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Steve Aschburner

Kevin McHale (left), now an analyst for NBA TV, cheishes his NBA Finals memories as a Celtic.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

McHale looks back on Finals memories, career with pride

Posted Jun 10 2010 7:07PM

BOSTON -- Leaving LAX the other morning, Kevin McHale dutifully handed his boarding pass and ID to a TSA official. The guard looked at the driver's license, looked at McHale -- heading from Los Angles to Boston as the 2010 Finals shifted east for the middle three games -- and asked the large, easily recognizable fellow a question.

"You still work with the Timberwolves?"

Uh, no, McHale explained. But it wasn't a question he expected, not in the middle of another chapter of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry that has been such a big part of NBA history and that largely defined McHale's Hall of Fame career.

The native of Hibbing, Minn. -- also known as the home of Bob Dylan -- works with NBA TV now as an analyst. He spent 15 years as the general manager of the Timberwolves, drafting Kevin Garnett and steering that team to eight consecutive postseason appearances (with a curious record of Draft picks and trades).

But mostly, McHale is the son of a miner on Minnesota's Iron Range whose working-class background meshed so well in Boston, the town where McHale ended up as an All-Star forward for 13 seasons. It took a deal masterminded by Celtics architect Red Auerbach -- generally considered the shrewdest trade in NBA history, sending the No. 1 pick (Joe Barry Carroll) to the Warriors in exchange for the No. 3 pick (McHale) and center Robert Parish -- to deliver the lanky forward/center with the clothes-hanger shoulders. What followed were three NBA titles, status as Charles Barkley's most-revered opponent ever and countless irreplaceable memories.

I talked with McHale the other day at the Boston waterfront hotel where he stayed, with The Finals back in the city that served as his first Massachusetts stop on his way to Springfield. You've told me in the past about how Los Angeles feels like the 'most anti-northern Minnesota' place in the country when you visit. What might life have been like for you had the Lakers maneuvered their way to the third pick in 1980 rather than the Celtics?

Kevin McHale: I'd probably feel a lot different about L.A. I would have embraced the L.A. lifestyle, I'm sure [laughs]. Look, I had never been to New England before I got drafted here. My family's vacations were in a car, no air conditioning, pulling a trailer, going to the Badlands of South Dakota in July. My dad had two weeks off from the mines and he'd take us out there when it was 190 [degrees]. So I really liked Hibbing compared to the Badlands. I came out here and one of the first things I did was, I looked at Old Ironsides and saw where the Tea Party was. I went to Lexington and Concord -- I'm kind of a history buff and I thought it was pretty cool. You did that on your first trip in after the Draft and the trade with Golden State?

KM: Yeah, my first time in. Within a couple of weeks. I had gone around and scoped things out, and those were things I'd read about in history books. I actually got here thinking, "Lexington and Concord. Twenty minutes? I'll go up there and see where the first shots were fired." It was really neat to see that stuff. But I'm sure if I had gone to L.A., I would have found neat things about L.A. too. What did you think of Boston as a sports town?

KM: When I got here in '80, the economy was similar to what it is today. What happened was, all the textile manufacturers ... were going out of business. That was starting to move overseas. So the area was really depressed. In '81, we had a good run. We made it to The Finals and won the championship, and people were just so excited. It was almost a rallying thing. Remember the 1980 Olympics and right after that? It was like that ... The people really wanted something to take their minds off what was going on.

We came to the airport [after clinching in Game 6 at Houston] -- this was before we had security [checkpoints allowing only passengers] -- and the hallway in the airport was packed with just solid fans. No airport traffic, just fans cramming the entire terminal. I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is crazy.' I didn't realize the intensity of sports fans in Boston. You didn't realize that until The Finals?

KM: At the University of Minnesota, there were 18,000 people at Williams Arena. The Garden had more history and it was cool, but so was Williams Arena. I went from one old, cool barn to another old, cool place. But it really struck home in the playoffs, especially when we played Philly. That was such a rivalry between Boston and Philadelphia. The year before, they [the Celtics] had lost to Philly in the playoffs. Then we beat them -- but we were down 3-1 and came back to beat them. The city was crazy. If you were here to cover an Orlando-Phoenix Finals, would it have a different feel for you?

KM: I'm sure it would. But I'd be excited to watch Orlando-Phoenix, too. It's The Finals. History is going to be made. Guys are going to rise to the occasion, guys are going to shrink. 'Who's going to do it? What's going to happen?' It's all those interplays that, for me, makes this different.

