Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Before he was "The Chief," he was "Slim"

        More on the Jan. 25 Boston Globe story about Robert Parish and his desire for a job in the NBA: When I read the quotes from Robert, I thought about how far he's come.
        When I first interviewed him, in his junior year at Woodlawn High School, he was a tough quote. He didn't talk a lot anyway, certainly not to little (or big) sportswriters buzzing around in the dressing room. He was polite, but not expansive.
        When I did a centerpiece cover story on him early in his senior season, it wasn't easy to draw out much information, much less memorable quotes. Perhaps the unseasoned sportswriter didn't ask the right questions.
          The best part of the effort, I suppose, was the corny part -- the photos of me interviewing him and lacing up my shoes to take him in a game of one-on-one (yeah, right).
        (Go ahead and laugh at this accompanying photo. Robert and I each had a lot more hair back then.)
At Woodlawn High School, fall, 1971
(Shreveport Times photo)
         One of the questions I remember asking him was if he had a nickname. He thought for a moment, shrugged and said, "Slim, I guess. Just like my dad; that's what they call him at work."
         I met Mr. Parish -- Robert Sr. -- a couple of times. Robert Jr. looked much like him, except for the difference in height, about 8-9 inches. The original "Slim" was soft-spoken, maybe even more stoic than his son.
         Anyway, I never heard anyone call Robert Jr. "Slim." I heard, and saw in print, people refer to him as "Bob." That didn't stick at all. Robert was his preference ... until he was nicknamed "Chief" early in his  NBA career. That one obviously stuck.
         As the SID at Centenary College most of his senior season, I saw a lot of interviews with him, took part in some with him later. He answered the questions, but many of the answers were not revealing.
         So reading The Boston Globe story, I was so impressed with the quotes from him and the substance of his pitch for a job in the NBA. As I wrote previously, there are some contradictions, but Robert's communications skills -- despite his admitted reticence for public interaction -- have improved a great deal.
          I saw this first-hand one night in Orlando on Dec. 8, 1992, after Robert's first game against then-Magic rookie center Shaquille O'Neal. It was Robert's 16th NBA season, but the Celtics' first since Larry Bird had retired. For some reason, Kevin McHale -- the other member of "The Big Three" -- didn't start that night, but played well in a reserve role.
          Shaq, fresh out of LSU, had 26 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, four blocked shots. There were times he was too much for Parish.
          Parish had 17 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots. There were times his experience was too much for Shaq.
          The Celtics won by 15 (117-102).
          Boston's record at the time was 8-10; Orlando's was 8-7. But the Celtics would wind up with a much better season, although not anything close to a championship one. Shaq, in the near future, would lead the Magic to the NBA Finals.
           That night, when the media approached Parish afterward, he immediately was asked about Shaq. His response was modest praise, basically "he's a nice player, but he's a rookie, he's got a lot to learn."
           As media members moved in and out, he answered the same questions repeatedly. But after a few minutes, he rethought his reaction and began predicting that Shaq "is going to be a great player; he's going to dominate games."
           Just watching him handle the media, my thought was that he had gained so much polish over the years.
           Once he went to the NBA, it was not easy for the Shreveport media to reach Parish by phone -- at least it wasn't for me. Leaving word with the Golden State and then Boston team PR officials for a callback didn't work; Robert -- as he noted in The Boston Globe story -- was never very good about returning calls, nor about wanting to do interviews (except postgame sessions).
           I found it easier, in the '80s and '90s, to reach him at the team hotel when the Celtics were on the road -- at the time, the players' security obviously wasn't as guarded. Robert was always cooperative when I reached him.
            His sense of humor came through, too, concerning a difficult story. A wire story in 1985 caught our attention: Shortly after Robert received a lucrative new contract from the Celtics, he was sued by a Shreveport woman for being behind on child support payments for two daughters. Those children were born while he was at Woodlawn and then at Centenary.
            I called Robert, and apologizing, I told him I had to ask him about the case for a story. He said he understood, but wouldn't elaborate. I asked about his other kids. He had one out west, he said, and one in St. Louis.
           "Man, you got kids everywhere," I said.
           "Ain't got none in Europe," he replied, with a loud laugh.
          Another bit of humor. Prior to the game in Orlando, I called him -- again on a Celtics' road trip -- and told him I would see him when he faced the Magic. I had not seen him in 15 years; I wasn't exactly slender anymore.
          Thanks to my media pass, I got access to the Celtics' dressing room before the game. Robert was sitting by his locker, talking to teammates and then a couple of media people.
          When they left, I said hello and we shook hands. Then he grabbed my belly.
           "Van Thyn," he said, with that deep laugh, "what's this?" 
           As I wrote in the previous blog, Parish was known for his placid demeanor and was rarely ruffled. But one time he did react violently was memorable: His attack on Detroit Pistols center Bill Laimbeer in Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals in 1987.
           Laimbeer was one of Detroit's main "Bad Boys," with Dennis Rodman and Rick Mahorn, the roughhouse gang of thugs that would go on to win two NBA titles. But in retaliation for a violent Laimbeer takedown of Larry Bird (when Robert was on the bench), Robert later retaliated, coldcocking Laimbeer from behind with a couple of violent punches to the face, a sneak attack.
Robert's sneak attack on Bill
Laimbeer, 1987 (
          He was -- strangely -- not ejected (the officials didn't clearly see the incident and it was before replay was part of the rules). But after the Celtics' "miracle" victory on a Bird steal and assist to Dennis Johnson in the closing seconds, the NBA fined Robert $7,500 and suspended him for Game 6 in Detroit. Robert apologized for his loss of cool.
          When he came back for Game 7 in Boston, the Celtics delayed Detroit's NBA title march for another year.
           Robert had sent his message; nice guy, calm guy, but not always a guy to be pushed around.
           It's a point of pride to know that he battled Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- the greatest player in my age group (or most any age group) -- almost evenly through 19 NBA Finals games.
           "Slim," "The Chief" wasn't flawless, as a player or a person. He was fun to cover and to be around, he was a winner on the court enough times to make him an all-time great -- at any level he played. And I hope he can find the job, and the peace, he desires.  

1 comment:

  1. From Jack Thigpen: My wife’s sister lives in Boston and during the summer of 1988, my wife, two children and myself went to visit. We went downtown to see the Boston Garden and as we were walking around the building, I saw Robert crossing the street, coming toward the Garden, a block ahead of us. I ran ahead until I caught up with him. I called his name and he stopped, turned around to see who I was. I introduced myself and told him where I was from and that I had seen him play at Woodlawn and Centenary. He was very pleasant and we visited for a minute. My wife took a picture of Robert shaking hands with my son as I stood beside Robert. I framed the picture and hung it in my office. He was in workout gear and was sweating; he told us he had been working out and was finishing a run on the streets of Boston.