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B1G Basketball Historical Perspective - Kevin McHale

Kevin McHale

Years ago watching the NBA and being a diehard Washington Bullets (now Wizards) fan, this meant several matchups a season against the Boston Celtics. The 1980s Celtics were a dynasty, winning 3 NBA Championships (1981, 1984, and 1986) and playing in the NBA Finals 5 times (1981, and 1984 through 1987). The Celtics were led by Hall of Fame forward Larry Bird; however a major contributor was a 6’11” forward from the University of Minnesota who wasn’t above a forearm shiver, a hip-bump into the third row, or other cheap shots-I-mean-competitive advantages. This forward was Kevin McHale.

The Hibbing, Minnesota native came to the University of Minnesota as a 6’10” power forward averaged 15.2 points per game and 8.5 rebounds per game during his 4 seasons in Minneapolis. For his first 2 seasons McHale teamed with fellow 6’10” forward Mychal Thompson, giving the Gophers a ‘twin towers’ lineup. (Thompson would go on to play in the NBA just like McHale). McHale’s final 2 seasons were less successful record-wise, but included an appearance in the 1980 NIT Finals against Virginia and freshman phenom Ralph Sampson (who McHale would face off against in the NBA).

After leaving Minnesota, McHale was impacted by one of the best trades in NBA history. The Boston Celtics, with a rookie forward named Larry Bird already on the team, held the #1 overall pick in the NBA draft. Celtics owner Red Auerbach sent that pick to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for veteran center Robert Parrish and the Warriors first round pick (#3 overall). With this pick Boston picked Kevin McHale; and formed the nucleus of one of the most dominant NBA teams of the 1980s.

After holding out before signing a contract with the Celtics, McHale was a key player off the bench backing up Larry Bird and Cedric Maxwell. Finishing with an NBA-best record the Celtics knocked off the Houston Rockets in the 1981 NBA championship. The next 2 seasons the Celtics were knocked off in the playoffs (by the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks, respectively) until reaching the NBA Finals in 1984 against the Los Angeles. It was during these finals, particularly game 4 in Los Angeles, that McHale cemented his reputation as an enforcer by issuing a hard foul on Lakers forward Kurt Rambis (in the 1984 NBA nobody was fined or suspended). The Celtics went on to win in 7 games in one of the best NBA Finals ever (that this recent high school graduate at that time watched).

Kevin McHale’s clothesline on Kurt Rambis in the 1984 NBA Finals
Peter Read Miller for Sports Illustrated

McHale was one of the most (in)famous NBA enforcers during his playing days: certainly on par w/ the Detroit Pistons (and former Notre Dame player) Bill Laimbeer. During an interview Larry Bird recounted a story of McHale trash talking a former University of Minnesota teammate into attempting a shot in the low post that ended up in the third row. And just like Celtics teammate Danny Ainge McHale would give the referees the classic ‘WHO, ME?????’ look after a forearm shiver sent his opponent into the third row under the basket.

The Celtics and Lakers played in the NBA Finals the next season w/ Los Angeles finally solving their Boston problem, wrapping up the championship at the Boston Garden. 1985-86 brought the Celtics their third and final NBA Title w/ the Bird/McHale/Parrish front court against the Houston Rockets (and a 1980 NIT rematch for McHale against the Rockets’ Ralph Sampson). The Celtics returned to the 1987 NBA Finals, but lost again to the Los Angeles Lakers. After this, age and other teams (particularly the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls) began catching up to the Celtics. Kevin McHale eventually retired after the 1992-93 season following a playoff loss to the Charlotte Hornets.

The Celtics retired Kevin McHale’s number 32 in 1994. Also, McHale was named one of the 50 Greatest NBA Players (in celebration of the NBA’s 50th anniversary) and was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999. Additionally, Kevin McHale served as an NBA Head Coach and General Manager following his playing days. While McHale’s coaching and front-office performance is subject to debate; there’s no debate that McHale was a dominant force in the 1980s NBA (the odd hip-check, thrown elbow, and/or clothesline notwithstanding).

Historical Perspectives

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