- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Robert Parish said he was struck by the notion of becoming a basketball coach after he retired from the NBA in 1997. To a lot of other people, the idea still takes some getting used to.
Robert Parish a coach? The towering, stone-faced center of the great Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s, nicknamed "the Chief" by teammate Cedric Maxwell after the towering, stone-faced American Indian character in the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"? That Robert Parish? Isn't communication part of the job description? Doesn't coaching require, you know, talking?
Parish let his play do the talking. His elbows flapped, but not his gums.
"Robert was a very quiet player," former Celtics teammate Danny Ainge said. "But maybe that was because he was surrounded by so many outspoken players."
Said Red Auerbach, the patron saint of the Celtics who signed off on one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history, bringing Parish to Boston in 1980: "Robert was not an extrovert. But then, neither was I."
But Auerbach was hardly a wallflower either. Parish, coach of the Maryland Mustangs, a United States Basketball League expansion team based in Upper Marlboro, was the whole bouquet. He never wasted a move on the court and rarely betrayed his emotions. Of course, there was the time Parish decked Detroit Pistons Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer in the playoffs, but Parish was just sticking up for teammate Larry Bird. Hey, a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do.
"People didn't realize that I have a sense of humor, that I am a social person," Parish said the other day. "Because of my facial features. Because I have a very stern and pensive look. It was easy to say that I don't socialize much, that I'm distant, that I don't communicate often."
Seated in a small office at the gym where he works out, down the road from the Mustangs' Show Place Arena, Parish at 47 looks like he could still handle himself on the court, especially against most of today's centers. He said his body suffers no aftereffects from having played more years (21) and more games (1,661) than anyone else in the NBA. He's about 10 pounds over his playing weight of 235, but he always seemed a bit skinny anyway at 7-foot-1. His hair is shorter than before, but the Mount Rushmore mug is the same. Granite, after all, holds up pretty well.
At rest, the face bears the same intimidating, almost menacing countenance. But when Parish speaks, a rumbling bass spiced by his native Louisiana, he becomes much more animated. Really. You still don't want to make him mad, but he smiles easily and, yes, he even laughs. Image, apparently, isn't everything.
But that image always will persist.
"The persona I had on the court, I was all business," he said. "My philosophy was, we're not here to play a game we're here to win. I'm not emotional. You won't see me ranting and raving up and down the sideline or yelling and screaming. That's not me. If that's got to be done, it should be done in practice."
Parish should get many chances. Like other minor leagues, the USBL, which runs a 30-game season that starts in late April, is for players with big dreams but limited game. It calls itself the "League of Opportunity" and a few players, do, in fact, reach the NBA. Most don't.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge," Parish said. "I'm looking forward to the interaction and the camaraderie, trying to convey some of the knowledge I have to the younger guys. Obviously, they're lacking in fundamentals and basic skills, so I'm going to convey the importance of fundamentals."
Parish has help. One of his assistants is Harvey Grant, who had a long NBA career that included several years with the Washington Bullets/Wizards. With Grant, who is 6-9, and Parish taking a hands-on approach, each practice in part will serve as a big-man clinic.
"We might not be able to do it anymore, but we can still think the game," Parish said.
Another assistant is former Towson State coach Terry Truax, who will handle the X's and O's while Parish gets on the job training. Chris Chaney, basketball coach at the private Newport School in Kensington, also is on board.
Parish's strengths are his experience (after all, no one did it longer) and his lineage. After four years with the Golden State Warriors, who drafted him in the first round out of Centenary, Parish and a first-round draft pick were traded to the Celtics for a pair of No. 1s. The Warriors coveted Joe Barry Carroll, an All-American center at Purdue. While Carroll was going on to become an All-American bust, Parish, playing alongside Bird and Kevin McHale (taken with the pick that accompanied Parish), helped form perhaps the NBA's greatest front line ever. The Celtics in the 1980s made the Finals five times and won three championships, forging the type of captivating rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers that NBA types wish would somehow rematerialize.
Although Parish was not the primary scoring option on those teams, which included the likes of Ainge, Bill Walton and Dennis Johnson in addition to McHale and Bird, he willingly accepted his role as a rebounder, passer and anchor of the defense. He is sixth in the NBA in career rebounds, eighth in blocks. But when needed, Parish could find the basket with his high-arcing jump shot; only 14 players have more lifetime points.
"Probably the best medium-range shooting big man in the history of the game," Walton once said.
After leaving the Celtics as a free agent in 1994, Parish went to Charlotte and then the Chicago Bulls, earning a fourth championship ring in 1997. Parish was named one of the 50 greatest all-time NBA players and had his number, 00, retired by the Celtics.
