As the contrail from United Air Lines Flight 133 evaporated into the sky over Logan Airport one night last week, a carefree Kevin McHale settled his 6'10", 225-pound body into a first-class seat. The Boston Celtics had just completed their longest home stand of the season, and McHale was plotting a practical joke to get a road trip off on the right note.
When it comes to such jokes, the Celtics are as much a first-division club as they are at playing basketball. They steal writers' garment bags and page celebrities in airports. (Forward Cedric Maxwell always pages former NBA great Dolph Schayes, and once, last December in Salt Lake City, Schayes actually showed up.) McHale's favorite ruse is putting paper in the mouths of sleeping teammates. "Try using one of these cocktail napkins," he said. "When just the edge sticks out of a guy's mouth, it looks like he's got fangs. The best part is when he wakes up."
Do not disturb McHale, for waking him up right now would spoil everything. So far this season, he has played the best basketball of his four-year NBA career, and for at least two reasons he couldn't have picked a better time. First, with the fickle Boston Garden fans itching to remind him of the ill feeling generated last spring by the highly publicized negotiations that resulted in McHale's four-year $4-million contract, his excellent play has kept the wolves at bay. "There's this invisible wave of pressure at every home game," says Bob Ryan, a local sportscaster. "He's had to play this way."
Second, when All-NBA Forward Larry Bird suffered sprained ligaments in his right knee last Friday night against the Denver Nuggets, McHale the superb sixth man became McHale the starter and surrogate star. He responded well in Boston's ensuing game in Atlanta, playing 39 minutes, scoring 13 points and getting nine rebounds as the Celtics won 104-87.
Bird's injury will keep McHale from fulfilling his usual role as supersub, but that's no sweat for McHale. Two seasons ago when Bird fractured a cheekbone, McHale became a regular in his place and the Celtics won 22 of those 26 games as McHale averaged 15.5 points and 8.9 rebounds while maintaining his reputation as one of the league's most formidable shot-blockers. It might be said that McHale is a master of relief, comic and otherwise.
Under low-key Coach K.C. Jones, who replaced the acerbic Bill Fitch on the Boston bench this season, the Celtics have practically joked their way to a 17-6 record through week's end, which put them only 22 percentage points behind first-place Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division. Boston looks nothing like the tense team that lost in a four-game playoff sweep to Milwaukee in last spring's Eastern semifinals. This is K.C. & The Sunshine Band, and McHale is on lead vocals. He's headed for career highs in field-goal percentage (.581 after the win in Atlanta), rebounding (7.9 per game) and scoring (19.2) while playing about 30 minutes a game, essentially the same amount of daylight he averaged last season. McHale is at a loss to explain his improved play. "Maybe it was something I did during the off-season," he says. "But I doubt golfing helps your field-goal percentage. I just have that feeling that every shot I take is going in."
Still, considering the events of the past nine months, it was startling that last week someone in the Garden unfurled a banner that read THANK HEAVEN FOR KEVIN. McHale played miserably in the Celtics' ignominious playoff exit, scoring a total of eight points in four fourth quarters against the Bucks. He spent much of last season criticizing Fitch for sowing discord among the Celtics, though McHale wasn't completely blameless himself in this regard. "Kevin has an irreverent bent that can be refreshing," says one Celtic observer. "He simply wasn't going to become one of Bill's robots. Then again, he's always the last guy on the bus. It's funny once or twice, but after 50 games you get tired of it." Then, when McHale's agent, John Sandquist, began soliciting offers of free-agent millions from the spendthrift New York Knicks, The Boston Globe ran a cartoon depicting McHale as a pig wallowing in a styful of dollar bills. The caption read, "The Real McHale."
From there, his contract talks degenerated into a public bloodletting. McHale spoke with bitter candor about their progress, as did Celtic President Red Auerbach. Nothing sullied McHale's image more than a claim in April by Harry Mangurian, then the Boston owner, that he and McHale actually had shaken hands on a figure a month earlier. McHale insists they hadn't settled on anything. For a while it appeared that McHale, who's from Bob Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, Minn., was singing I Shall Be Released—and the Celtics were just as determinedly crooning You Ain't Goin' Nowhere despite a Globe poll in June revealing that 72.1% of Boston fans hoped he would bug out. Suddenly it didn't seem to matter that McHale is as good as they come in filling the quintessentially Celtic role of sixth man.
