BOSTON basketball's center of gravity has just arrived. The stable, quiet presence in the eye of the Celtics' storm. The fellow coach K.C. Jones calls ``Claude Rains, the invisible man.'' All 7 feet, 1 inch of him.
Robert Parish, a.k.a. ``the Chief,'' walks quietly into Boston Garden before a game, lofty in a tailored coat, carrying a tightly wrapped umbrella. Just outside the players' entrance, he stoops to greet a tiny kid. ``How you doing, little man?'' he asks in his deep, liquid voice. ``What's your name?'' And the little boy reaches up to take his hand, looking as though the tallest tree in his backyard had just dipped a branch to lift him up.
Twenty-minutes later, all suited up, Parish lopes onto the court to war-cries and calls of ``Chief! Chief! Chief!'' And for the next 45 playing minutes, Boston's big man will provide the world-champion Celtics with all the rugged details of the game they need, while still performing his regular disappearing act - making a high art of the low profile.
Because, in a sport that pivots on unselfish play, Robert Parish is the ideal of the unselfish player.
Talks with teammates, coaches, and observers in pro basketball reveal Parish as a player who quietly boosts the talents of superstars Larry Bird and Kevin McHale.
The public image of Robert Parish as the scowling shot-blocker with the cigar-store Indian face is belied by private observations of a gentle practical-joker whose sometimes mystifying moods have more to do with shyness and a deep-seated thirst for privacy than with the sullen pride for which they are frequently taken.
``He's so cute - because he's 7'1'' and he's so shy in there,'' says his wife, Nancy, during an interview in their sprawling home at the end of a snaking drive in an exclusive Boston suburb. ``Robert is basically a back-seat kind of person. He reserves the special things for somebody he considers very special. He trusts me, so he knows that he can bring out that little boy inside him that he keeps hidden.''
In fact, Parish keeps most things about himself, including his game, well-camouflaged.
Parish came out on a quiet tear this season, compiling better stats than for any other start in recent memory. In a game against the arch-rival Philadelphia '76ers last week, he notched a triple-double (double figures in three categories - points, rebounds, and assists) and became only the second Celtic to do so in the recorded history of the feat. But for the most part, he plays the role of a hardworking, supportive influence, one who says his greatest contribution to the team, which prides itself on family unity, is ``my unselfish attitude.''
``He's the perfect center for that team, and one of the main reasons they are what they are,'' Los Angeles Lakers' center Kareem Abdul Jabaar commented in a telephone interview. ``You show me how many of the centers in the NBA [National Basketball Association] are as good as him,'' observes Ron Rothstein, assistant coach of the Detroit Pistons. After a particularly grueling game against Parish, Milwaukee Bucks' center Jack Sikma summed him up as: ``Big and strong and smart ... just plain good.''
``I'm not a flamboyant player,'' he observes, perched on a rub-down bench next to the whirlpool bath which second-stringer Rick Carlisle shares with a floating rubber duck. ``I'm one of those quiet killers, so to speak.''
The quiet killer was much in evidence the other night when the Celtics went head-to-head in Boston Garden with the Seattle SuperSonics. The Sonics put their strength against Bird and McHale - and Parish responded by striking early and often. A fast, big man, whose ability to run the court makes his game even more potent, the Chief connected for 10 of the Celtics' 27 points in the first quarter. He grabbed rebounds at both ends of the court, played contact-paper defense on his man, and made his formidable presence felt in the sweaty tangle under the net.
During the third quarter his shooting quieted down, and some of the disturbing elements of his game - a tendency to somnabulate at times, take too many steps, and make the occasional woefully bad pass - came to the surface. But after a brief rest on the bench he came back to help cage what remained of the Sonics' free spirit.
Through it all, there was the unchanging visage that helped earn him the epithet ``the Chief'' (from a character in his favorite movie, ``One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest''). Jones says the name stuck because it fits this ``very tall, very proud'' center with ``a way of carrying himself'' that commands ``a whole bunch of respect.''
The respect has come more from his peers than the press, with whom his relations have often bordered on cold war - a holdover from the unhappy days when he played for the Golden State Warriors in Oakland and found himself catching much of the blame for a losing team.
``I resented it,'' he admits during lunch at a Boston seafood restaurant. ``It made my attitude bad, which made me more inhibited. I became more unsociable with the press.''
None of which has helped the public image of a man who often looks - well, mean. ``People think I'm a bully,'' he says. ``Because of my demeanor, they are leery of me.''
This demeanor, his friends maintain, is misleading.
``He's the total opposite of what people see all the time,'' says his friend and teammate Dennis Johnson. ``He's a very private person. You have to be able to read Robert.''
Those who can ``read Robert'' - and there appear to be less than a fistful of qualified Robert readers - tell the story of a man who grew up in a lower-middle-class community in Shreveport, La., at arm's length from most of the world, too tall for his age, clumsy and embarrassed, only comfortable in his own home and in the company of people he trusted.
Today, during road trips, you can find him most often in his room reading thrillers; or, during home stands, off on long drives, listening to jazz, which he says ``helps me to center myself.''
When he is with people he feels comfortable with, he constantly laughs, jokes, and makes conversation. He is an inveterate practical jokester. Nancy Parish takes a deep breath before going to the mirror after a nap, because she has so often awakened with her face painted with lipstick or pens curled in her hair.
He laughs frequently in an irrepressible way that bubbles up somewhere out of his deep, cavernous voice; answering questions first with a one-liner, then a bit more seriously.
What, for instance, the game of basketball means to him:
``It's a great aerobics program. It's a livelihood. Plus, it keeps me a little boy, which I never want to lose ... just enough so that I don't take life too seriously.'' Later he adds reflectively that it has given him more than he could ever ask out of life. Which winds up being a way to make his his wife and son, Jason - ``my favorite interruption'' - secure and happy.
``They've given me so much, and that's my way of showing my gratitude to them for being so patient with me. Because I know I am no day at the beach.''
Parish himself has had no day at the beach this season. Bill Walton, the stellar sixth man on the Celtics, has been injured almost all season and unable to relieve him. Still, he says he's arrived where he always knew he could be, heading into the playoffs for perhaps his last shot at another championship ring, after 10 years in the NBA.
``I'd like to see Robert walk away from this game satisfied,'' Jones says. ``He deserves the best, because he gives the best.''
The ``best'' that he gives is something Dennis Johnson defines by noting what would be missing if Parish were suddenly pulled out of the lineup:
``The total, unselfish Robert. You cannot replace a Robert and what he has with these guys. All you can say is that Robert wouldn't be there, and you'd know it wouldn't be right.''