NBA 75: Kevin McHale, forgotten in Larry Bird’s presence (TSN Archives)

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The NBA is celebrating players from the NBA 75 list almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is Kevin McHale, the Celtics icon who early in his career, as the sixth man in Boston, was described only half-jokingly in The Sporting News by a fellow NBA player as “not really an athlete.” And, yet, in this story, from the Feb. 23, 1987, issue of TSN, was called the best power forward in the NBA.

Who is the best power forward in the National Basketball Association? In the world?

Ask any NBA coach, general manager or player. Ask the Russians, Italians or Spaniards. Ask anybody who knows anything about basketball this question, and you can bet the answer will be Kevin McHale.

Who is second?

Nobody’s close.

How long has it been this way?

A long time.

Then why has McHale been an All-Star only three times in his seven years?

Dumb fans, dumb coaches and Larry Bird.

And why has he never even been on the All-NBA second team?

Dumb writers, dumb players and Larry Bird.

McHale may be an underrated superstar, but players who are fortunate enough to be on the same team with Bird must be content to win championships, not individual honors. Few have been more content than McHale, the 6-10, 230-pound Boston Celtics forward who gives opponents fits and Bird the green light.

At the All-Star break, McHale ranked sixth in the league in scoring with a 26.4 average, third in field-goal percentage at .603 and sixth in blocked shots at 2.43. He also averaged 10 rebounds a game, made 83 percent of his foul shots, played better defense than any forward in the league and averaged nearly 40 minutes a game.

Pretty good for a guy who is always ignored by writers and fellow players in voting for the All-NBA team.

“I think Kevin is more deserving of it right now than I am,” said Bird. “I think he’s had a better year. He’s done everything a lot better than he has in the previous years because nobody can stop him. Right now, Kevin’s probably our most valuable player.”

But Bird has been the league’s MVP for three consecutive years. Great, but should that have had a negative effect on official recognition of McHale’s greatness?

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that it gets in the way,” said Los Angeles Lakers Coach Pat Riley, who has nightmares when he considers matching his forwards with McHale and Bird. “I think so much recognition can go to one man that it pretty much stunts other players on the team from getting overwhelming credit. What Kevin McHale has done more than 20 points and double-figure rebounding every single night — is outstanding. I think he is the most difficult player in the league to defend one on one. He gets his due, but take Bird off the team, and they talk MVP. All the time.”

Of course, McHale has given little thought to the less-than-critical issue of being on the All-NBA first team, or MVP.

“Maybe it’s the Boston influence,” McHale said. “Maybe it’s being around legends like Russell, Cousy, Havlicek, Heinsohn and Cowens. But the other stuff doesn’t mean very much. When you look back on it, I will always have those three championship rings. They’ll be put in a place of honor in my house. All the rest of the stuff, what does it mean what people say about you and what people write about you? Paper yellows. Those rings stay forever.”

That’s true. Still, it seems inconsistent for McHale to be recognized as the best at his position and then never show up on lists of award winners.

“There are a lot of things that aren’t consistent,” McHale said. “But to tell you the truth, I don’t think about that or worry about that. Those are the type of things that maybe, after you’re finished playing, you look back at and say it was great to do this or that. But while I’m playing, I don’t concern myself with that.”

When McHale gets the ball inside, he not only utilizes his exceptionally long reach to shoot over defenders, but he invariably gets easy baskets with a pump fake and then taking one step to the basket. When blocked off, he can shoot the turnaround, fadeaway 12-footer with 60 percent accuracy

On defense, he can stop any forward in the league one on one. NBA Coaches officially recognized his defensive prowess last season when they voted him to the all-defensive first team

“He takes a lot of pressure off me,” said Bird. “He can guard just about anybody — the big man, the quick man. I can get double-teamed and just throw the ball to him, and he’ll make things happen. He’s a good intimidator and a good shot blocker, so you can run your man at him all night.

In short, he’s the NBA’s best power forward. But you knew that.



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