who would reap three NBA championships because of the deal. Along with acquiring Parish, Auerbach would select Minnesota's Kevin McHale with the third overall pick – in Golden State's spot – giving Larry Bird superstar-caliber talent along the frontline.