Kevin McHale Saw the NBA Take a Turn for the Worse During His Final Years With the Boston Celtics

Kevin McHale played 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, winning three championships and playing in seven NBA All-Star Games. He teamed with Larry Bird and Robert Parish to form one of the best frontcourts of the 1980s.

When it was time for him to call it a career, he noticed the NBA was heading in the wrong direction. After he retired from professional basketball, he said the NBA was becoming an “MTV league.”

Kevin McHale and the Boston Celtics were a force in the 1980s

Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics looks to pass the ball over the top of Kurt Rambis of the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA basketball game circa 1987 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Celtics drafted McHale with the third pick in the 1980 NBA Draft. They had the top pick in the draft but traded it, along with another first-rounder, to the Golden State Warriors for Parish and that third pick which turned into McHale. That draft set the tone for a dominant run in the 80s for the Celtics.

McHale and Parish teamed with a young Bird, and the trio played together for 12 years, winning three championships. The Celtics were dominant in the 80s. The only years in that decade the Celtics failed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals were 1983 and 1989.

Even in 1986, when the Celtics had the No. 2 pick in the draft and took Len Bias, who died from an accidental cocaine overdose 48 hours after being selected, they made the NBA Finals. Boston made five trips to the NBA Finals in the 80s, winning in 1981, 1984, and 1986.

Kevin McHale saw the league take a step backward during his final seasons in the league

The 80s in the NBA were tough. There wasn’t one rival of the Celtics. They battled with the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, and the Detroit Pistons before they faced the Los Angeles Lakers. Games were physical. They were demanding. After his retirement, McHale said he saw a decline in the league in the early 90s.

In a 1993 first-person article in Sports Illustrated, McHale went to town documenting some of the events that contributed to the league taking a step backward. He spoke about the three-referee system, expansion, and players entering the league as so-called stars before ever proving themselves. He even made a bold statement that Michael Jordan’s three-peat teams in the early 90s wouldn’t touch his Celtics teams.

“I give the Chicago Bulls a lot of credit for winning three straight NBA titles, but, come on, does anyone honestly think those teams, even with Michael Jordan, could have beaten the 1985-86 champions with Larry Bird, Robert Parish, myself, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, and Bill Walton?” he wrote.

“Or the Los Angeles Laker champs of ’86-87 and ’87-88 with Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Or the Detroit Piston teams of Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, which played great defense and won the ’88-89 and ’89-90 titles? 

“I also think the league has been hurt by the three-referee system that started in 1988. When there were two refs, both ran the floor and called what they saw. Now the floor is divided into zones, and the refs spend half their time saying, ‘That’s not my call.'”

McHale said the NBA became an ‘MTV league’

McHale said the NBA turned into an ‘MTV league’ where personalities were created instantly.

“The other thing I’ve noticed is that the NBA has become an MTV league,” he wrote. “It’s rock ‘n’ roll basketball. There’s a lot of noise, hip commercials, video, rap music. Personalities like Shaquille O’Neal and Harold Miner are created immediately, right out of the box. You used to get respect in this league by winning.”

McHale poked fun at himself, saying he probably sounded like a cranky old man, but he believed everything he wrote.

“I’m sounding like the cranky guy on the couch, huh?” he wrote. “I’m sure Bob Cousy and Bill Russell shook their heads when our generation came in. They must have thought, ‘Man, what’s with these guys?’ The NBA will go on. I know that.”

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