With his incredibly long arms and legs, Kevin McHale presented an unforgettable image on the hardwood. He used his physical gifts to excellent advantage during his 13-year career with the Boston Celtics, becoming one of the best inside players the game has ever seen and forming with Larry Bird and Robert Parish, one of the greatest front lines in NBA history.
“He became the most difficult low-post player to defend — once he made the catch — in the history of the league,” contended former NBA coach Hubie Brown in The Boston Globe. “He was totally unstoppable because of his quickness, diversification of moves and the long arms that gave him an angle to release the ball over a taller man or more explosive jumper.”
McHale had all of these qualities, coupled with an uncanny ability to get to the free-throw line or nail the high-percentage shot in the clutch. He retired in 1993 as the fourth-leading scorer and sixth-best rebounder in Celtics history. A two-time winner of the NBA Sixth Man Award and a six-time member of either the NBA All-Defensive First or Second Team, McHale ranks 21st in the NBA in career field goal percentage (.554). Teaming with Bird and Parish, “The Big Three” led the Celtics to three NBA championships in the 1980s.
McHale, a nice guy from a small town in Minnesota’s Iron Range whose boyish charm won him two guest appearances on the television show “Cheers”, would simply explain that he made a name for himself by doing something he truly loved. “Playing professional basketball was great,” he recalled in the Boston Herald. “It was the greatest job in the world. But it didn’t make me a different person.”
When McHale arrived at Hibbing (Minnesota) High School in the early 1970s, his true love was hockey. But then came the growth spurt that took his entire family by surprise. Despite the fact that his father stood only 5-foot-10 and his mother 5-6, McHale sprouted from 5-9 to his full 6-foot-11 during his high school years. His coach, Gary Addington, helped McHale gain control over his gangly build by playing him one-on-one. When Hibbing reached the state finals in McHale’s senior year, the team boasted six other players who were 6-6 or taller, which freed McHale to play the high post.
“I could have gotten into a rut, scoring 30 points a game with my back to the basket,” he told Sports Illustrated, “but Gary forced me to learn the whole game.” The effort brought him scholarship offers from Utah and Minnesota. McHale counted himself lucky but saw the offers merely as a way to put off finding a job. He had always dreamed of playing for Minnesota, and the opportunity allowed him to stay close to home.
Minnesota signed him to one of the three scholarships they were allowed during an NCAA probation period that had resulted from recruiting violations. In his first two seasons, McHale started at forward alongside center Mychal Thompson, who eventually joined the Portland Trail Blazers and later the Los Angeles Lakers. McHale averaged 15.2 points and 8.5 rebounds over his four-year career at Minnesota. As a senior in 1979-80 he averaged 17.4 points and shot .567 from the floor, leading the Gophers to the NIT Championship Game.
McHale’s unusual combination of size and agility made him a hot prospect. The New York Knicks had scouted him several times and hoped to take him with the 12th pick in the 1980 NBA Draft. But Boston Celtics President Red Auerbach had other ideas. After a visit to Minnesota during McHale’s senior year, Auerbach was determined to land McHale in the Draft.
The Celtics owned the first overall pick, but Auerbach simply used that as leverage. Before the 1980 Draft, he engineered a blockbuster trade that shaped a modern-day dynasty. Boston traded its No. 1 pick and a later 1980 first-round pick to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for the No. 3 overall pick and a young center named Robert Parish. Then, after Golden State selected Joe Barry Carroll at No. 1 and Utah took Darrell Griffith at No. 2, Auerbach got his man. In one fell swoop, Auerbach had added Parish and McHale to a frontcourt that already included second-year forward Larry Bird. “The Big Three” went on to play 12 seasons together, winning three championships along the way.
The Celtics originally used McHale as a sixth man, a role pioneered by Celtics player Frank Ramsey in the 1950s. The arrangement gave the team a potent scorer off the bench who could run circles around a tiring opponent and McHale was perfect for the role.
“Making him the sixth man and selling him on it was important,” said Bill Fitch, Boston’s coach during McHale’s first three seasons. “You’ve got to have those bench points and have them every night. Kevin got them.” McHale quickly learned to appreciate the role, and he thrived in it.
McHale was the best sixth man of his generation at a time when key reserves were becoming fashionable. His scoring improved in each of his first six seasons, beginning with an average of 10.0 points per game as a rookie in 1980-81. He also chalked up 4.4 rebounds and 1.84 blocks per game that year and was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team. Although still playing limited minutes, McHale proved to be a key contributor to a Celtics team that won the 1981 NBA championship.
McHale improved his output in each of the next two seasons, but the Celtics failed to return to the NBA Finals. After the team replaced Fitch with K.C. Jones, McHale and the Celtics enjoyed a magical campaign in 1983-84. Playing 31.4 minutes per game off the bench, McHale averaged 18.4 ppg and 7.4 rpg, shot .556 from the floor and won the NBA Sixth Man Award. He also made the first of his seven All-Star appearances. Boston won the Atlantic Division with a 62-20 record, then took the NBA championship after a grueling seven-game battle with the Los Angeles Lakers in The Finals.
