Robert Parish played in more games than any other player in NBA history. A 7-foot-1 center who combined strength, agility and remarkable endurance, Parish won three NBA championships with the Boston Celtics in the 1980s and teamed with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale to form one of the greatest front lines in NBA history. He capped his career by winning yet another championship ring as a member of the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls.
Parish, whose signature shot was a high trajectory jumper that seemed to kiss the banners at Boston Garden before finding its way through the basket, announced his retirement at age 43 following the 1996-97 season, his 21st in the NBA, with 1,611 games played. Upon his retirement, Parish ranked 13th in the NBA in scoring with 23,334 points, sixth in rebounds with 14,715, sixth in blocked shots with 2,361 and eighth in field goals made with 9,614.
“He’s probably the best medium-range shooting big man in the history of the game,” said Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who was Parish’s backup in the Celtics’ 1986 championship season.
Parish, who was nicknamed “Chief” by Celtics teammate Cedric Maxwell after a character from the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” played college ball at Centenary in his hometown of Shreveport, La. He was chosen in the first round of the 1976 NBA Draft by the Golden State Warriors after posting four-year college averages of 21.6 points and 16.9 rebounds.
The Warriors traded Parish to Boston in 1980, and he enjoyed a remarkable 14-year run with the Celtics. In his tenure with the club, the Celtics went to the playoffs 13 times, won nine Atlantic Division titles, reached The Finals five times and came away with three championships.
Parish played in the All-Star Game nine times, finished among the top 10 in the league in field goal percentage for six consecutive seasons, topped 10 rebounds per game in eight seasons and averaged better than 15 points in nine campaigns. In 1981-82 he recorded a career-high average of 19.9 points and he averaged a career-best 12.5 rebounds in 1988-89.
He signed as a free agent with the Charlotte Hornets in 1994, lending veteran experience to a young team on the rise. He played two seasons with the Hornets, passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the league’s all-time leader in games played in 1996. Before the 1996-97 season he signed with Chicago as a free agent and got another championship ring when the Bulls won 69 games and the NBA crown.
His glory days, however, were with the Celtics, when he formed the “Big Three” with Bird and McHale.
“I will always be a Celtic at heart,” Parish said. “That’s where my career took off. It’s hard for me to even believe how good we were. Some nights I’d be out there just kicking some guy’s butt, really feeling it, and then I’d look over and see what Kevin was doing, and what Larry was doing, and I’d say, ‘Man, this is something. This is special.’”
When Parish began his NBA career, players such as Pete Maravich, Earl Monroe, Bob Lanier, Elvin Hayes, Rick Barry, Julius Erving and John Havlicek graced the NBA leaderboard — and Shaquille O’Neal was only 4 years old.
Selected eighth overall by the Warriors, he found himself a teammate of Barry, Phil Smith and Jamaal Wilkes on a team that had won the NBA title in 1975 but was past its prime. Parish played in 77 games as a rookie, averaging 9.1 points and 7.1 rebounds and improved to 12.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in his second season.
Parish continued his steady improvement with the Warriors, but the team found itself at the bottom of the highly competitive Pacific Division. He averaged 17.2 points and 12.1 rebounds in 1978-79, ranking seventh in the NBA in rebounding. Parish had a monster night late in the season when he posted 30 points against the New York Knicks and snatched a career-high 32 rebounds. For a second straight year, however, the Warriors failed to make the playoffs, finishing at 38-44 and in last place in the Pacific.
Parish finished seventh in the NBA in rebounding for the second straight year in 1979-80, grabbing 10.9 rpg in 72 games, averaging 17.0 points and shooting 50.7% from the floor. The last-place Warriors (24-58) missed the playoffs for a third straight year, but the postseason took on a new meaning for Parish after June 9, 1980. On that date he was traded by Golden State to Boston, and it would be 14 years before Parish would sit out another NBA playoffs.
Red Auerbach and the Celtics could hardly have anticipated the effects of three new additions in a span of two seasons. Bird had joined the team in 1979-80 after being drafted as a junior-eligible in 1978. The Celtics then acquired Parish from Golden State for two first-round draft picks (Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown). Boston also received Golden State’s 1980 first-round draft pick, which the Celtics used to select McHale. The rest is history.
Parish became the Celtics’ starting center when Dave Cowens suddenly retired and he responded by averaging 18.9 points and 9.5 rebounds in 82 games, beginning a string of seven consecutive appearances in the All-Star Game. Matching muscle with the Houston Rockets’ Moses Malone in the 1981 Finals, Parish helped Boston to the championship in his first year with the club.
