His stoic expression unsettled opponents but brought comfort to teammates. The stone-faced Robert Parish had that kind of power. All business on the basketball court, he cemented a Hall-of-Fame NBA career by becoming one of the league’s most dominant centers, with no-nonsense qualities that matched his emotionless persona.
He scored efficiently, with dependable post-moves and a towering, unblockable jump shot. He thwarted opponents with both physicality and intelligence. And he fulfilled his job duties on championship teams without any hint of complaint regarding number of shots, minutes played, or spotlight’s glare.
Parish compiled incredible statistics even if he played the game without much regard for individual glory. That worked out just fine during his 14 seasons with the Celtics where he won three of his four NBA titles. Parish fit in just nicely with a sharpshooter named Larry Bird and a versatile forward named Kevin McHale. Throw Parish into the mix, and they represented the NBA’s first “Big Three” long before the player-movement era spurred such alliances. Even compared to the NBA’s more modern super teams, Parish helped Bird and McHale form the best frontcourt in NBA history.
Because of how Parish used his stoicism to become a hard-nosed and prolific player, former Celtics teammate Cedric Maxwell affectionately addressed Parish as “The Chief” after the fictitious “Chief Bromden” in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It did not appear initially that Parish would establish such a legacy, however, let alone earn a familiar nickname.
After being selected by the Golden State Warriors with the No. 8 pick in the 1976 NBA Draft, Parish spent his first four NBA seasons with Warriors, often leaving them wanting more. He averaged a respectable 13.8 points (on 49.5% shooting) and 9.5 rebounds. Those numbers were not enough, however, to ensure any postseason success, let alone the same success the Warriors once enjoyed with Rick Barry, Jamaal Wilkes and Nate Thurmond.
Those shortcomings likely reflected more on the Warriors’ futility than any part of Parish’s game, but his stoic expression cast off impressions that he remained more indifferent than passionate about becoming one of the NBA’s elite players.
The Celtics didn’t swallow that scouting report. Boston executive Red Auerbach dealt the team’s No. 1 and No. 3 draft picks to Golden State for Parish, bringing The Chief to an elite franchise. Once the deal was complete, Parish quipped “I went from the outhouse to the penthouse.”
Shortly after Parish’s arrival in Boston, Celtics big man Dave Cowens retired abruptly. Bird then warned Parish that he better show up to training camp in shape. That marked the last time Bird ever had any concerns about what Parish would bring to the court.
During the 1980-81 season, Parish became the Celtics’ second-leading scorer (18.9 points) and rebounder (9.5). Parish helped the Celtics overcome a 3-1 series deficit against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference finals. He became both a speed bump and road spike against Houston Rockets big man Moses Malone in the 1981 NBA Finals, helping the Celtics capture their 14th NBA title in his very first season in Boston. Parish then spent the next decade in Boston showing he could replicate a trusted formula in every game he played.
Bird was named All-Star Game MVP in 1982, but he said he believed Parish deserved the award after the big man collected 21 points and seven rebounds while limiting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to just two points on 1-of-10 shooting. In the 1984 NBA Finals, the great Abdul-Jabbar had more success, averaging 26.6 points and 8.1 rebounds while Parish averaged 15.4 and 11.4. But Parish’s stellar defense in clutch moments gave the Celtics the needed toughness to prevail in a seven-game series. He had 16 rebounds in the decisive Game 7 victory.
That did not stop the Celtics from pursuing front-court reinforcements. After losing to the Lakers in the 1985 NBA Finals, the Celtics traded for All-Star center Bill Walton. But Walton told Parish directly that neither he nor the Celtics were looking for Walton to become Parish’s replacement. They wanted Walton as Parish’s backup.
The words came true.
While Parish averaged 12.7 points and 6.8 rebounds in 31.8 minutes in the Celtics’ 1986 NBA Finals win over the Houston Rockets, Walton averaged 8.0 points and 6.7 rebounds in 19.5 minutes. Afterward, Walton said “this team would not be an NBA championship team without Robert Parish.”
A year later as defending champs in 1987, the Celtics suffered a rash of injuries during the regular season.
As we see from this section of the home video, “Home of the Brave”, it was Robert Parish who was Boston’s steadying force — stepping up to carry the team during that stretch.
With the Celtics no longer the most dominant team in the East after that season, Parish still landed some championship-worthy blows. He scored 21 first-quarter points in a regular-season game against the Lakers in 1991 off a series of post-up shots, jumpers and put-backs.
And just for kicks, let’s take a look at Parish’s 40-point game against the San Antonio Spurs in 1981, just to give you a better idea as to how dominant he could be when the Celtics needed that kind of offense from the steady big man.
It’s impressive that Parish cemented a 21-year NBA career by playing in 1,611 regular-season games, an NBA record that has stood untouched since his retirement nearly 24 years ago. It’s even more impressive when you consider that he completely fulfilled his very specific job description in nearly every one of those games.
No wonder Parish was named to both the NBA’s 75th Anniversary team list as well as the league’s 50th Anniversary team. And no surprise when the Celtics retired his No. 00 jersey. Parish won four NBA championships. He appeared in nine NBA All-Star games. And through 14 seasons in Boston (1980-1994), Parish became the Celtics’ all-time leader in blocked shots (1,703), offensive rebounds (3,450), and defensive rebounds (7,601).
Parish later joined the Charlotte Hornets (1994-96) and Chicago Bulls (1996-97) as a valued mentor and backup center, a role that allowed him to collect his fourth NBA title, this time with the Bulls. An appropriate exclamation point to a remarkable, dominant career, one that will be remembered for substance over flash, durability over weakness.
Hail to the Chief!
More on Robert Parish
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