Rebounding, scoring contributions make Kevin McHale a whale of a sub for Celtics

Only those who have saved their money for a rainy day can probably best appreciate the Sixth Man talents of center-forward Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics, the team with the best won-lost record this year in the National Basketball Association.

Whenever the Celtics are struggling and head coach K.C. Jones needs a lift from his bench, he sits down one of his starters and brings in the 6 ft. 10 in., 225-lb. McHale. Kevin is known primarily for three things: his rebounding, his scoring, and his ability to block shots.

Not many opponents care to challenge him inside, preferring to shoot ouside rather than drive the lane and risk getting the ball knocked down their throats. And surely the Washington Bullets won't be eager to test him in first-round playoff action this week.

Off the court Kevin likes to break the tension of road games by playing practical jokes on his teammates, saving his best gags for crowded airport terminals.

McHale, a four-year veteran out of the University of Minnesota, has become part of Boston's celebrated Sixth Man tradition that started years ago when Kentucky's Frank Ramsey joined the club. It later achieved the ultimate in off-the-bench production from John Havlicek. Also contributing to the Celtics in this manner, but for much shorter periods of time, were Don Nelson (the present Milwaukee coach) and Paul Silas.

One thing that sets McHale apart as a pro is that most players his size who have any potential at all are given the opportunity to become starters. And before entering the NBA, Kevin had been a starter, both for Minnesota, and for the United States team that Bobby Knight coached to a gold medal in the 1979 Pan American Games.

Asked if the possibility of becoming Boston's Sixth Man had ever crossed his mind when the Celtics made him their first draft pick in 1980, McHale replied: ''The only thing I was thinking about at the time was what it would take for me to make the ball club. I wasn't even concerned about being a regular. Of course I knew about the Celtics' Sixth Man tradition and particularly about Havlicek. But my only goal was to make sure that I got a spot on the roster.''

What probably triggered McHale's Sixth Man role with the Celtics, rather than any preconceived notions by then coach Bill Fitch to employ him that way, was Boston's front line of Robert Parish, Larry Bird, and Cedric Maxwell. They were all too good at their jobs to be displaced.

But most every time Fitch decided to bring Kevin in off the bench, the Celtics either added to their lead or made a run at whatever team was ahead of them. When it became obvious that this was no mere coincidence, McHale was regularly assigned the specialty role.

''Once I learned what my role was I also discovered there are some benefits to coming off the bench that you don't get as a starter,'' Kevin told me. ''For example, just sitting there watching can help you acquire a feel for the way the game is going. It's like you can begin to gear your thinking ahead of time to whatever the team needs at the moment, whether it's scoring, rebounding, or just working hard on defense. I had my taste of starting when I was in college and it was good, but now I don't need it.''

What McHale resembles most when he's standing, feet spread apart and hands on his hips, is the Jolly Green Giant of TV fame. There is still a lot of Huckleberry Finn in his face. His legs look as though they haven't stopped growing, and he also has two of the sharpest elbows ever honed.

Those who try to block Kevin's turnaround, fade-away jumper usually wind up churning air. And while there is sometimes a Herman Munster look to the way he moves laterally, he often makes extremely good offensive moves inside when he has the ball.

Although McHale finished the regular season with career highs in minutes played, rebounds, points scored, and field-goal percentage, he refuses to talk specifically about statistics.

''I never critique my own game because if you know you played as hard as you can, what else is left? I prefer to think that any improvement I've made as a pro has come naturally and is the result of hard work, nothing else. Even though I don't start, I'm logging just as many minutes as most players in this league who do and I'm nearly always on the court at the end of games, when everything counts most.''

The fact is McHale probably could start for any team in the league, including Boston. When Bird was injured two years ago and Kevin became a regular in his place, the Celtics won 22 of the 26 games Bird missed.

''But I obviously like my present situation or I wouldn't have signed another contract with Boston at the end of last season,'' McHale added.

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