Where's the Chief? Robert Parish left the game vowing never to return. But like his old teammates from Boston, he's no longer content to be on the sideline

July 11, 2004

The joke was on Robert Parish. He believed what he heard in
those Boston Celtics locker room bitch sessions after yet
another practice for yet another game in yet another season. ¶
"When I'm done with basketball, you'll never see me again," one
Celtic would declare. "I'll never show up at another NBA arena.
I'll never watch another NBA game on television." ¶ "I'll never
touch another basketball," someone else would promise. "When
you see the last of me, you'll see the last of me." ¶ The
speakers would change on any given day from Kevin McHale to
Danny Ainge to Cedric Maxwell to Dennis Johnson to M.L. Carr to
Bill Walton, but the sentiments always would be the same.
Basketball would be a dead issue when their playing careers
were finished. Who needed the aggravation? Even Larry Bird
would talk about how he would walk away from the sport that was
making them all famous and rich, the door closing behind him,
never to be reopened. The future would be a tropical island
someplace, a beach chair and a tall drink with a parasol in it.

"You think about it now, it sounds so silly," says Parish, who
won three NBA championships playing for Boston from 1980-81
through '93-94. "Here we were, complaining about a job where you
had to work two hours a day. Not only did you have to work only
two hours a day, but you were paid a lot of money and everybody
loved you and gave you things. It was truly silly to complain,
but we did. Everybody did."

Financial security was the ticket to an endless summer. That was
the thought. Sure, some Celtics old-timers had come back and
taken NBA jobs in coaching or broadcasting or management--Bob
Cousy and Tom Heinsohn, K.C Jones and even Bill Russell--but they
probably needed a paycheck. With salaries higher, the modern
player could afford to live the second half of his life without
the arenas and the angry crowds and the endless travel.

Parish bought the concept. Tall, implacable, nicknamed the Chief
by Maxwell for his resemblance to the silent, contemplative
Native American who chronicles the madness in One Flew Over the
Cuckoo's Nest, Parish more than any other Celtic seemed as if he
would have no need for basketball. He stayed above it all,
rolling through nail-biters and blowouts, congratulations and
criticism with the same stoic grace. The game simply was the
game. He didn't have an ego that needed to be walked and petted
and put on display.

"It's good that I didn't, too," he says. "That's why I fit on
that team. If I had been a guy who needed the ball, needed the
touches, it wouldn't have worked. We had a lot of guys who needed
the touches. I just went out there and played. It's funny, when
Kevin or Larry had a bad night, the stories always were that
Kevin or Larry had a bad night. When I had a bad night, it always
was, What's wrong with Robert? The stories would run all week.
Nobody ever realized that with Kevin or Larry, they could shoot
themselves out of a slump the next night. It would take longer
for me because I was only getting nine touches a game. Slumps are
mechanics. It takes longer to adjust your mechanics when you're
not shooting."

Parish was a classic NBA big man, 7'1", 230 pounds, nudged into
the sport because of his size. Spotted by Coleman Kidd, the coach
at Union Junior High in Shreveport, La., Parish was 6'5" in
seventh grade and clumsy with his new body, hitting his head on
doorways, knocking over anything he touched because he couldn't
fathom the length of his arms. His first impression of basketball
was that it was torture. Kidd had to go to Parish's house every
morning for the first three months, drag him to scrimmages that
were held before the first class at school. Parish was terrible.
He couldn't dribble, pass or rebound. Other students came early
to watch the scrimmages and laugh at him. "It took me a year
before I made a layup," he says. "It was a great moment. I was in
eighth grade. I remember feeling very good about myself. I could
make a layup."

By the end of high school he had made so many layups that more
than 300 colleges wanted him. He chose Centenary in Shreveport
because he wanted to be close to his infant daughters, Tomika and
LaToya. Taken with the No. 8 pick by the going-nowhere Golden
State Warriors in the 1976 draft, he received a great break after
his fourth season when he was dealt to the Celtics.

Put between Bird and McHale, he helped form the best frontcourt
in NBA history. In 13 seasons that threesome went to the playoffs
13 times, won the Atlantic Division nine times, reached the
Finals five times and won the championship three times. Parish
was an All-Star nine times.

The virtues of unselfishness and hard work were visible every
night. "We came to play, no matter who we were playing," Parish
says. "I'm interested in a lot of these teams today that think
they are pretty good. They go out and lose to the underachievers.
We never lost to the underachievers. We punished them. Don't guys
today understand? That's when you pad your stats, against the
underachievers."

When injury more than age broke up the lineup--Bird leaving in
1992 with an aching back, McHale in '93 with a bad back and
ankle--Parish kept rolling. His back ached sometimes, but his
body held together. He left Boston as a free agent after the
'93-94 season, playing with the Charlotte Hornets for two years,
then the Chicago Bulls in '96-97, earning a fourth championship
in his final season. When he retired, he had played more years
(21) and in more games (1,611) than any NBA player.

And he followed the plan, did what he and everyone else in the
Celtics' locker room said they were going to do. He did nothing.
"I found out that I was very good at doing nothing," he says. "I
wasn't bored. I traveled, went to the islands, lived on island
time. Very nice. I read. I saw my four kids. I visited my
parents."

