Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

(Kevin) McHale Standard Time

This appears in

McHale Standard Time
by rick olivares

I have one Boston Celtics jersey and it’s got “McHale” on the back. Growing up a gangly and reed thin, I played the four or five spots. I didn’t have a jumpshot and I couldn’t dribble much. But I could play the post and defend it.

I watched Kevin McHale and patterned my game after him twisting opposing players into pretzels for awkward shots and hooks in the lane.

It was while looking for a jersey to buy in a big man’s store in New Jersey where I spotted the white Celtics’ jersey with McHale on the back. He was and remains my favorite Boston player so buying that shirt was a no-brainer. My being a fan was further reinforced when I read Jack McCallum’s ‘Unfinished Business’ that chronicled Boston’s 1990-91 season, the last time the team with the Celtics’ Big Three competed for an NBA title.

That was the year when first year coach Chris Ford took over and installed a running game behind Dee Brown, Kevin Gamble, Reggie Lewis, and Brian Shaw. But ultimately, it came down to the Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. When they were hobbled by injuries their season went downhill (although they won the Atlantic Division).

McCallum’s book showed the team in a behind the scenes story that I had not season before. And I became a bigger McHale fan as I found out that he was the team’s jokester who always had a quip and a quick wit.

To wit: then A-List Hollywood celebrity Kevin Costner had a massive hit in the film ‘Dances With Wolves’ that won several film awards including the Academy Award for Best Picture. Costner made his way to Boston’s locker room to meet Bird and company. When McHale saw the actor, he stood up and shook his hand. “Saw ‘Dances’, man,” enthusiastically lauded the Celtic to which a grateful Costner. “It was great. I have never seen a better cinematic depiction of South Dakota.” Costner beamed and the two talked about the film for a few more minutes. When the actor left, a team official asked, “I guess you were really impressed with that movie.” Replied McHale, “To tell you the truth, I never saw it.”

That was typical McHale -- funny without meaning to be and yet so full of life.

Last Tuesday night, the opportunity arose to join a teleconference involving McHale, one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all time, and ask one question. There were too many journos present so one question was all we were getting. I was informed that the teleconference was scheduled for 10:13pm sharp. I feared the worst as I dialed in late as I was coming from another engagement. It was past 10:20 when the Rockets’ coach turned his attention to the Philippine media. But I was fine with it and I remembered something from the ‘Unfinished Business’ book about how the post-practices three-on-three games by the Boston players would begin on ‘McHale Standard Time’; meaning it would tip-off when the forward was done with whatever dillydallying he was into.

So the teleconference inadvertently started at ‘McHale Standard Time’.

What I asked was, “You are one of six players on the 1986 Boston team that won the NBA title to get into coaching (the others are Danny Ainge, Larry Bird, Rick Carlisle, Dennis Johnson, McHale, and Sam Vincent). Was that an influence of the late Red Auerbach and then coach KC Jones?”

Kevin: “Yeah, I think so, I just think Red had a real knack of getting guys who like to play and like basketball and who's really interested with basketball. I think the reason why we were a very very good team is that everybody know how to play. We talk basketball all the time. The first thing Red wanted to get was good basketball players but you want to get guys with good basketball minds and guys that love the game. Red had a way of getting guys around that love the game. We all love to play and talk basketball so it didn't surprise me that so many of the guys have gone on to coach and the other guys just gone on to stay in basketball because we all love basketball. “

I sort of expected Ainge to move to the sidelines but was pleasantly surprised when the others jumped into the coaching profession as well. Bird and Carlisle turned out to be outstanding coaches. As for Bird, that doused water on the theory that otherworldly talented cagers didn’t make for good coaches.

How does McHale as head coach?

It would be difficult to gauge because somehow, he's never had either the benefit of a full season or a team that can really complete. In two short stints as head coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves (the first after he fired college teammate Flip Saunders on February 25, 2005 while the second followed after he took over from the fired Randy Wittman during the 2008-09 season), McHale compiled a 39-55 record. You can say that this was the team he put together during his time as Minnesota General Manager. Nevertheless, his team was gutted by injuries so it’s hard to say if he was good or bad. But McHale was named NBA Western Conference Coach of the Month for January 2009 does have the coaching chops.

In two years with the Houston Rockets, McHale has gone 89-69. Last season, he had only four players from his first year on the squad in uniform (Marcus Morris, Patrick Patterson, Chandler Parsons, and Greg Smith). He had a bevy of new players that included James Harden and Jeremy Lin yet the team made the post-season (albeit with a late season flurry). To complicate matters, McHale took a leave of absence as his young daughter passed away from an illness. When he returned, he coached his team to the post-season where they went up against the defending Western Conference champions, the Oklahoma City Thunder, in the first round. The Thunder ousted the Rockets in six.

It would be easy to say that this Rockets team has superstar players in Harden or even Lin. But that kind of talent will only get one so far. I think that McHale worked on his coaching, rotation patterns, and his ability to make adjustments to get the team to a post-season berth.

So after two years, even with a team lacking in depth, even if he missed games to be with his family, I’d say McHale’s done a very good job in Houston. This year will be even more interesting as they added Dwight Howard to the mix. With Howard coming off consecutive nightmarish seasons, how he pans out in Houston will bear much scrutiny. And ditto with what McHale does with this lineup of his. But no doubt, I do not think they are done tinkering with this lineup. This is the season where we get to see what the former Boston great does with this lineup of his and how they can get past Oklahoma.

Yes. It’s once more McHale Standard Time in Houston.

In the meantime, I’m excited to meet McHale when he arrives for the NBA Global Games next week. I’m bringing both my McHale Celtics and my Houston Harden jerseys.  


Additional reading: My take on Jordan versus Kobe and LeBron

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