Shaq Who?: Why Kevin McHale Was the NBA's Last True Big Man

Nick Gelso@CLNS_NickCorrespondent IAugust 11, 2009

Forward Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics shoots the ball during a game versus the Milwaukee Bucks at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This article can also be seen at North Station Sports.

It seems that members of the media faced with the task of defending Kevin McHale during their careers remember his indefensible array of moves best.

Blessed with a freakish wingspan, McHale possessed five distinct moves in the low post. McHale often found humor in naming his moves and Tommy Heinsohn, the Celtics' and CBS broadcaster during the '80s, made them famous.

Heinsohn would almost sound as silly as McHale looked unorthodox performing his art in the post.

It would only take one pump fake to get his defender off his feet and McHale would slither through a double team, on his way to a finger roll laying the ball in the basket. Heinsohn would proclaim with his raspy, cigarette-ridden voice, "and there's the slippery eel!"

McHale seemed to rile Heinsohn in similar fashion to the way a great steal from past Celtics legends riled up quintessential "homer" and radio broadcaster, Johnny Most.

Maybe it was the fact that McHale and Heinsohn were both power forwards. Coincidentally, the same enthusiasm is displayed when Charles Barkley describes McHale as the toughest player Barkley ever had to defend.

It's evident that you had to guard McHale to fully appreciate his talent.

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McHale was selected as the third pick in the 1980 draft, a deal that brought Robert Parish to the Celtics from the Golden State Warriors for the No. 1 pick in that class.

Often heralded as the most lopsided trade in NBA history, Red Auerbach, in one sneaky move, brought together the last two keys that formed the original Big Three in Boston.

Parish and McHale, along with second year forward Larry Bird, are arguably the best front line in NBA history.

In his rookie season, McHale became the sixth man,  a role made famous by former Celtic John Havlicek. Averaging 10 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, McHale showed signs of his potential. His sharp wit and laid back demeanor lightened up a roster that included Bird, Parish and Chris Ford.

The new-look Celtics won their first championship in McHale's rookie season.

McHale continued his role as sixth man as his points, rebounds and blocked shots increased every season.

In 1984, McHale won his first of two consecutive sixth man awards and his second NBA championship. Ironically, in 1985, McHale finally replaced Cedric Maxwell in the starting line up en route to the NBA Finals.

Though the Celtics lost to the Lakers, McHale had become one of the NBA's most unstoppable offensive forces, averaging 21 points per game, three assists per game, eight rebounds per game, and two blocks per game.

From 1984 through 1988, McHale averaged over 21 points per game capped off by a 27 points per game average in 1987. McHale was the perfect scoring compliment to Bird.

Heinsohn had moved on from naming McHale's innumerable moves with his back to the basket and began to simply proclaim defending him as the "torture chamber."

An appropriate description, as McHale rarely missed (or passed) when receiving the ball in the low post. He averaged over 51 percent from the field in 12 of his 13 seasons. From 1985 through 1988, he averaged over 59 percent from the field.

McHale's unique ability to draw a foul was even more lethal when combined with his career 80 percent free throw average—a quality seldom displayed among today's big men.

In 1987, Kevin displayed his high threshold for pain as he played the entire postseason on a severely fractured foot en route to another Finals appearance against the Lakers.

As the 1980's winded down, McHale continued to develop into the Celtics' most lethal offensive weapon. Bird and McHale's two-man game was known as one of the league's simplest, yet unstoppable plays.

McHale, often playing on injured ankles, would draw double and triple coverage regularly while consistently completing the play and tallying another assist for Larry Legend.

In one of the most forgotten aspects of his career, McHale made the all-defense first or second team six times. Often tasked with guarding the opposing team's best offensive player at every position, McHale's long arms and excellent foot work made defense look simple.

It was in the twilight of his career that McHale showed his unparalleled versatility. Moving back to the bench as the Celtics' sixth man, he would serve as Bird and Parish's replacement. In the latter days of his career, McHale would play center as often as he played power forward.

In 1993, his last season, McHale had seen his career come full circle. The years of playing on injured and broken feet had finally caught up with him. His points per game average had sunk to his rookie season number of 10. His minutes had also decreased to the lowest since his rookie year.

McHale was quoted as saying, "I used to use games as a barometer for how I am feeling. Now, with my lack of playing time, I have to use the gym and weight room."

In an era where today's league is dominated by the guard, big men rarely like to play with their back to the basket. Today's big man cannot shoot a free throw with consistent accuracy.

It seems the true art of the NBA big man may have retired when McHale's career ended.

Highly touted as the best low post player in NBA history, in recent years, McHale's arsenal of low post moves has been much forgotten and rarely discussed.


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