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Early impressions of Celtics rookie Kevin McHale in 1980 were positive

Kevin McHale was a shaggy 22-year-old first-round pick when he arrived in Boston in 1980.

Editor’s note: The Globe is reaching into its archives to bring you “Replay,” articles from the past that highlight something interesting, timely, or revealing. This column by Leigh Montville on Celtics rookie Kevin McHale appeared on Sunday, Nov. 9, 1980, under the headline “Trying hard to get a good report card.”

There is a piece of black hair that seems to bother Kevin McHale. It continually flops over his forehead and he continually tries to blow it back into place.

He is a big package of earnest nervousness. You can see his eyes looking here and there on the court, every which way, trying to forecast what will happen next. He is the tall Irish lookout man outside the bank as Robert Mitchum and the rest of the gang are instructing the tellers not to make a move and nobody will be hurt. The hair flops down again. Phew. He blows at it again.

Everything is new for Kevin McHale. New and old at the same time. He is a rookie in this National Basketball Assn.


Where does he fit?

What will he be?

How will the pieces fall together in the end?

He does not know. Larry Bird was a rookie last year, but Larry Bird was different. He knew from the beginning. Everybody knew. Larry Bird was golden. He was special. Ping! He moved along to this new league, this new life, and there never was a doubt about what he could do. He was travelling on a happy continuum. The job was his. The team was his. Hell, the town was his before he ever tested his first up-fake on an NBA giant.

Things are more complicated for Kevin McHale. He is going to play with these Boston Celtics, no argument there, but how much is he going to play? What will be his role? He is the more traditional NBA rookie, this big kid from Minnesota, a No. 1 draft choice, good, but how good? He has to wait to see.


The usual script in the early part of this season is that he goes into the game sometime in the middle of the second period. He plays for a while, gets his test and goes from there. The starting lineup returns for the start of the second half and anything can happen after that. Sometimes Kevin McHale will reappear, the call coming from the far end of coach Bill Fitch’s bench. Sometimes the call will not come. Kevin McHale will not reappear.

“You’re always expecting to come out of the game,” he said Friday night after the Celtics had lost, 102-101, to the Milwaukee Bucks in a hot early-season affair. “You hear the horn and you look to see if someone is coming in for you. That’s the thing with being a rookie. You have to get your confidence up. You have to break into the lineup and you have to break into a position where everybody accepts you. That’s what it is to be a rookie.”

Kevin McHale spoke with Red Auerbach on draft night in 1980.Janet Knott/Globe Staff

The fact was significant, then, that on this night the horn did not sound a lot for Kevin McHale. He checked often — “For me?” you could see him ask as each forward or center came onto the court — but mostly he stayed. He played a lot, 26 of the 48 minutes. He was terrific.


If the result had turned out better for the Celtics, one more shot going through the basket, two more foul shots, someplace, any place, the game could have been handed to McHale. There. His win. He did it.

As it was, he still was the prime subject of discussion. He blocked six shots, scored 13 points, pulled seven rebounds off the boards. He rolled on the floor. He stole the ball twice. There was an early Dave Cowens touch to him at stretches as he seemed to be at both ends of the floor at once, part of everything that happened. The sellout crowd noticed. The biggest ovations were for him, going and coming, whenever he moved in or out of the lineup.

“You like to test a guy like him out,” said Bucks All-Star forward Marques Johnson, who played man-to-man against the rookie. “You want to see what he can and can’t do. You have a check list. Definitely. You’re working it through your mind.”

Where is Kevin McHale vulnerable? Where is he strong? What can you do against Kevin McHale? What can’t you do? What does he like to do? What doesn’t he like to do? Johnson said he worked the whole list, question by question.

“One thing you learn early against him,” Johnson said, "is that you’re going to have to take him outside. He must have exceptionally long arms. It doesn’t look as if he jumps that high, but he’s always got those arms in front of you, making you alter your shot. It’s almost impossible to get through him on the inside.


“Guarding him, I know he can shoot the ball pretty well. Or at least I think he can. The thing I didn’t know was how fast he is. There were a couple of times, fast breaks, he was just flying. I didn’t think he could do that.”

“He looks to me like he’s one of those guys who can make a team a winner,” Bucks coach Don Nelson said. “Never an All-Star, maybe, never huge stats, but a winner. One of those guys who does all the little things that coaches like so much. The old-time type of player. Plays hard and doesn’t complain. That type.”

So for one night the reviews were not only good, but very good. Kevin McHale did what he wanted to do. The time was his. The noise was his. Is this the way it will be? Is this the way it always will be? Is this the beginning?

Maybe every kid in Boston will be — phew — blowing the hair off his forehead by the end of this year the same way he started wiping the soles of his sneakers by the end of last year, just because Larry Bird does that. Maybe not.

If the one night can mean anything, though, you can count him as solid. You can count him as a bigger and bigger contributor. If he were a state and the ABC election desk were handling the case, he already would be colored blue and put in the plus column. He seems to be a certain winner from the first sketchy returns.