Kevin McHale, one of the best power forwards to ever play, personified what it meant to be a Boston Celtic in his era. A reliable option in the post and one of the best all-around defenders, he was a critical piece to have on the floor in the biggest moments.
And when paired with the dynamic Celtic lineups of the 80s, it was easy to see why Boston was a focal point in the basketball world for more than a decade. Bird, Parish, Dennis Johnson and McHale could be considered a true super team before super teams were commonplace.
Born and raised in Minnesota, McHale was known to be a hockey fan growing up. One could surmise that his grit and willingness to do the dirty work was carried over from the ice to the court. At a young age, his prototypical NBA body could be seen. He reached 6-feet, 11 inches as a high schooler. His build was only matched by his play and earned him a scholarship to the University of Minnesota.
In his freshman season in 1976-77, McHale posted a 12 point, 8.1 rebound average for the Gophers. His production climbed steadily, including a 17, 9 season as a junior. He was named to the All-Big Ten team his senior year and led Minnesota to an NIT Championship.
The 1980 offseason was possibly one of the most significant for the Celtics considering the key additions to a team already featuring a young Larry Bird. Boston swapped out of the first pick to land third in the first round. With the trade, the team brought in Robert Parish from Golden State. At 7-feet, 1-inch, “The Chief” gave Boston an inside presence of envy. Then the Cs added McHale with that third overall pick and the frontcourt went from good to downright scary.
McHale had a nice rookie season. He was primarily used as the first off the bench. He averaged 10 points and was named to the All-Rookie Team. But in his first playoff appearance, he gave a glimpse of what was to come. In game one of the first round against Chicago, McHale exploded for 21 points. After a grueling seven-game series against Philadelphia, McHale cooled off in the Finals versus Houston. Boston dispatched the Rockets in six, earning McHale his first NBA title.
By the 1983-84 season, McHale had solidified himself as the best reserve in the game and was named Sixth-Man of the Year. He was adoringly referred to as “The Black Hole” by teammates for his willingness to fight through double teams in the post (or his refusal to pass out of those situations). He averaged 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds that season and Boston won its second title in 4 years.
The 1985-86 playoffs were perhaps McHale’s finest. He averaged 24.8 points in that playoff run, including two double-doubles of 28 points or more in the Finals.
McHale’s career-high season came in 1986-87 when he averaged 26.1 points and 9.9 rebounds. Boston fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals that season and McHale never returned to the NBA Championship after. The team did make six more consecutive playoff appearances.
Records, awards and Hall of Fame
McHale holds the Celtics record for blocks per game with 1.7. He made six All-Defensive Teams, seven All-Star games and won two Sixth-Man awards. He averaged 17.9 points and 7.3 rebounds for his career.
In 1999, McHale was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In 2004, he was named head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves in relief of Flip Saunders. After two partial seasons, he was out in Minnesota but got another chance in Houston in 2011. He coached the Rockets to a 189-123 record over four seasons before being let go after a 4-7 start in 2015-16. The Rockets made the playoffs three times, including a Western Conference Finals appearance against Golden State in 2014-15.