Monday, February 11, 2013

Parish stood tall ... very tall

       If you had told me in 1976 that Robert Parish would play the most regular-season games in NBA history -- by far -- I would not have believed it.
      There was no question that Robert would play in the NBA, maybe even become a starter. But there were questions back then about the 7-foot giant who had been dominant at Union and Woodlawn High Schools in Shreveport and Centenary College.
       Did he have the skills to be a star? Did he have the toughness? The durability? The desire?
        I think we have our answers. Yes, in every way.
       First time I saw him play was at the end of his sophomore year at Union -- just before integration sent him to Woodlawn. It was a Shreveport-Bossier all-black schools all-star game and, of course, he stood out.
       He was so much taller than anyone else, and you could tell he had a terrific shooting touch and timing, good hands, could jump quickly. He wasn't smooth; he never was. There was a herky-jerky motion in his shot and often in his moves toward the basket.
       It wasn't until he went to the Boston Celtics in a surprising 1980 trade -- he was replacing the retired Dave Cowens -- that the world (and maybe Robert) found out how well he could run the court.
       He went from a so-so NBA player -- a one-start rookie year, four underachieving years with Golden State to perfect puzzle piece in Boston's dynamic 1980s teams, the reliable, consistent, unselfish part of a Hall of Fame "Big Three," then to a diminished role as backup and veteran mentor -- oldest player in the league by far -- with several other teams.
       Here he is at age 59, retired for almost 16 seasons, and his 1,611 regular-season games over 21 seasons is way out there. He scored 23,334 points and had 14,715 rebounds ... and then there were 184 playoff games, 2,820 points and 1,765 rebounds.
       And four NBA championships -- three with Celtics, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, one as a reserve with the '97 (Michael Jordan) Chicago Bulls.
       He was chosen one of the NBA's Top 50 players in history; he was a nine-time NBA All-Star; he's in the Basketball Hall of Fame (inducted the same time as another state legend, Louisiana Tech women's coach Leon Barmore); his No. 00 jersey is retired in the rafters at the new Boston Garden.
        The man who became known as "The Chief" is Top 50 all-time; tops, period, from Shreveport-Bossier.
        He was in the news again recently when The Boston Globe's Stan Grossfeld did an in-depth story about Robert's desire for a job in the NBA.
A smiling Robert Parish (Boston Globe photo)
         It's a confusing story, at times. Robert, living in a home near a golf course in Charlotte, seems content with life, but it's hard to tell where he is financially and says he "needs" to work. He had a job with the Celtics a few years back, but living in the cold in Boston wasn't to his liking and the $80,000-a-year P.R. job wasn't enough.
         I hope it works out for him, and he gains satisfaction. If it works out as well as his playing career did, no problem.
        What I liked was the photo accompanying the story -- a huge Parish smile. You rarely saw that in his playing days, in high school, college and the NBA. You, in fact, saw little emotion. He was one of the most placid, expressionless players I've seen anywhere. And to be such a big star, one of the most unselfish; he was a team guy.
         He was -- as this story notes -- quiet and private. But if you were around him in the locker room or off the court, you knew he was also funny -- he could gently rib teammates and sportswriters. For instance, he called Larry Little, his head coach at Centenary, "Vince," as in Vince Lombardi.              
          In high school and college, I never saw him get ruffled on the court, even though he was -- pun here -- the center of attention in every game he played. And even though he usually got hammered pretty good under the basket.
          The smile in the Boston Globe story reminds me of another big smile, in the locker room after Woodlawn's Class AAA state championship victory, by one point over Rummel, in 1972. He had to watch his teammates hold on after he fouled out with 3:42 remaining, but he was a very happy man after finally winning a state title following three near-misses in state tournament trips, including a Woodlawn loss in the 1971 finals.
           Another loss -- and the rare show of emotion -- showed me how badly he wanted to win. 
           Centenary, as many people remember, won the recruiting battle for Robert because their coaches -- who worked hard to woo him -- made an impression and he wanted to stay in his hometown. Plus, he didn't score well at all on his academic tests, scaring off a lot of schools. But Centenary had a sliding grade-point average/academic ratings scale that it used for Robert -- and others -- to establish enrollment.
          However, the NCAA didn't agree. Long story short, its staff ruled Parish and other players ineligible (but free to transfer if they could qualify elsewhere), and made Centenary ineligible for postseason play and NCAA statistics.
          Robert chose to stay, the players filed suit against the NCAA ... and lost in court. So for four years at Centenary, Parish was persona non grata with the NCAA. The program was banned from postseason play; its statistics, including Parish's numbers that were among the best in the nation, were not recognized.
           Thus, the All-College Tournament in Oklahoma City was Centenary's tournament chance in the 1974-75 and '75-'76 seasons, Parish's last two college years. The Gents won it impressively in December '74, but the bid for a repeat title in '75 was spoiled in a late-game collapse against the Long Island Blackbirds, who won by a point on a basket in the final minute of the championship game.
           Standing with him in an entryway overlooking the court some 20 minutes after the game, I saw the tears in Robert's eyes. That loss hurt.
           So his college career was played somewhat in anonymity. But the NBA and (at the time) ABA scouts knew where he was.
           Atlanta had the No. 1 pick in the 1976 NBA Draft, and they were watching Robert closely. Before Centenary's last game of the season at UNC-Charlotte, Bob Kauffman -- an ex-NBA center/forward and the Hawks' assistant general manager -- was in a hotel room visiting with Centenary's coaches, and I was listening in. 
            Most of the discussion was about Robert, and Kauffman liked him ... but he saw a lot of technique deficiencies scouts can see. One example, Robert mostly turned to his right close to the basket and put the ball on the floor too often.
            So Kauffman was hesistant to say the Hawks would draft him. I told him -- tactfully, of course -- in so many words that he was nuts, that Atlanta would be crazy not to pick Robert.
            On draft day, the Hawks traded the No. 1 pick to Houston, which took guard John Lucas out of Maryland. Robert fell to the No. 8 pick by Golden State, which had won the NBA championship a year earlier.
            It cost Parish some money. The "crazy" Hawks? They're still looking for their first NBA title. Robert has four.     
            Next: He wasn't always "The Chief" 


  1. From Pat Booras: Great article on Robert Parish. ... I'll take him at center anytime, if we are picking sides. The other team can pick who they want at center after that. The talent, longevity and numbers and rings speak for themselves.

  2. From Jimmy Russell: Good piece on the Chief. Kyle, my older son, lives in Boston. He got on the elevator with Robert one day and he told him his brother had played at Centenary and Robert asked him his name. He told him you would not know him as he had played in the last couple of years. Robert kept pushing for his name, finally Kyle said "Blaine Russell" and Robert said, “I don’t know him.”
    Union High School -- Robert Parish, Jeff Sudds, and Melvin Russell. I bet some of the Shreveport locals were glad they made them a junior high. Jeff Sudds' injuries kept him from getting his due.

  3. From Ken Sins:
    I had to interview "The Chief'' on many occasions during my days on NBA duty. He is a class act.

  4. From Tom Gibson: When I close my eyes, I can still see him shooting baskets in the Union gym. Thanks for taking us back, Nico!

  5. From Chuck Baker: Obviously Robert had the better NBA and overall career, but he was only the second- best college player I saw in person. I saw almost all of Robert's home games and two years of Calvin Natt [at Northeast Louisiana], and Calvin was the better college player. But I love them both. And even after 18 years as a Hogs season ticket holder, Calvin and Robert still stand out as the Nos. 1 and 2 best ever in college.