I just finished another book.
This is the first in a series of 7 or 8 books my father sent me in the mail recently. All of them had been laying around my parents house—the home I grew up in—for a decade or two.
My old man knows I’m on a reading actual books kick in my free time so he shipped them all my way.
The Big Three, written by Peter May in 1994, is about the greatest frontcourt in NBA history…The Boston Celtics era of Kevin McHale, Larry Bird, and Robert Parish.
Just a quick 287 pages.
I love that upon opening the book, written in pencil on the first cover page is ‘TO JIMMY, BEST WISHES’ in hardcore, barely legible, cursive.
Jimmy is my grandpa on my mothers side. He died in 2008, but I love that his passion for playing cards and watching sports have had such a big influence on me.
The Celtics were always his favorite team when I was growing up.
One would think it was because of Larry Bird, and I’m sure he was a big part of it, but it was actually Robert Parish who I remember him talking about the most.
“The Chief” was what he always called him.
I didn’t realize until I was a little older that “Chief” was Robert Parish’s known nickname in NBA circles, not just the one my grandpa had for him. Parish’s marijuana use, facial expressions, and/or some character I’ve never heard of on a movie called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are all said to be possible origins of the nickname.
After reading this book it was easy to see why Parish was one of my grandpa’s favorites.
The book itself started off slow. After 30-40 pages I wasn’t sure I was going to like it.
Shame on me.
I’m so used to today’s I want everything right now society that I forgot what good old-school interesting writing looks like, and it basically took me a few pages to get reacquainted.
Peter May did an amazing job of setting the scene. His storytelling ability, while never wavering from the actual facts, was pristine. If any of the stories within the story were ever in dispute he used quotes from each side and let the reader make up their own minds.
Old school journalism.
I thought I knew a lot about Bird and the Celtics teams of that era but May was able to get into so much more. He helped shine a light on what those 3 guys and those teams were all about.
Despite Parish, Bird, and McHale growing up in different parts of the country (Louisiana, Indiana, and Minnesota) their upbringings could not be more similar.
All three of their fathers worked hard-nosed, blue collar jobs. Their dads never missed a day of work.
All three grew up without much money or space, and had many siblings.
They all played college ball at universities not known for basketball success.
But despite having many of the same personal characteristics, they didn’t necessarily bond.
It’s been widely assumed that Bird and McHale were/are good friends. According the May, that’s not accurate.
That’s probably the most fascinating thing the book shined a light on. The three of them played together for a decade and their personal dynamics seemed to be caught in some sort of weird purgatory between being friends and mere co-workers the entire time.
They always had respect for each other, but the three of them had vastly different approaches to the game of life.
Bird’s whole life was basketball. It’s been well documented, I don’t need to say much more.
McHale showed up to work, punched the clock, and when the game was over enjoyed his family time, going fishing, and playing golf. He knew how to separate basketball from his life and kept things in perspective that way.
Parish kept to himself and produced all-star numbers year in and year out. He was always third on the pinwheel of The Big Three and it never bothered him. He took care of his body and marveled at the amount of money he was paid to play a game. So much so that at the time the book was written he was 40 years old and still playing. He retired at age 43.
He bragged about only having to work a couple hours a day a few nights a week. But don’t get it twisted, he was a rock and a solid force in the middle every single night for the Celtics in the ’80s and early ’90s.
He believed in loyalty over everything.
He went to Centenary College of Louisiana because they were the only ones to offer him a scholarship. After a big freshman year he was offered scholarships and illegal benefits under the table from other big-time basketball universities to transfer and he stayed put.
Back in those days the ABA was allowed to poach players from the college ranks at any random point in time. Parish was offered six figure deals from several teams and passed, despite basically having no money to his name and growing up poor.
When Centenary was slapped with probation his junior year and the school allowed students to transfer penalty free, Parish stayed put.
He made a commitment. That was that.
Years later during a contract dispute he didn’t participate in preseason games while negotiating. It was his one professional regret, saying ‘I should’ve just played it out. I signed an agreement, I should’ve honored that agreement.’
I was actually surprised to learn that contract disputes were a commonality between the big three. Bird had three of them. McHale also had a couple. Some of them got ugly.
But the most fascinating thing about this book was the dynamic between the three of them. They would die for each other on the court, and lived completely different lives off of it.
If the three categories of friends, acquaintances, and enemies exist in the world to describe personal relationships, The Big Three would need a fourth category all to themselves. One that hovered and fluctuated between friends and acquaintances, and acquaintances and enemies.
Longtime teammate of the group Danny Ainge said sometimes he was literally the go between for Bird and McHale. Bird would have something he wanted to say to McHale and have Ainge deliver the message in the locker room, and vice versa.
McHale understood Bird wanted to win more than anything. McHale was the same way, and he, along with Parish, was fine doing whatever it took to do so without getting the lions share of the credit.
In the book Parish acknowledges there were a separate set of rules for Larry, but it never bothered him.
As McHale put it at his retirement ceremony “People say I played second fiddle to Larry Bird, that’s still a pretty good fiddle.”
That sort of sums McHale and Perish up, and their personalities are part of the reason why The Big Three was so successful.
McHale would score 40 points and want to come out of the game with the result well in hand. Bird never came out and wanted the scoring record in every building he played in. Often times asking opposing coaches and scorekeepers what it was before the games.
Bird thought McHale should have won the MVP two or three times in his career. McHale didn’t mind coming off the bench and winning the 6th man of the year award.
Parish lingered in the background quietly getting 20 points and 10 rebounds a night, while doing all the dirty work that went unnoticed…setting screens, blocking shots, and quickly throwing outlet passes after rebounds to start the fast break.
That’s just the way it was.
As Bird said “he probably” wouldn’t have won a single title without McHale and “he definitely” wouldn’t have won any without Parish.
All told The Big Three won three championships together.
As for the book. I highly highly highly recommend it, but I say that with the caveat you understand where I’m coming from. If you want a gossipy, drama filled, fabricated ‘stories behind the stories’ type of book, The Big Three isn’t for you.
If you want a flashback to the age of credibility, factual writing, and authenticity in story-telling, and you have even a vague interest in the topic, you’ll love it.
JimMarch 28, 2021
Such a great era