In fact, McHale is hardly the porcine ingrate depicted in the Globe cartoon. He's a generous, overgrown kid who would be happy just hunting and fishing. "A tough agent is what Kevin needs, because of the way Kevin is," says Phil Saunders, a college teammate at the University of Minnesota who's now an assistant to Gopher Coach Jim Dutcher. "Kevin's so easygoing, you could probably talk him into letting you drive off with his truck."
Hibbing is located in the Mesabi Iron Range, an area of northern Minnesota whose time has passed. When life was good, Iron Rangers like Paul McHale, Kevin's dad who recently retired after 42½ years with U.S. Steel, would load ore into the railroad cars that trundled out of the open pits, bound for the steel mills of Pittsburgh and Detroit. Even when the raw ore gave out after World War II, the Rangers unearthed vast amounts of iron-bearing taconite rock and employed a process for separating ore from the worthless tailings, as wheat from chaff. There's plenty of taconite left in the ground around Hibbing, but as the domestic steel industry has fallen on hard times, so has the town.
Overburden is what miners call the topsoil you have to burrow through to get at taconite. You needn't clear much overburden to get at McHale. His parents keep a wall of their home covered with his trophies; dominating it is a mounted 11½-pound walleye pike. "It's his most important trophy," says his mother, Josephine.
McHale, 26, even looks like he just wandered out of adolescence. His mien is boyish, and so is his all-elbows-and-knee-caps build. "When he came to school here he was just a long-legged, gangly kid," says Saunders. "He was barrel-chested, but knock-kneed. He looked like Herman Munster. Neither of his parents is tall [his dad is 5'10", his mom 5'6"]. Maybe they put him together in a back room."
More likely, he was The Thing That Came in from the Cold. Like every boy in Hibbing, McHale grew up playing hockey, which is to Minnesota what football is to Texas. "In the ninth grade I was just average at every sport I tried," he says. "I was always so awkward, I could never get anything flowing in the same direction. But by sophomore year basketball was all I wanted to do because I became more and more successful at it. It was a snowball effect."
Hibbing High Coach Gary Addington, who is 6'1", helped McHale develop by playing him one-on-one, with McHale barred from the lane and the loser obliged to buy milkshakes. In his senior season, when Hibbing reached the state finals, the Bluejackets had six other players 6'6" or taller, freeing McHale, even then 6'10", to play the high post. "I could have gotten into a rut, scoring 30 points a game with my back to the basket," he says. "But Gary forced me to learn the whole game." (Hibbing High has produced one other NBA player, Dick Garmaker, an all-star guard with the Lakers and Knicks during the '50s. The wind sprints at Hibbing practices are still called Garmakers. "I've always associated the guy with a lot of pain," McHale says.)
Minnesota signed him to one of three scholarships they were permitted during an NCAA probation resulting from recruiting violations. A month into his freshman season he began starting at forward, alongside Center Mychal Thompson, now a Portland Trail Blazer forward. The Gophs went 24-3.
McHale averaged 15.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game over his college career, leading Minnesota to the NIT finals as a senior. He became the Celtics' first pick and the third choice overall in the draft. When asked how it felt, he said, "Where else would a six-ten, white, Irish Catholic kid want to play?"
McHale immediately became Boston's sixth man, following in a regal line that began with Frank Ramsey and has included John Havlicek and Paul Silas. Like his predecessors, he can run and has a knack for producing in the fourth quarter. He's also durable—he hasn't missed a game in his pro career. And the Celtics have never had a sixth man so big. When he enters a game—usually late in the first quarter, for Maxwell—he'll join Bird and Center Robert Parish on a front line that goes 6'10", 6'9½", and 7'½", respectively. Inevitably, McHale finds himself shooting his unblockable, turnaround fadeaway jumper over the smaller forward obliged to guard him. "If they can guard Robert, they can't guard Kevin," Jones says. "And if they can guard Kevin, they can't guard Robert."
