ROBERT PARISH, well over 6 feet tall in sixth grade, never really wanted to play basketball. It took a paddling from a junior high school coach to get him to keep his repeated promises to try out for the team.
Coach Coleman Kidd watched Parish walk past his junior high school every morning on his way to Hollywood Elementary School in Shreveport, La. One day the coach stopped Parish, asked his age (yes, he was the right age for sixth grade), and invited him to try out for basketball the following year. Parish said he would.
But the next year, Parish didn't show up for practice. Kidd saw him twice more and asked him each time to please come to practice. Parish agreed, but didn't show.
``About the third time I asked him, and he didn't show up, I called him into the gym and gave him a good paddling with an oak paddle I had made at the shop,'' Kidd says. It was an acceptable punishment at the time. Parish was at practice the next day.
``He had no natural talents or abilities,'' Kidd recalled in a telephone interview. ``He couldn't catch, shoot, or do anything with the ball. It was foreign to him. We worked hard with him that year. And he worked hard over the summer between 7th and 8th grades at a city recreational gym. By the end of 8th grade, he was notorious.''
Parish, today more than seven feet tall and in his 18th season in the National Basketball Association, says in a Monitor interview that ``If it hadn't been for [Kidd], I wouldn't be here today. I never had any interest in basketball, never even played until I was in 7th grade.''
As the oldest player in the NBA today, he says ``I'm having more fun now than ever. I have no pressure on me. I don't worry about stats or contracts. I just go out and play - worry free.'' `Quiet leadership' noted
``[Parish] does a fantastic job - on and off the court - of really quiet leadership,'' says Celtics teammate Ed Pinckney. ``Everything [Parish] does, from stretching, to eating, to working out in the off-season - no one else does it as well as he. He's still running the floor as well as he's done in the past years; his shot is there. He surprises a lot of people.''
When the Orlando Magic's star center, Shaquille O'Neal, was matched up for the first time against Parish early this year, he called him ``the best. He's in great shape, and he's going to be a Hall-of-Famer.... When I take my son to the Hall of Fame and see Robert Parish, I can say, `Son, I played against him.' '' When meeting in the tap-off circle prior to their first match this season, O'Neal gave Parish a hug.
Parish has played all but four of his professional years for the Boston Celtics. Parish, along with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, made up the famous front court that restored the Celtics' championship tradition in the 1980s. They won 10 divisional titles, played in the NBA finals four years in a row, and won three championships. The biggest star of the trio was Larry Bird; but many, including Bird, say Parish is underrated. Despite his having been in the All-Star game nine times in 11 years, Parish still chooses to remain in the background.
``I don't think you will find anybody to dispute the suggestion that this was the greatest front court in the history of basketball,'' says Peter May, a Boston-based reporter who covered the Boston Celtics for 11 years and wrote a book about the three. (See accompanying book review, right.)
``[Parish] has always been the least appreciated or publicized of the three,'' May says. ``He is by far the most introverted of the three.... He is also black, and the other two are white. I think that makes a huge difference in Boston. I think Robert likely will go down as one of the four of five greatest centers that have ever played the game.''
Parish was known for his unselfish play even in high school. ``Getting to coach a seven-footer in high school who is ranked the nation's No. 1 player is one thing,'' says Ken Ivey, his high school coach. ``The best part of the whole thing was him being the kind of player he was. It's so easy for a kid who has that kind of ability to develop an arrogant attitude, but Robert had a laid-back attitude. He could easily score 50 points in a game, but he was just as happy handing the ball off to other players. People loved to play with him. He never hogged the ball.'' Last of the `big three'
And playing for the Celtics, ``[Parish] made the sacrifices of the three of them on the floor,'' May says. ``When [the Celtics] got him, he was a potent scorer, but as McHale developed, [Parish] got fewer and fewer shots. He never complained. It's a very remarkable thing for athletes in this day and age to accept less. Knowing that the reward will be greater is one thing, but going out and doing it is another.''
Since Bird and McHale retired, Parish has become more outspoken and active. As captain of this year's team, he represents the Celtics in community projects and appearances.
At a recent practice, this reporter observed him cheering on his teammates, chiding them, and working drills with the rookies.
``[Parish] fosters that great leadership and camaraderie in everybody,'' says Jeff Twiss, director of public relations for the Celtics. ``If [teammate] Xavier McDaniel would be out throwing elbows, talking trash, Robert would know when to go in and pick on him - to stop him. Yet Robert would be the first one there to congratulate him for a good move, too.''
After practice, Parish reflected on his years in the NBA.
``Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was probably the best offensive player I have ever played against,'' Parish says. ``He redefined the center position because he was so big, yet graceful and agile. Before him, centers were very mechanical.''
On his role as captain: ``It's great fun keeping everybody motivated and ready to go. They tease me about being an old man, and I tease them about missing shots. I'm teaching [rookie center] Acie [Earl] some things about posting up. He doesn't have the body strength to wrestle stronger guys. He has to learn to use his body as leverage. And mental toughness, that's what we're working on.''
Who are the best centers in the league today? ``Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Brad Daughtery. Then, of course, you've got the new kids on the block - Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning. Alonzo is better than Shaquille right now. He has more weapons.'' Boston fans' chant
As players are introduced prior to each game, Parish regularly receives the loudest and most-sustained applause. The fans chant, ``Chief, Chief, Chief!'' Parish received that nickname from former teammate Cedric Maxwell, who, because of Parish's serious game demeanor, named him after the silent, stoic native American in the movie ``One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.''
Looking to the future, Parish says he'll keep playing as long as he's healthy and contributing. Would he like to coach or manage? ``I'm open to suggestions,'' he says.