He sold off a few cars, managing just fine with two. He sold his
place in the Boston suburbs in 1999, leaving the cold to live in
the second house he had bought, in Charlotte. Divorced in '88
after four years of marriage to the mother of his youngest son,
he had a girlfriend but decided he was meant to live alone. He
was good company for himself. When someone called Parish a
recluse, his mother, Ada, would say, "Robert's not a
recluse--he's just home. You want to find him, he's right there.
He just likes to be home."

A funny thing about the locker room dream, though. Parish
discovered that he was the only one of the former Celtics
teammates living it. Where were all the other malcontents, the
complainers and whiners? They were back in basketball, every one
of them. "Larry didn't surprise me," Parish says. "I always
figured he'd wind up somewhere, basketball was so much a part of
him. The rest of those guys? They all surprised me. Kevin, I
never thought he'd come back. Maxwell? The way he hated practice?
Bill Walton had a terrible stutter. Now he's a commentator?
Danny, a coach? I never thought he'd have the temperament for
that."

One by one the others had returned. Bird was first the coach,
then the president of basketball operations of the Indiana
Pacers. McHale was in charge of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Carr
was running the Celtics, and Maxwell was calling Boston's games
on radio. Oops, Carr was out. Ainge resigned as the Phoenix Suns'
coach, then became the boss of the Celtics. Maxwell still was
calling the games. Walton seemingly was everywhere.

Curious about the successes and failures of his former teammates,
Parish began to follow the games again. Clifford Ray, the former
Warriors center and a friend, enlisted him to work for a week in
the summer of 2001 at a big man's camp in Bradenton, Fla. Then
another summer and another. Parish was touching a basketball
again. His body had taken 21 years of low-post abuse, but now it
was fine.

In 2003, on the first ballot, he was elected to the Pro
Basketball Hall of Fame. That brought him back into the
spotlight. He found that he did not mind it there.

"We had a dentists convention here," says Derek Boyle of Sports
Identity in Boston. "They were looking for a former Celtics
player to speak. They wanted Larry, but he wasn't available. We
suggested Robert, even though we'd never worked with him. We
contacted his accountant, and Robert agreed to come. The dentists
loved him, and he liked doing it. We set up a relationship."

Advised by his mother since retirement to "get out there and
present yourself," he decided at last to do that. Parish suddenly
was making furniture commercials in Boston, talking with fans as
part of the NBA Legends campaign at the Finals, singing and
dancing in those NBA commercials with the Black-Eyed Peas.

Now he is looking for a job in the game.

"I'm 50 years old--that's too young to be retired," he says. "I
could be a general manager for some team. I could be a coach. I
could be a broadcaster. Whatever comes up. This is what I know.
This is what I can do. This is my passion."

Boyle has sent letters to teams and broadcast outlets, letting
them know that his client is available. So far there have been no
interviews. Parish notes that another Hall of Fame center, Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar, also distant and aloof during a stellar playing
career, has tried a similar late return and had few takers.
Parish finds that "amazing" but does not know what it means for
him. He says all he can do is make sure people know that he is
available.

"They tell me that I don't have any experience," he says, "but
look at everyone else on those Celtics teams--they didn't have
any experience either. And they all seem to be doing fine."

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE LIPOFSKY/BASKETBALLPHOTO.COM COLOR PHOTO: DAVID SHERMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (MCHALE) COLOR PHOTO: AP (JOHNSON) COLOR PHOTO: GARY I. ROTHSTEIN/REUTERS (BIRD) COLOR PHOTO: STEVEN SENNE/AP (AINGE) COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (TOP) STAND-UP GUY Cited during the recent playoffs, Parish gave Boston a boost when he arrived in 1980-81. B/W PHOTO: JOHN MARTELL/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (SI COVER) CHIEF JUSTICE The quiet star got his cover due in '91. B/W PHOTO: STEVE LIPOFSKY/BASKETBALLPHOTO.COM BAND IN BOSTON Among (from left) Johnson, Bird, McHale and Ainge, Parish was least likely to keep a hand in the game.

BOSTON STARTING LINEUP, 1985-86

KEVIN MCHALE
Seven-time All-Star retired in '93; as Minnesota's VP of
basketball operations has overseen Timberwolves' rise from
Western Conference doormat to powerhouse.

DENNIS JOHNSON
Five-time All-Star retired in '91; was an assistant with the
Celtics (1993-97) and the Los Angeles Clippers (2000-02);
Clippers interim coach during '02-03.

LARRY BIRD
Three-time NBA MVP retired in '92; coached Indiana Pacers three
seasons, including franchise's only trip to Finals, in 2000; now
Pacers president.

DANNY AINGE
Traded to Sacramento in '89; finished career with Phoenix in '95;
coached Suns for three-plus seasons; currently Celtics director
of basketball operations.

He stayed above it all, rolling through nail-biters and blowouts,
congratulations and criticism with the same stoic grace.

I could be a coach," Parish says. "I could be a broadcaster.
Whatever comes up. This is what I know. This is my passion."

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