But it it's fun being back out here. This was home for a long time for me. Last night, I was out with a bunch of friends. It has a different vibe for me. There are still so many people who work in the Celtics office who worked there when I retired in 1993. It's amazing. I'm thinking a hotel lobby is the worst place to see you in a Boston context, since most people walking by are from someplace else. How 'bout when you walk through Boston Common -- if you can walk through Boston Common?

KM: I was there a couple weeks ago, and [my wife] Lynn and I went through Faneuil Hall. You stop, you talk to a lot of people. A lot of Celtics talk. There are times you run into a lot of people, there are times it's not too bad. You can say, 'Look, I'm with my wife, I'm out here shopping,' and they're very good. But if you sit down, you'll have a lot of people who'll come up to you. What I've found is, a lot of people who look to be my age will come up to me and say, 'I used to watch you when I was a kid.' I'll look at 'em, 'C'mon now. One of us wasn't a kid then.'

You get great stories. The ones who really touch me are the ones where they'll say, 'My dad, we'd come from Worcester (or wherever) to games once in a while. My dad would get tickets, and some of my favorite memories are of coming to your games with him.' Those mean a lot to me because I lost my father, my role model.

Now I'll think that's cool. When you're playing, you don't think of any of that stuff. If I were playing today, my focus would be completely on the game tonight. You're not thinking about the last game. You're really in a zone. You're not looking at history -- you're looking to make history. When Kobe said, 'I don't care about that [rivalry] stuff,' he was just being honest. So these guys won't even think about 2008, what happened in that Finals?

KM: Not at all. The only thing you're thinking about the last game is what you need to improve on or what type of scheme they're going to throw at you. But you're really just preparing for the next game. What do you remember more: the big stuff -- the championship moments that we all got to see -- or little things that nobody on the outside was part of?

KM: By far, it's the small stuff. I'll see video of celebration stuff and I won't even remember it. You'll go, 'Wow, did we do that?' But I remember Walter Randall, our old equipment guy -- his son Frankie is still there -- we came in and Walter, who was about 80 at the time and who had gone through the Russell era, I remember him having a big smile on his face and giving us crap, 'Aw, I knew you guys could do something worthwhile.' Typical Red fashion, letting everybody kind of have it.

But it's funny because all those bigger moments they show on TV all the time? If they didn't show them, I wouldn't remember them. Would you and your career be thought of much differently had you played in New York, Milwaukee or Indiana?

KM: I've said it before: If I'd have gone somewhere else, I probably would have scored a lot more points and not be thought of nearly as the player I was. That just goes to show you what scoring points means in this league. If I'd gone someplace else, they'd have given me the ball more often, I would have been the No. 1 option and I probably would have been able to get away with playing halfway decent defense. Here, you were demanded to play defense. You had to get on the court by playing defense. You filled a role on the team. You were part of something way bigger than you, something that went back to Red Auerbach, the original owner, [Bob] Cousy, Russell, the Jones boys.

They really hold that in high esteem. When you met those guys, you knew it. And Red always reminded you of that, too. Shaking your hand and telling you, 'You're a part of something special. How are you going to treat it?' It sounds a little like the change in how Kevin Garnett is viewed since you traded him from Minnesota to Boston.

KM: It's hard to do things by yourself. But yet I find it out that so many people have a really hard time playing with other good players. In [Game 2], when Ray [Allen] really got going, it was like Paul [Pierce] and Kevin were completely out of the offense. I played with guys where it was very common for Larry [Bird], Robert and I all to score 25-plus. When Robert retired and they started showing some of the numbers of things we had done, I looked at them and was like, 'We did that?' Literally, the three of us would have, like, 90 points and 40 rebounds. I like when my whole team gets that now, much less three guys.

There's a way to blend. For KG, he was naturally a pass-first kind of guy. He was more comfortable in this setting, instead of being the man and trying to take on Kobe or Michael Jordan. John Wooden's passing brought to mind Auerbach, who had success in the NBA that comes closest to Wooden's success in college. Any thoughts on the two of them?

KM: Red was bigger than life. In a lot of ways, Red was the Celtics. Red was the historical link from Cousy and Russell to [Dave] Cowens and JoJo [White] and [Paul] Silas and Don Chaney, and that group of '74 and '76 championships. On through the '80s. He was the link there. No matter what happened at UCLA, it was always referenced back to the Wooden era. Well, Red was still working here. It would have been like John Wooden still coaching there or being athletic director or really involved after he retired. Red stayed here and he was huge. Wooden had a little more lovable, grandfatherly image.