He averaged 15.0 points and 8.6 rebounds in 17 games during the 1981 playoffs. For the next decade, Bird, Parish and McHale would reign supreme among frontcourts in the NBA, winning three championships and cultivating a fierce rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers and their stars, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Parish enjoyed one of his best seasons in 1981-82, earning a spot on the All-NBA Second Team and finishing second to teammate Bird in voting for the league’s MVP award. Bird and Parish helped fuel an 18-game winning streak late in the season. In addition, Parish scored 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting in the 1982 All-Star Game. He finished 20th in the league in scoring (19.9 ppg) and eighth in rebounding (10.8 rpg) and registered a team-high 192 blocks, fifth best in the NBA. Parish then averaged 21.3 points and 11.3 rebounds in the playoffs, but the Celtics were ousted by the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Chief had another All-Star season in 1982-83, averaging 19.3 points and 10.6 rebounds. From a team standpoint, however, it was a disappointing year. Despite a 56-26 record, Boston finished second in the Atlantic to Philadelphia, the eventual NBA champion. The Celtics played only seven playoff games, losing to the Milwaukee Bucks in four games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The Celtics’ disappointment of the previous season was erased as Parish, Bird, McHale and Co. won another NBA championship. Parish averaged 19.0 points and 10.7 rebounds, good for seventh in the league and another All-Star selection. The Celtics defeated Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers in a seven-game Finals that included two victories in overtime by Boston.
Parish again ranked seventh in the NBA in rebounding in 1984-85, this time averaging 10.6 rebounds to go along with 17.6 points. Boston, 63-19, was the NBA’s best team during the regular season, but lost in The Finals to the Lakers in six games.
Boston won its third championship in six seasons and its 16th overall in 1985-86. The Celtics stormed through the regular season at 67-15, with Parish (now backed up at center by Walton) contributing 16.1 ppg and 9.5 rpg. The Celtics won The Finals in six games, beating the Rockets, who had upset the Lakers en route to the title series.
An All-Star for the seventh consecutive year in 1986-87, Parish contributed 17.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game in his 11th season, which included his lone career triple-double, recorded on March 29 against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Celtics played in another Finals but lost to the Lakers in six games. Parish averaged 18.0 points and 9.4 rebounds in the playoffs, even though an injured left ankle forced him to miss a second-round game against the Milwaukee Bucks, snapping a string of 116 consecutive playoff games.
By now the Celtics were starting to show signs of age, and teams like Detroit and later Chicago were on the rise. Boston would not win another title, but Parish remained productive, averaging 14.3 points and 8.5 rebounds in 1987-88 and finishing second in the league in field goal percentage at 58.9%. But Boston lost to the Pistons in a six-game Eastern Conference finals, snapping a string of four straight appearances in the NBA Finals.
Parish made the All-NBA Third Team in 1988-89, averaging 18.6 points and 12.5 rebounds, but the Celtics struggled to a 42-40 record as Bird played only six games after undergoing surgery to remove bone spurs on each heel.
The Celtics’ days as a true title contender were over, but Parish would have several more productive seasons in Boston. He averaged 15.7 points and 10.1 rebounds and ranked third in the NBA with a 58.0% shooting percentage in 1989-90, and returned to the All-Star Game after a two-year absence. He was an All-Star again in 1990-91, averaging 14.9 points and 10.6 rebounds and ranking second in the league in field goal percentage at 59.8%. He passed 20,000 career points in 1991-92, when he averaged 14.1 points and 8.9 rebounds.
With the retirement of Bird in 1992 and McHale in 1993, Parish was the lone remaining member of Boston’s fabled “Big Three.” Often mentioned as an afterthought in debates about the game’s great frontcourt players, Parish just kept rolling along. At the age of 40, he averaged 11.7 points and 7.3 rebounds, and in a late-season game against the Chicago Bulls, he logged 51 minutes in a 104-94 overtime Celtics win over the defending champions.
An era in Celtics history officially came to a close when Parish left Boston after the 1993-94 season to sign as a free agent with the Charlotte Hornets. During his two seasons as a reserve center with Charlotte, he became the NBA’s all-time leader in games played, passing Abdul-Jabbar’s total of 1,560 on April 6, 1996 at Cleveland.
In September 1996, he signed with Chicago as a free agent. Playing in a record 21st NBA season, Parish added a fourth championship ring to the three he won with Boston as he appeared in 43 games for the Bulls, making three starts.
He announced his retirement in typically understated fashion, not in a major news conference but during an offseason television interview on Friday, Aug. 25, 1997.
“I think it’s time,” he said. “I know in my heart that it’s time to walk away.”
In 1998, Parish saw his jersey raised to the rafters in Boston. In 2003, he was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame.