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Kevin McHale knew he’d have to be patient with the Boston Celtics. Cedric Maxwell was playing well and was named MVP of the 1981 NBA Finals in McHale’s first year with the team.

In his first few NBA seasons, McHale was a reserve, playing behind Maxwell, Robert Parish, and Larry Bird in a loaded frontcourt. Although he came off the bench, McHale played starters’ minutes and earned a couple of Sixth Man of the Year Awards. He finally broke into the starting lineup when Maxwell went down with a knee injury midway through the 1984-85 season.

Kevin McHale paid his dues with the Boston Celtics

The Boston Celtics made a remarkable turnaround in the early 1980s. In Bird’s rookie season, they finished with an NBA-best 61 wins, up from 29 the previous season. After falling to the rival Philadelphia 76ers in the postseason, the Celtics pulled off a franchise-altering trade with the Golden State Warriors.

Boston held the No. 1 pick in the 1980 NBA Draft, thanks to a previous trade with the Detroit Pistons. The Celtics sent the Warriors the top pick and the No. 13 pick in exchange for Parish and the third pick. At No. 3, the Celtics drafted McHale.

McHale knew he wasn’t going to push his way into the starting lineup, even as a talented rookie.

“I will say one thing, I tell everybody out there, you and M.L. (Carr) did such a good job with me being a rookie,” McHale told Maxwell on The Cedric Maxwell Podcast in 2020. “You guys helped me so much.

“It was great being with you guys because you guys kept everything fun, competitive. I was never overwhelmed at all. You guys were all better than me. I was trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. You guys helped me so much. It was amazing.”

McHale earned spot starts here and there, but he was effective both as a starter and as a reserve. During the 1983-84 season, he played all 82 games, coming off the bench in 72 of them. He averaged 18.4 and 7.4 rebounds, playing a significant role in Boston’s second championship of the decade.

McHale capitalized when Maxwell went down with an injury in 1985


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In February 1985, Maxwell was sidelined with torn cartilage in his knee, paving the way for McHale to jump into the starting lineup. McHale started 31 games that season and never looked back. He finished the year averaging 19.8 points and 9.0 rebounds and saw his minutes increase to 33.6 per game.

The following season, the Celtics traded Maxwell to the Los Angeles Clippers for veteran center Bill Walton, giving McHale a full-time starting job. McHale took advantage by averaging 21.3 points and 8.1 rebounds in 35.3 minutes.

In his book, If These Walls Could Talk, Maxwell said he became the “forgotten man” after McHale became the starter.

“I knew my time in the starting lineup was gone when Kevin McHale was killing everyone he played against,” Maxwell wrote. “McHale’s emergence was definitely the biggest development while I was out. From the time he came into the league in 1980, everyone could see that he had the talent and drive to become a big-time player. He twice won the Sixth Man of the Year Award, and while I was on the bench, he took over the spot and never gave it back.”

Maxwell said he had no animosity whatsoever toward McHale.

“I was not jealous of McHale,” Maxwell said. “I couldn’t have been happier for him, and I took tremendous pride in his growth and to see him use some of the things I had taught him.

“During this time, McHale and I were totally cool. He knew it was his job, and he was going to be a starter. We just kept interacting like we always did.”