Last Games: Kevin McHale

Posted: March 21, 2013 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

Editor’s note: An ongoing series (well, hopefully) that will look at the final games of sports legends. Everyone remembers their careers and great moments but the end is usually mundane, forgettable, if not difficult to watch. The player is usually slower, tired and well past their prime. Their whole careers — and most of their lives — have been spent practicing or playing games. All those passes and free throws and catches and hits and pitches. And then, finally, it’s over. There’s one last basket, one last touchdown, one last game. It ends. It’s not the most memorable chapter in their careers but it is an important one — because it’s the final one. Today: Kevin McHale.

There’s something pure about the hatred a 9-year-old sports fan feels about anyone standing in the way of his favorite team, especially if the hate is directed at a 6-10 guy from northern Minnesota with a bad haircut and an odd body. When the Lakers met the Celtics in the 1984 Finals, I didn’t have memories of Kevin McHale’s appearance in the Minnesota state basketball tournament or of his time at the University of Minnesota. All I knew was that he was unstoppable in the post, whined about every call, grabbed a towel from under the basket after every foul and nearly killed Kurt Rambis.

The Lakers won two of the three Finals against the Celtics in the 1980s but the one that got away was torturous for a franchise that had spent 20 years being tortured by the city of Boston. The Lakers rolled the Celtics in Games 1, 3 and 5 but the Celtics won four times and always made the big play while LA, including Magic Johnson, folded in the clutch. M.L. Carr waved his damn towel, Larry Bird tormented down low and outside and Red Auerbach turned off the air conditioning in the Boston Garden. But McHale’s near-decapitation of Rambis remains the most memorable play from the series. The Lakers led 2-1 and Bird had spent the Game 3 postgame ripping his teammates for their poor, lifeless play.

Then this happened:

Perhaps the craziest thing about the play — other than the fact that McHale, you know, clotheslined someone — was the reaction of the announcers Tommy Heinsohn and Dick Stockton, who were nonchalant about the whole affair. That’s basketball, don’t you know? Then again, it’s not so surprising considering Heinsohn broadcast the game while sitting courtside with his face painted green and white, and Stockton was a longtime Boston guy too. The only surprise was that Johnny Most wasn’t brought in as a sideline reporter.

The play inspired the Celtics — so goes the legend that you can hear any Celts fan spew out when they have three drinks in them — and Boston won Game 4 in OT and the series three games later.

My dislike of McHale evolved as I grew up. He bothered me because of the uniform and because of his greatness. I started to appreciate that one of the great players in NBA history was a Minnesotan, but his professional city kept me from ever embracing him. I admired his toughness when he played with a broken foot in the 1987 NBA Finals, but I admired Mychal Thompson’s defense on him even more.

The Celtics won their last title in 1986 but the Big Three continued on for another six years, until Bird retired before the 1992-93 season. McHale and Parish kept playing on — in fact, the Chief is still out there; think he’s the 12th man for the Kings — but the Celtics were no longer a threat to win a title.

In the opening round of the ’93 playoffs the Celtics met the young Charlotte Hornets, led by big men Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning. Basketball was different in Charlotte back then — the team didn’t regularly lose 12 games in a row and the fans were passionate about the franchise. The Celtics owned homecourt advantage in the best-of-5 series, but lost in double overtime in Game 2 and then by 30 in Game 3. McHale averaged 10 points in his final season at age 35, but shot only 45 percent from the floor, the first time in his career he was under 50 percent. But in that Game 2 loss he scored 30 points and had 10 rebounds.

The Celtics were without Reggie Lewis, who had collapsed in Game 1 and didn’t play again. He died just a few months later, the second tragedy for the franchise in seven years and the one that sent the franchise into a tailspin for the ’90s.

Still, if Boston could have won Game 4 against Charlotte the decisive game would have been back in the Garden and it’d be hard to picture a young team like the Hornets winning in that environment. McHale played well in his last game, with 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting. But the game came down to the final Charlotte possession, after the Celtics had taken the lead on a Sherman Douglas steal and score.

Charlotte eventually finished with the ball under its own hoop and tossed it out to Mourning, who drilled one of the longest jumpers of his life with .4 seconds left to give Charlotte the 104-103 win. It looked like McHale’s career had ended at that point as the buzzer originally sounded, but the refs put time on the clock and Boston had a chance to inbound from halfcourt. Charlotte broke up the play — perhaps with a foul — and the Celtics coaches and players confronted an official.

I can remember watching this game. The Lakers were in the second year of their post-Magic experience and if they couldn’t win, I wanted Boston to lose. Even though names like McDaniel, Douglas and Fox now dotted the roster instead of Bird, Carr and Ainge, my dislike for them did not lessen. How could it? I still had the image of McHale clotheslining Rambis in my head (and how strange that both would go on to play such interesting roles with the Timberwolves future; David Kahn was probably at the game too).

But when the Celtics’ season ended at the same time as McHale’s career, I didn’t want the big man to retire. I knew he was one of the unique players in NBA history, a warrior with bad feet, but one of the most enjoyable players to watch at his craft. Magic was gone, Bird too. The ’80s seemed much further away than four years. I was glad the Celtics walked away losers that night in Charlotte. But I didn’t want McHale to walk away for good.

  1. Rich Jensen says:

    Oh, you Laker fans, exaggerating that clothesline…. Rambis bounced up like nothing happened, and Worthy knocked him over too. I do think it’s funny that Bird helped him up, given that Bird–so the legend goes–was the guy who wanted someone taken out.

    And shoot, how about that outlet from Kareem? Is there any center in the league that can throw an outlet like that now? Anyone? Someday, perhaps, we’ll be talking about how PEDs killed the Wilt/Kareem/Hakeem class of centers, and replaced them with lumbering hulks of muscle like Howard & Shaq.

  2. shawnfury says:

    On a Lakers board recently, a Lakers fan made a fairly decent argument McHale was trying to hold him up and didn’t mean for him to crash to the floor. He went over the film like it had come from Abe Zapruder. And dead on about Bird’s role. Plays peacemaker, after he was the one who riled them up.

    Love can throw some good outlets — well, when he’s playing.

  3. Rich Jensen says:

    I don’t think McHale wanted to do anything other than stop Rambis in his tracks. Shoot. He’s not Laimbeer.

    BTW: I wonder if we’ll ever have a day of reckoning on PED usage in the NBA. That some guys are using seems beyond question. I look at LeBron, Howard, and yes, even Rondo, and I think—some day, are we going to look at ourselves now and say, “How could they not know?”

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