Kevin McHale Points Out the Underlying Key to Success for the Boston Celtics of the 1980s

The talent was obvious. The Boston Celtics had Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale, arguably the best NBA frontcourt ever. Those Celtics teams of the ’80s went to the NBA Finals five times in the decade, winning three championships.

At one point in the decade, the Celtics had four future Hall of Famers in their lineup — Bird, Parish, McHale, and Dennis Johnson. The team was stacked, but McHale recently said talent wasn’t even the biggest reason for Boston’s success.

Kevin McHale helped the Boston Celtics to three NBA championships

Truck Robinson of the New York Knicks shoots over Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics during an NBA game circa 1984 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

McHale began his career with the Celtics as a backup to Cedric Maxwell. The Celtics selected McHale with the third overall pick in the 1980 NBA Draft. Although he wasn’t a starter as a rookie, McHale contributed off the bench with 10.0 points and 4.4 rebounds in 20.1 minutes.

In his first season, he teamed with Bird and Parish, who came over in a trade with the Golden State Warriors, and won the first of their three titles in the decade. Bird won Rookie of the Year the previous season and helped guide the Celtics to one of the greatest turnarounds ever. The year before Bird got to Boston, the Celtics finished 29-53. In his first year with the team, the Celtics won 61 games.

In six of the next seven seasons, Boston amassed at least 60 wins. With Bird, McHale, and Parish together for the first time, Boston finished 62-20 and knocked off the Houston Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals in six games.

The Celtics returned to the NBA Finals in ’84 after a two-year absence. Although they were outplayed for much of the series, Boston outlasted the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games. A year later, the Lakers got their revenge, celebrating on the floor of Boston Garden after a Game 6 win.

The Celtics claimed their third title of the ’80s when they defeated the Rockets again in 1986. They had one more crack at a title in ’87 but dropped a tough series to the Lakers.

Kevin McHale insisted the key to the Boston Celtics success went well beyond talent

Even during the 1983-84 season, McHale spent much of the season coming off the bench. He started just 10 regular-season games but averaged 31.4 minutes. He won the NBA’s Sixth Man Award after averaging 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds. He shot 55.6% from the floor and played a major role in a 62-win season and Boston’s second title in four years.

While the Celtics had so much talent on that team that McHale couldn’t even crack the starting lineup, the 6-foot-10 forward said there was much more than talent that made those Celtics champions.

“It’s the ‘we’ before ‘me,” McHale said to Maxwell last March on The Cedric Maxwell Podcast. “If you can’t enjoy your teammates’ success, you’re in the wrong business. You need to go play tennis because then you’re by yourself and you can go yell at the linesmen or do whatever you want. But if you don’t enjoy your teammates’ success, you can only go so far.

“If I didn’t enjoy your success, we’re not going to feed you. Enjoying each other’s success is fun. I still remember games like Danny (Ainge) started going off and I’d slap him on the a** and say, ‘thatta baby, I knew you had it in you.’

“They had a damn series about us, Celtics and Lakers and all the crazy stuff we went through. Just thinking about the stuff that we were able to accomplish, but the nice thing is is that I was able to accomplish it with you guys.”

McHale captured his third title with the Celtics in 1986

Bird once said he would put his 1985-86 Celtics team up against anyone. It’s hard to argue that with four Hall of Famers in the starting lineup.

The Celtics traded Maxwell to the Los Angeles Clippers prior to the season in a deal that brought back Bill Walton. With Maxwell gone, McHale moved full-time into the starting rotation, joining Bird, Parish, Johnson, and Ainge. McHale had just come off consecutive Sixth Man Awards, but Walton filled that role to perfection.

The oft-injured Walton, who missed three full seasons with foot injuries, played 80 games during Boston’s third championship season. He averaged 19.3 minutes and put up 7.6 points and 6.8 rebounds. Walton picked up right where McHale left off, winning the Sixth Man Award.

Sure those Celtics were loaded with talent, but it was the little things that made them successful.

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