The Boston Celtics have been blessed with some of the best teams in the history of the NBA and many of the best players of all time. Bill Russell and Larry Bird dominated the eras that they played in, but just as important as those two transcendent players are some of the stars that played alongside them. We focus today on a star that fits that exact description: Kevin McHale.
Kevin McHale was one of the most fearsome low-post scorers the game has ever seen; combining his incredible physical gifts with a skill set to match. McHale could finish over the top of taller players with his high release, shoot from the high post or back you down then spin off and finish at the rim.
When he was a youngster, no one could have never expected McHale to become a feared low-post scorer. Honestly, it would have been a miracle if McHale could match up with anyone on the block; McHale was only 5-9 when he entered high school. With his father being 5-10 and his mother 5-6, Kevin McHale had seemingly grown to his full height.
Then came his growth spurt. McHale shut up14 inches to a gangly 6-11, yet remained remarkably balanced despite his long limbs. Especially in high school, it would have been easy to take advantage of his severe mismatches and average 40 a game on layups and back downs, but his high school coach worked with him incessantly on expanding his game.
With McHale’s high school team sporting six other players that were 6-6 or taller, McHale had the opportunity to play outside of the paint. The experience paid off many times over, as McHale developed a varied arsenal and could shoot from the outside as well as go to work in the paint.
His wide skill set and tall frame caught the attention of many college scouts, but his thin frame was a source of concern. Coaches were confident that they could build him up and that he could get strong in the paint. McHale received offers from Minnesota and Utah.
McHale did not love basketball in high school (hockey was his passion) and viewed the scholarship offer as a way of getting free education and putting off a job, which he thought was inevitable.
McHale was productive in college, averaging 15.2 points and 8.5 rebounds a game over a four-year career. Despite his somewhat mediocre numbers, McHale’s unique combination of size, skill and athleticism made him a very alluring prospect in the NBA. It is not everyday you come across a near 7-footer, but it is even rarer to see one with the sort of mobility and coordination that McHale possessed. Quick feet, sure hands and incredible balance made him move more fluidly than just about every center in the league. Add in his already polished skill set, and no wonder that execs were crazy about him.
No one wanted McHale more than Red Auerbach. Once Red saw McHale with his own eyes, there was no way that Auerbach was going to let this prospect slip through his fingers. While McHale was a lottery pick, he was projected to go anywhere between picks 10 and 15. The Celtics held the number one pick that year, and Auerbach decided to gamble a bit to see if he could build himself a dynasty in one summer (spoiler: it worked).
Auerbach traded the number one pick to the Golden State Warriors for the number three overall pick and a young center named Robert Parish (career averages of 12 and 9 to that point). With the third pick on the clock and McHale still on the board, Auerbach excitedly chose McHale and began to work on building the Celtic dynasty once again.
With Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Cedric Maxwell taking the majority of the minutes in the frontcourt, McHale was relegated to the bench. The Celtics are credited with architecting the sixth man role, and Celtics coach Bill Fitch made sure that McHale understood that his role as the sixth man was crucial to the success of the team.
Coming into games and taking it to fatigued starters while leading the second unit, McHale embraced and thrived in the sixth man role and proved to be a potent one-two combination with Bird leading the first group. While it took a bit for the Celtics to get going, in McHale’s third season he really came to life, averaging 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds en route to winning the NBA Sixth Man of the Year and landing his first All-Star appearance. And the Celtics cruised to a 62-20 record.
The Celtics coasted through the playoffs and met the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals with the Celtics led by Bird and the Lakers by Magic. The media had a field day covering the series and making it a showdown between the two stars. While Bird would win the NBA Finals MVP (averaging 27 and 14), McHale was a huge contributor that helped the Celtics pull away with the championship in seven games.
With his first championship ring under his belt, McHale came back from the summer better than ever. Still thriving in his sixth man role, McHale averaged a career-high 19.8 points and 9 rebounds a game in 33.6 minutes a game and became the first back to back winner of the Sixth Man award in the history of the NBA.
There was no denying how talented McHale was in the paint. He could score left or right. He could shoot over the top of defenders, around them, and had a variety of fakes that kept opponents on their toes. Take a look at this vintage performance against the Pistons where McHale dropped 56 points and 16 rebounds.
The 56-point performance was a franchise best, and McHale once again affirmed how talented he was. Funnily enough, the record was broken less than two weeks later by Larry Bird, who dropped 60 points against the Atlanta Hawks. (On a side note, there are two great anecdotes to Bird’s 60-point performance. One was the Hawks bench players reactions near the end of the game; they were enjoying Bird’s transcendent performance to the point where they were cheering Bird on as he made one tough shot after another. Secondly, the first person off the bench to congratulate Bird was McHale. Terrific teammate.)
The Celtics looked dominant throughout the regular season and cruised to the NBA Finals for the second year in a row, once again meeting the Los Angeles Lakers. This time, Magic and company prevailed and took the championship to a tune of 4 games to 2.
Perhaps it was time to shed the thin veil that McHale was not a starter. He was playing starter minutes and getting starter attention. The Celtics traded Cedric Maxwell and moved McHale to the starting power forward to join Bird and Parish in the front court (widely regarded as one of the best frontcourts of all time).
Unfortunately, McHale was rewarded with the first of his many foot injuries that would ultimately end his career. McHale missed a fair amount of games that season but returned to full health in the playoffs, and helped the Celtics win another NBA championship (this time against Hakeem and the Houston Rockets) with averages of 23 points and 10 boards average.
It was undeniable that McHale was in his prime, and the Celtics were reaping the benefits with four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. McHale was dominating, and after his second championship McHale returned with his best season ever: 26 points and 10 rebounds a game.
After another impressive season, the Celtics met the Los Angeles Lakers once again in the Celtics fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals. McHale freely admits that this series was a turning point in his career, as he (admirably) played through most of the series with a broken foot. The Celtics all say that they would have won the series if McHale was healthy, but alas, the Lakers overcame them, and Johnson earned his second championship ring.
It was hard to deny McHale baskets, even with his injured foot, but the toll of averaging 40 minutes in a six-game series on a broken foot was something that McHale would never recover from. While he was still a nightmare on the court, McHale became progressively less prevailing as his injuries crept up again and again. With Bird also dealing with chronic back problems, the Celtics era slowly came to an end. The Pistons knocked off the Celtics in the ‘88 Conference Finals and the core that Auerbach built drifted into history.
With McHale struggling more and more with his foot injury as years passed by, he finally called it quits in the ‘92-’93 season. After an admirable showing in the playoffs showing that he could still light it up, the Celtics lost to Charlotte in the first round and that was the end of McHale’s professional career as a basketball player.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999 and recognized as a part of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, Kevin McHale is now the coach of the Houston Rockets looking for their first championship since 1995.