He is the ultimate forgotten guy. Robert Parish wasn't just the third guy next to Bird and McHale; he was instrumental for the Celtics in the 80s. You possibly know his nickname is The Chief, and assume it's because he was the leader in the locker room. That assumption would be wrong. The story behind his nickname explains why Robert Parish is often forgotten when talking about the best centers ever to play the game.
Robert Parish still holds the NBA record for regular-season games played at 1611. He could've easily been nicknamed "Mr. Reliable, "given that the man rarely missed a game in his life. "He was there for every practice," Kevin McHale said of Parish. "For every game. He very seldom missed anything, including assignments on the floor. His longevity is unbelievable, but his dependability was just as impressive." Here are his games played for the C's with Parish's age for context.
- '80/'81 (27) - 82 games
- '81/'82 (28) - 80 games
- '82/'83 (29) - 78 games
- '83/'84 (30) - 80 games
- '84/'85 (31) - 79 games
- '85/'86 (32) - 81 games
- '86/'87 (33) - 80 games
- '87/'88 (34) - 74 games
- '88/'89 (35) - 80 games
- '89/'90 (36) - 79 games
- '90/'91 (37) - 81 games
- '91/'92 (38) - 79 games
- '92/'93 (39) - 79 games
- '93/'94 (40) - 74 games
On top of all that, think of all the centers Parish had to bang with in the post, and the numbers become even more impressive. This was a physical NBA with guys like Laimbeer, Moses, and Big Pat on the schedule. He did all the dirty work and got none of the glory. Bill Walton called him the "greatest shooting big man" of all time and explained the magic of Robert Parish.
"There was no showmanship to Robert's game. There was the rebounding. There was the defense. There was the scoring. There was the setting of screens. There was the way he ran the floor. How many centers in today's NBA do any of that?"
Bill Walton, ESPN
Robert Parish was as complete of a player at the center position as there ever was. On top of all things centers at that time had to do - defend, set screens, rebound block - which Parish did at a very high level, he did a few things that made him elite. Parish ran the floor like he was a wing and drained shots like a guard. But those weren't the secret ingredient that made the 1980s Celtics possible.
A few decades after his time, a Big 3 was assembling in Boston. Doc Rivers took Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett on a rowboat field trip and talked about Ubuntu. Ubuntu comes from the Zulu phrase „Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which you could translate to „a person can only be a person through others,” or simply “if you’re not happy, then I can’t be happy.” Doc asked his three stars what each of them is willing to sacrifice for the good of the team, so everyone can be happy.
Bill Fitch and K.C. Jones didn't have to have that conversation with Bird, McHale, and Parish because it was apparent who was OK with sacrifice. Parish wasn't there for the fame or the glory; he was there to win games.
“I have never been one to seek or want attention or admiration or a pat on the back for what I’ve done. I did my job. I got paid for doing my job. That was enough for me. That’s one of the reasons I was able to accept a lesser role on those teams in the ’80s. I didn’t have a huge ego."
Robert Parish, The Boston Globe
If the Celtics were winning, Bird and McHale got the glory. If they were losing, Robert Parish was often the first target on Boston fans and media. The color of his skin had something to do with that, but it was also connected to his nature. Parish never fought to get the spotlight and took all the criticism like a stoic. That quality made the 1980's Celtics last as long as they did and earned Parish his nickname.
In 1975, Miloš Forman directed Jack Nicholson in one of the greatest movies ever made (33rd on AFI's top 100 movies list.) If you haven't seen it, stop rewatching The Office just because it's on Netflix again, and find this movie. Next to Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito, you'll notice a stoic Native-American character, "Chief" Bromden.
Cedric Maxwell obviously loved movies because he recognized the same stoicism in Robert Parish and started calling him The Chief. It's a bit risky to start calling your teammate after a character from a mental institution, but Parish must've seen the movie and understood the parallel.
It wasn't because he was the boss, as many believe. Robert Parish is The Chief because he did what guys like Manu Ginobili, Klay Thompson, and Chris Bosh did - sacrificed glory and stats for rings. Sounds like a good trade-off to me.
P.S. Seems like Jack picked up a thing or two sitting courtside all those years.