It was a smelly situation. Last Friday, seven hours before a date with the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis, Robert Parish of the Boston Celtics was literally up to his elbows in cologne, hot on the trail of the right scent. But the Halston on his wrist wouldn't do—"Too strong. That stuff makes me sneeze when I wear it"—nor would the Vetiver Pour Monsieur that adorned his forearm. "No way," said Parish. "I bought some once, now I can't give the stuff away. I would like to get this done by game time."
Unfortunately, the scent Parish finally decided upon, Monsieur Rochas, wasn't much help in averting a 110-104 loss to the Pacers, but other sweet performances in Parish's first season in Boston have dissipated an old, ugly aroma and provided him with a new, winning one. Traded in the off-season from a stinker of a situation with the Golden State Warriors, many of whose fans felt he was lazy and had a bad attitude. Parish has averaged 18.9 points and almost 9.5 rebounds a game in Celtic green. So effectively has he filled the void left at center by the unexpected preseason retirement of Dave Cowens that at the end of last week the Celtics were 55-16 and just one game behind Philadelphia for both first place in the Atlantic Division and the best record in the NBA.
Although his rebound figure is about the same as it was with the Warriors, Parish is scoring five points more than his career average, and his inspired play at both ends of the court has observers discussing "the new and improved" Parish, talk that both angers and frustrates the old one. "Oh, yes, what a turnaround I've made, and, oh, yes, what a difference a year makes." he says mockingly. "My coming to Boston just did wonders for my attitude. Hey, I'm doing the same things I did at Golden State. And all that talk about the magic of being with the Celtics, forget it. The only difference in me is that the team I'm on is winning, and that's because the people here complement my game."
Indeed Boston's No. 00, the numerals Parish has favored ever since his junior high team ran out of numbered jerseys, has become just another cog in the finely tuned Celtic machine. Larry Bird is having a phenomenal second season, averaging 21.6 points, 11 rebounds and more than five assists per game. At age 32, Tiny Archibald is still skating and slithering through and around defenders. The Most Valuable Player in this year's All-Star Game, Archibald is scoring almost 14 points and dealing out seven assists per game. Having a double-threat scorer and passer both at the point and on the wing opens things up down low for Parish to crash the boards or take his pet turnaround jumper. For the year Parish has shot 55% from the field, but a more important statistic for Boston is his 2.60 blocked shots per game, fourth best in the league. At 7'½", Parish is the tallest player ever to play for the Celtics, and along with 6'11" rookie Kevin McHale, he has given Boston the shot-blocking it has lacked since the days of Bill Russell.
According to Celtic Coach Bill Fitch, those blocks are a measure of how hard Parish has worked since coming to Boston. "Blocks come when the player hustles his butt back on the transition from offense to defense," says Fitch. "I call it uphill/downhill transition. When the ball goes to some players on offense, they can't move fast enough, but when switching from offense to defense it's like they're moving strictly uphill. Robert has been getting uphill pretty quick."
Actually, for Parish the entire season has been downhill after the rigors of his first Celtic training camp. "I'm in the best condition of my life, but it was a bitch getting there," Parish says. "When I came in I was in shape for a Golden State camp, not for the Celtics. It was the most physical, intense thing I'd ever been through, but I can't knock the results."
The trade—Parish and Golden State's first draft choice, which the Celtics used to select McHale, for Boston's picks in the first round (Nos. 1 and 13)—came at just the right time for Parish, 27, who felt he had gone stale with the Warriors. Although his numbers in four years with Golden State were always respectable, they didn't satisfy his critics, who got the impression from Parish's gait, which can best be described as arthritic, and his on-court facial expression, a permanent scowl, that he was dogging it.
"I heard it all—I had a bad attitude, I only played when I wanted to. Someone even said I was so lazy I got into foul trouble on purpose so I wouldn't have to play," Parish says. "When I came to Boston I knew that I'd be tested to see if I had what it took to be a winner. I always knew I did."
Apparently, so did Fitch and the Celtics. "When the exhibition season started, people were looking at me like I was crazy, and after I saw Robert go up and down the court the first couple of times I really didn't know whether to laugh or cry myself," Fitch says. "[General Manager] Red Auerbach may be getting old and senile, but I knew he wasn't completely washed up. We'd looked at films and reams of information on Robert and had talked with Scotty Stirling and Pete Newell of the Warriors. They'd told us what we've come to find out, that Robert would be a good man to have even if he weren't a good basketball player."
In the light of Cowens' abrupt retirement, the Parish trade now appears to be another in a long series of brilliant maneuvers by Auerbach. Remember Easy Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan for the draft rights to Russell? Last year the 76ers overpowered the Celtics in the front court when they eliminated Boston in the playoffs. But with the addition of Parish and McHale to go with 6'10" Rick Robey, the Celtics' big men have more than held their own in matchups with Philadelphia this season.
A sensitive, introspective bachelor from Shreveport, La., Parish sometimes talks of chucking it all, finding a shady tree beside a stream back home and going fishing for good. He has come a long way since his days down on the bayou. His years in the league have given birth to stylish ways and nurtured a subtle wit. "I get misunderstood because I don't smile and I want to be left alone most of the time," Parish says. "It's just that I've always felt that my actions could speak louder than anything I could say."
They have this season. Cowens' departure left Parish facing the demanding Boston fans with a bad reputation and the difficult task of having to replace a legend to erase that rep. "I never saw the fact that I was replacing Dave as putting more pressure on me," says Parish. "It was more of a challenge. I thought I'd always held up well against the league's other centers, and now I could show everyone else. I have too much pride to ever give anyone the satisfaction of saying that I quit."
That same pride enabled Parish to persevere through four years of NCAA probation at Centenary College in Shreveport. Perhaps it never seemed right to the NCAA—which launched an investigation—that such a giant talent could go to such a tiny school (then only 750 students). Parish just wanted to play at home before it was in vogue to do so. When the NCAA discovered some technical violations of its rules in Parish's academic records, it made Centenary ineligible for any tournament bids and struck Parish's and the school's records from its books. Before Parish's senior year the NCAA gave him permission to complete his eligibility at another school where his statistics would be officially recognized and where he could compete in postseason tournaments. He refused and stayed at Centenary, averaging 21.6 points and 16.9 rebounds a game and leading the Gents to a four-year 87-21 record. The Warriors made Parish the eighth player chosen in the 1976 draft.
Fitch says he was a Robert Parish fan then and he remains one today. "If Robert would zero in on basketball for the next five years he could be thought of in the same light as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar," Fitch says. "He can become even more intense and he hasn't touched the potential of his passing game. A year from now he'll pull rebounds off the square on the backboard and kick them out before he hits the ground, like Wes Unseld does."
A year from now the Celtics will have to pay more dearly for Parish's services; his current contract, which pays him a substandard $100,000 this season, expires this spring. Parish's play with Boston has made his value skyrocket, but the Celtics are determined to keep him. "If Robert signs with anyone else, I'll break both his legs," says Fitch.
At present, Parish is in the running for what he considers a dubious honor, the comeback player of the year award. "I haven't been anywhere to come back. I haven't been hurt or nothin'," Parish says. "That award should go to a player who was hurt or sat out a year and then had a great season. I don't want anything to do with it. But if I tell 'em to keep their award, they'd probably say that I have a bad attitude."