"He was a great passer and shot blocker," Ainge said, "but the thing I remember most about Robert Parish as a teammate was his willingness to sacrifice for the betterment of the team… . Every team needs a guy like that, someone who's a great player but who's willing to sacrifice so much. That's what I appreciate more than anything."
Told that Parish plans to stress the teaching of fundamentals, Ainge laughed and said, "Robert got away with traveling in the low post for 20 years. If he can teach his kids how to get away with that, it will be a great accomplishment."
A couple of incidents in Parish's past, however, were decidedly unfunny. In 1991, he was arrested after police confiscated marijuana that was to be shipped via express mail to his home. A search revealed more pot inside. Parish paid a $37 fine and apologized publicly. More disturbing were allegations of domestic abuse by his ex-wife. Parish was fined, given a suspended sentence and underwent counseling. They were divorced in 1990.
"I have nobody to blame but myself," he said.
Parish quickly added that what happened is well in the past and he has changed.
"If you don't change and learn from your mistakes, it was a waste of time," he said. "You didn't get anything out of the experience. I think everything happens to you for a reason. I believe that. You might not see the reason at the time, but everything happens for a reason. I definitely learned from the experience… . It's history. It's in my past. I believe everybody should have second chances. I would like to think the public as a whole is bigger than that."
None of that fazed the Mustangs' front office.
"I know some of the things that were spoken of, some of the things he had problems with," team president and co-owner Brett Vickers said. "That's not a concern to me. I wanted to go by what I could see. Robert's a quality individual."
Parish, who returned to his home in Charlotte, N.C., after retiring, spent the last few years "relaxing and enjoying life," he said. But he was getting restless. Coaching, he said, "would be a natural transition from all those years of playing."
Vickers had owned part of the Florida Sea Dragons, a USBL team in Fort Myers, Fla., coached by another NBA legend, Rick Barry. The team was successful on the court and at the box office last year, setting a league attendance record. After Barry left in a dispute over money, Parish was the front-runner to replace him. He was recommended by Barry's assistant, Clifford Ray, a close friend and former Warriors teammate who was taking a job with Golden State. Ray thought Parish would be ideal.
"I thought it would be a nice situation for him, not to mention the city," Ray said. "Unfortunately, things came up."
What came up was that the Sea Dragons wanted to hire a more experienced coach, Kevin Mackey. Parish was disappointed. But Vickers, who left the Sea Dragons to start his own team in Maryland, was intrigued by Parish and hired him as the Mustangs' coach after considering former Georgetown players Reggie Williams and Charles Smith, among others.
Why Parish? For one thing, Vickers said, the Sea Dragons suffered under Barry's lack of discipline. Parish assured him he would be much tougher.
"Robert feels that young men coming out now aren't ready for the NBA, and maybe they lack the discipline it takes to get there," Vickers said. "We'll have a very structured organization and zero tolerance for some of the shenanigans that goes on with players."
Vickers also acknowledged that Parish's "star power," didn't hurt either.
Vickers insists he had no preconceived notions about Parish, about his, uh, communication skills. Their first meeting left Vickers impressed.
"He was very congenial, very much a gentleman," he said. "He expressed himself eloquently. He was very intelligent. All the things you look for in a coach. I don't think Robert will be afraid to speak his mind."
Parish said when he left the game, there was no way he could coach.
"I'm older and wiser, I'd like to think," he said, breaking into a laugh. "You can't be in this business if you don't have patience. And people skills, too. You have to be able to relate."
Parish's team will be like the Celtics, his Celtics, in "how we approach each ballgame," he said. "The focus, the concentration, the will. You've got to be of strong will. You've got to have a certain attitude to play basketball. I don't think you have to be arrogant about it, but you surely have to be confident about it. I think those are characteristics that I'm gonna be associated with."
But Parish said he knows how to temper his toughness, drawing upon the positive, upbeat style of K.C. Jones, who led the Celtics to championships in 1984 and 1986.
"Even though people say motivation comes from within," Parish said, "it's always nice to hear encouraging words."
Like his players, Parish wants to reach the NBA. This is the first step. But no one knows whether he will succeed like Bird, who coached the Indiana Pacers to the NBA Finals last season before retiring, or like McHale, who has built a strong organization as general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves, or like the legion of other ex-Celtics who have gone into coaching.
What we do know is that Parish comes from solid stock. The Celtics of past generations, including his, played with uncommon intelligence, dedication and teamwork.
"He has a pretty good clue as to what it's all about," said Jones, whose resume includes coaching the Bullets to a franchise record 60 victories in 1975.
"He knows the game," said Auerbach, who started it all for the Celtics nearly a half-century ago. "He was a very strong, self-disciplined guy. You never had to tell Robert to lose weight or stay in shape or do this or do that. He always did it on his own, and he was always ready. The only thing is, he was very quiet. But when he has to talk, he'll talk."

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