KM: Red was really edgy but the same thing he had with Wooden was, he cared about you and you knew he cared about you. How he treated you and what he did with you. He might be gruff with you at times, he might be really direct with you at times, but you knew he really cared. John did not have Red's gruffness and Red's style, but you talk to those guys and the reason he's endearing to them is, they knew he cared about them. So that's the same.

Red was a great, great manager because Red understood people. He was always laughing, 'I get asked, how do you handle athletes? Hell, you handle animals. You manage people.' Red always had those little things he said. You understood where you stood in the scheme of things. When you wouldn't trade Tom Gugliotta from Minnesota to L.A. back in 1999, it supposedly was because you didn't want to help the Lakers. Phil Jackson made a crack recently about you giving Garnett to the Celtics. Do you bleed green?

KM: No. I said what I thought about the coaching. That's not it at all. If you say to me, 'Who would you like to see win this?' I'd say the Celtics because Danny [Ainge] is one of my best friends and he's the general manager of the team. I don't know Mitch Kupchak other than to say hi. Danny and I do a bunch of stuff together. I'm happy for Danny. There's so many people I know, it would be totally disingenuous for me to say, 'Well, I don't care.'

But when you ask me why [I think] they going to win ... it's odd for me because the best player in the series is Kobe Bryant. The best big man is Pau Gasol. But I still think the Celtics are going to win the series because I don't like the Lakers bench, I like a lot of what the Celtics can do. That's just watching the game and being observant. That's not 'cuz I'm a homer. You've talked about how The Finals almost always is more grinding than people expect, especially with so much talent on the floor.

KM: Your top players have got to perform. If they don't and you win, you're very fortunate. But right now, if [Lakers reserve] Shannon Brown comes out and gives you a good game, I'm really surprised. For a lot of guys, the moment gets really big. So a lot of guys who would get you seven or eight points in the regular season are all getting you two or four. You subtract three of those guys, all of a sudden it's not 110 points, you're scoring 98. Now Kobe's off his average because the defense is grinding, they're loading to him. So you're down a lot.

The next tier guys, we'd call it 'shrinkage.' I've seen it many times. People say, 'Well, if everybody plays great...' When have you seen the NBA Finals where everybody has played great? It doesn't happen. Your top players have got to deliver and then some of those role players have got to step up.

The reason [Andrew] Bynum is able to get off is, they're loading so much to Kobe. It's like [Rajon] Rondo said in his press conference, we need Kobe to see bodies. The only way you see bodies is you have to come off other people. So for all the little moments you remember, what sticks with you as your favorite Celtics memory?

KM: Game 7 from '84, watching the clock tick off. And knowing that we were down 2-1 in that series and midway through the fourth game when they were just bum-rushing us. That's when the series sort of got muddied up, a bunch of hard fouls. The clothesline foul on Kurt Rambis.

KM: He ran right into my forearm. He bruised my forearm. That should have been a flagrant on him. To win that series was really cool. We had kind of gone from looking into the abyss, like 'Oh man!' If you lose that fourth game, now you're down 3-1. We tied it up, we won Five, they won Six, we win Seven. that was really big. Was that Rambis play your idea or had you been coached to get more physical?

KM: That was [Boston reserve] M.L. Carr, screaming in my ear during the timeout. 'They're running too much! Somebody's got to put them on their backs! We've got to start making hard fouls!' And screaming and screaming and screaming. So after the play, I looked at him and said, 'M.L., that's your fault.' He started laughing. I've always said it was an ML-induced foul. I couldn't take anymore of him, 'We've got to knock someone down! We've got to know someone down!' So we did. Bottom line time: Could you have played "Showtime" with the Lakers, had things gone that way?

KM: Yeah, I don't think there's any doubt. Look, I was so blessed to play with Larry Bird. But if youl're able to go play with Magic Johnson, you're going to be able to play that style. That's get-up-and-down running -- in Boston, we fast-broke in our own way just as much as they did. It's just that when we played them, we didn't want to get into an up-and-down game. We wanted to run when we had an advantage, but slow it down and grind it out a little. We knew that was our best chance of winning.

So if I was choosing and had a chance to pick, I'd pick Larry first to play with because of our friendship and all we went through. Magic second. And probably Michael [Jordan only] third because I liked the ball, too. I'm not Horace Grant.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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