McHale was at odds with Fitch from the start. During the summer of 1980, before his rookie season, when talks with the Celtics bogged down, McHale looked into the possibility of playing in Italy. "Let him eat spaghetti," Fitch said. Then, last season, Fitch made another remark, one that he claims was taken out of context: McHale, Fitch said, "would starve if he had to play center in this league." There's some truth to that; without Parish alongside him, McHale's effectiveness drops off. But McHale, who is as sensitive as he is competitive, was hurt.
"Bill's a great coach," McHale says. "We won a championship [in 1980-81] with him. But after a 30-point loss he'd show us a tape with nothing but low-lights, and 12 guys would be sinking down in their seats. Watching too much tape is like watching too much TV. It may be the Billy Martin syndrome. You get a coach who's a winner but very volatile, and after a while somebody on the team is going to get burned out. Either you've got to get new players or get a new boss."
Like some other Celtics, McHale was incredulous of Fitch's suspicious nature. Once Fitch dispatched an assistant to the top row of Houston's Summit Arena to roust an unidentified observer from a Celtic shootaround. He regularly banned out of town writers from practices for fear they would pilfer his plays. But unlike most of his teammates, McHale would talk to outsiders about Fitch's behavior. "Yeah," he told a Philadelphia columnist who'd been forced to wait an hour in a frigid lobby outside a Celtic practice, "we've only been running the same plays for 15 years." Says Parish, "Kevin is a man who speaks his mind, and he's a young man."
McHale isn't uncoachable, but he likes to flirt with the limits of authority. He and Bobby Knight, his coach in the 1979 Pan Am Games, got along well enough that they went fishing together when they returned to the states from Puerto Rico. Yet when former Ohio State Coach Fred Taylor, Knight's Pan Am assistant, supervised a brutal drill, McHale bought breathers by asking, "How'd Havlicek do this drill?" and "How'd [Jerry] Lucas do it?" Taylor thought he was seriously inquiring about members of Taylor's old NCAA championship team. McHale tells that story the way a schoolboy gloats about hoodwinking a substitute teacher.
But McHale insists he has matured. "Last year was a sobering experience," he says. "The whole thing with the contract and fatherhood [his wife, Lynn, gave birth to a daughter, Kristyn, during the playoffs] forced me to grow up a lot. Life isn't all fun and games. And the media can put a lot of pressure on you."
So can a coach. But under Jones, only McHale's blocked shots total has suffered. "I'm using him a lot more at forward than at center," says Jones, who may change his mind as the season progresses and Parish feels the brunt of playing an average of 37.4 minutes a game. "He's not going to block as many playing way out on the floor." Yet McHale is getting more chances to go to town offensively. Against Detroit several weeks ago, working mostly on 6'8" Cliff Levingston, McHale scored 19 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter. He calls such mismatches the "torture chamber."
McHale has been known to get on the case of such diverse luminaries as L.A.'s Magic Johnson, teammate Danny Ainge and the well-traveled Marvin (Bad News) Barnes, an occasional rival in off-season pickup games. Barnes likes to call his jumper "ice cream" because it's so smooth. But when he fires a brick, McHale screams "frozen yogurt."
None of this Hibbing-style ribbing will stop, even if Boston Garden becomes a more literal torture chamber. "If I do have a slump, people are just going to have to accept that I'm still giving it my all every night," McHale says. "I haven't done anything different this season. I go out and work hard, but if something's funny, I'm going to laugh. I don't think there's any one model attitude on the basketball court." In fact, when Parish walked out of training camp this fall, demanding a contract renegotiation because he didn't think as the starting center he should making $350,000 less than his backup, he took some of the heat off McHale. And the way he's playing, McHale could take the rest of the Garden heat off himself.
Meanwhile, from Flight 133, the Garden was becoming a benign speck on the horizon. Up in seat 2D, Parish's eyes had shut and his jaw had gone slack.
"Ah," McHale said, "I see Mr. Parish is ready for a little paper."