Robert Parish: Larry Bird Was the Heartbeat of the Boston Celtics, and Dennis Johnson Was the Soul

When it comes to the Boston Celtics of the 1980s, there were stars, and there was a superstar. Larry Bird played the role of superstar on a team filled with talent. Robert Parish was one of the stars, a future Hall of Famer.

Parish reflected on his glory days with the Celtics, acknowledging Bird’s value. The man known as “The Chief” said Bird was the heartbeat of the team, but it was guard Dennis Johnson, another future Hall of Famer, who was the soul.

Things turned around for Robert Parish when he was traded to the Boston Celtics

From left, Boston Celtics Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish speak with one another before pictures and interviews during media day at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., Oct. 9, 1992. | Tom Landers/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Parish played his college basketball at little-known Centenary College, and the Golden State Warriors took a shot with the seven-footer. They selected him with the eighth overall pick in the 1976 NBA Draft.

Parish spent the first four years of his NBA career with the Warriors, coming into his own during his third season when he averaged 17.2 points and 12.1 rebounds. He followed that up with 17.0 points and 10.9 rebounds the next season.

Prior to the 1980-81 season, the Celtics pulled off one of the biggest trades in franchise history when they dealt the No. 1 overall pick, along with another first-rounder, to the Warriors in exchange for Parish and the third pick i the 1980 NBA Draft. With that selection, they chose future Hall of Famer Kevin McHale.

Parish admitted it was culture shock when he first arrived in Boston.

“When I came in, I was in shape for a Golden State camp, not for the Celtics,” Parish told Sports Illustrated in 1981. “It was the most physical, intense thing I’d ever been through, but I can’t knock the results.”

The results were immediate. Parish won the first of his three titles with the Celtics during that 1980-81 season. He helped form arguably the best frontcourt in NBA history, teaming with McHale and Bird. Parish eventually worked himself into shape and spent 14 seasons in Boston.

Robert Parish said Larry Bird was the heartbeat of the Boston Celtics, but Dennis Johnson was the soul

Parish, Bird, and McHale deservedly received much of the attention during their time with the Celtics. All three were future Hall of Famers. Bird proved to be the best of the bunch, winning three straight MVPs from 1984-86 and leading the team to two championships during that stretch.

Johnson was a player who joined the three in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame but never gets the praise he deserves. Parish, however, gave him a serious compliment.

(Johnson) and Cedric Maxwell were two of my favorite people on the team,” Parish said in August on the Showtime With Coop podcast with former Lakers guard Michael Cooper. “Dennis kept things smooth and easy. He kept the tension out of the locker room whenever somebody was beefing with teammates or coaching. Whatever negativity was going on in te locker room, DJ was always the one that found a way to smooth it out.

“He was the catalyst to everything we were doing. With all due respect to myself and Larry and Kevin and Maxwell, DJ was the one. He was the engine.

“A better way to describe that is DJ was the soul of the team. Larry was the heartbeat. DJ was the soul of the team.”

Dennis Johnson was an overshadowed member of the Celtics

DJ got his due. He’s a member of the Hall of Fame, inducted in 2010. He was also a five-time NBA All-Star. Nobody ever questioned his importance to the success of the Celtics. Bird, McHale, and Parish always seemed to overshadow him.

During the 1984 NBA Finals, the Lakers outplayed the Celtics for much of the series. The Celtics eventually won in seven games, but it’s Gerald Henderson’s steal or McHale’s clotheslining of Kurt Rambis that gets much of the ink. DJ’s heroics went unnoticed.

In that series, Johnson struggled with his shooting through the first three games. Midway through Game 4, Celtics coach K.C. Jones made a defensive switch, putting Johnson, known as a strong defender, on Magic Johnson. Not only did he help contain Johnson, but his focus on the defensive side of the ball seemingly took pressure off him when it came to offense.

Johnson scored 20 or more points in each of the last four games of the series.

“I thought I was into the game, but the first game in L.A. (Game 3) convinced me that I wasn’t,” said DJ, according to Sports Illustrated in 1984. “Even K.C. had to come over to ask if something was wrong. I told him that whatever it was, it wouldn’t be there again. I had been missing jump shots since January, and I knew why, but I never took the time to adjust. It was just a case of getting mentally and physically aggressive.”

Johnson, who died in 2007, was a three-time NBA champ and a nine-time member of the All-Defensive Team.

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