McHale won the Sixth Man Award again in 1984-85, becoming the first repeat winner in the award’s history. For the season, he shot .570 from the floor and averaged 19.8 ppg and 9.0 rpg. In a game against the Detroit Pistons he poured in a career-high 56 points, setting a team record that Bird broke with a 60-point performance less than two weeks later. The Celtics blasted through the regular season at 63-19, then plowed through the playoffs to a rematch with the Lakers in the NBA Finals. This time the Lakers prevailed, winning in six games. McHale was outstanding in the postseason, averaging 22.1 ppg and 9.9 rpg.
Prior to the 1985-86 season the Celtics traded Cedric Maxwell to the Los Angeles Clippers, and McHale became the team’s starting power forward. Although he had another outstanding year, averaging 21.3 ppg, McHale had his first experience with the ankle and foot injuries that would haunt him later in his career. After missing only three games in his first five seasons, McHale sat out 14 contests in 1985-86 with a sore left Achilles tendon.
He returned to form for the playoffs, however, averaging 24.9 ppg in the postseason as Boston rolled to another NBA championship. In the NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets, McHale and Parish proved an equal match for Houston’s “Twin Towers” of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, helping Boston to victory in six games. McHale was rewarded at season’s end with the first of three consecutive selections to the NBA All-Defensive First Team.
The 1986-87 season was McHale’s best, as he averaged 26.1 ppg and set career highs in rebounding (9.9 rpg) and assists (2.6 apg). He captured the first of two consecutive field-goal percentage titles and became the first player ever to shoot better than .600 from the floor (.604) and .800 from the free throw line (.836) in the same season. At season’s end, he was named to the All-NBA First Team for the only time in his career.
Meanwhile, the Celtics continued to dominate the Atlantic Division, finishing 14 games ahead of the second-place Philadelphia 76ers with a 59-23 record. After a narrow scrape with the upstart Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals, Boston advanced to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season. McHale would be the first to admit that the 1987 Finals probably shortened his career. He played the six-game series against the Lakers on what was essentially a broken foot. The pain was so bad that he used a patio chair from the hotel pool as a walker, yet he played 40 minutes each night. The Celtics lost the series, and McHale underwent surgery on his right foot during the offseason.
By this time McHale was at the peak of his skills. He had developed a low-post game that featured many moves not previously seen in the NBA or anywhere else. McHale had a grab bag of drop steps, head fakes, pump fakes, baby jump hooks, shovel shots and fadeaways that confounded even the best defenders. Anyone who drew McHale as an assignment was in trouble. He had no preferred spot. He could set up on either the right or left box. He could take the turnaround from either the baseline or the middle and had extraordinary range.
McHale was the basketball equivalent of a good quarterback who has no fixed release point and varies the snap count. He could catch and shoot immediately or throw a head fake as the situation demanded. Amazingly, given his gawky legs and disproportionately long arms, he had extraordinary balance. He had become a force on the inside at either forward or center.
McHale’s foot hadn’t completely healed at the start of the 1987-88 season, so he spent the first 14 games on the injured list. When he returned he averaged 22.6 ppg and 8.4 rpg and led the NBA in field-goal percentage (.604) for a second consecutive season. An All-Star for the fourth time, McHale scored his 10,000th career point that season.
McHale’s scoring average dropped gradually over the next five seasons, although he was again an All-Star in 1989, 1990 and 1991. After a resurgent 1989-90 season in which he played all 82 games and averaged 20.9 ppg, McHale’s foot troubles began to get the best of him. He missed 14 games in 1990-91 and 26 in 1991-92 because of numerous lower leg and ankle problems.
In McHale’s last season his foot problems were overwhelming and hindered virtually every aspect of his game. He averaged 10.7 ppg in 1992-93, his lowest mark since his rookie year. But for a fleeting moment in the playoffs he showed that he could still score. McHale averaged 19.0 ppg in a first-round series against Charlotte that the Celtics lost in four games. He scored 30 points in Game 2 at Boston Garden and then 19 in Game 4. After Charlotte won that game and the series, McHale announced his retirement.
Over 13 NBA seasons, all with the Celtics, McHale had amassed 17,355 points, 7,122 rebounds, 1,690 blocked shots and a .554 lifetime field-goal percentage. Through the 2016-17 seasonn he ranked fifth on the Celtics’ all-time scoring list, behind only John Havlicek, Paul Pierce, Bird and Parish.
On January 30, 1994, during an 18-minute halftime ceremony at Boston Garden, Kevin McHale’s uniform No. 32 was retired. Waving one of those big arms toward the crowd, he could at last take the spotlight. Bird, in whose shadow McHale had played for 12 of his 13 seasons, sat in the audience. McHale’s No. 32 was raised next to Bird’s No. 33 in the Boston Garden rafters.
“We played the game, I thought, the way it should have been played,” McHale told the Boston Globe. “Those were absolutely the best days of my life.” And, one might add, they were some of the best in the rich history of the Celtics.
Following his playing career, McHale held several positions with the Minnesota Timberwolves including general manager, coach and television analyst from 1993-2009. As coach of the Wolves, he went 39-55 before becoming an NBA analyst for Turner Sports.
At the start of the 2011-12 season, McHale left the broadcast booth to become coach of the Rockets. He amassed 193-130 record that included a Southwest Division title and trip to the Western Conference finals in 2015. McHale was fired as coach of the Rockets 11 games into the 2015-16 season and, by the start of the 2016-17 season, was again an NBA analyst for Turner Sports.