Toby Kimball, a rugged, dogged basketball player who starred for the University of Connecticut and played his rookie season with the Boston Celtics, died Tuesday at a hospital near his home in La Jolla, Calif. He was 74.
Mr. Kimball died of complications from an inflammatory lung disease, his son, Tim, told the Associated Press.
A prep star for Belmont Hill School who hailed from Sudbury, the 6-foot-8 forward led the nation in rebounding as a senior at UConn. He was taken in the third round by the Celtics in the 1965 draft and, after a season refining his shooting skills in Italy, played the 1966-1967 season with his hometown team. It was his first of nine NBA seasons.
“What a thrill, and a surprise, to be picked by the Celtics — my team,’’ Mr. Kimball said after the draft.
Yet, when the NBA boosted its number of teams in 1967 and held an expansion draft, Mr. Kimball was left exposed by the Celtics and was taken by the San Diego Rockets. “I hated to give him up,’’ general manager Red Auerbach told the Globe. “He’s got nothing but guts and he’ll run till his heart gives out. He’s extra strong and he’s quick under the hoop.’’
Mr. Kimball would later suit up for Milwaukee, Kansas City-Omaha, and Philadelphia, but the toll on his body was significant.
“I’m disabled from playing sports,’’ he told Globe columnist Leigh Montville in 1977, two years after retiring at 32. “The last two years were awful.’’
His problems began when he suffered a dislocated knee toward the end of a game at the Garden in his rookie season.
“As I came down I was turning to pass the ball down the court on a fast break, so as I came down my kneecap went from the front of my body to the back of my body,” he said earlier this year.
Bill Russell held his head while doctors tried to put his kneecap back in place. Russell was holding his head, Mr. Kimball said, because he was banging it on the parquet floor in hopes of passing out.
Instead of having surgery, he was placed in a body cast; the knee never healed properly.
As he neared the end of his career, Mr. Kimball said, he adopted a daily regimen of stealth visits to neighborhood spas for whirlpools and “four or five’’ different painkillers.
“The thing is, you’d never want the team to know,’’ he said. “They say ‘report all injuries.’ Well, that’s fine, but what happens if you report all injuries? You report too many and they say, ‘See you later.’ ’’
When he was finally cut by his last team, New Orleans, he received the news while sitting in a whirlpool.
In 571 games, Mr. Kimball averaged 6.1 points a game and 6.8 rebounds.
When people asked him if his career was worth it, Mr. Kimball told Montville he would reply:
“I say that if I add up the money, the friends I made, the places I saw . . . playing in the National Basketball Association was worth it, even with the pain.
“But then I add something. I say: ‘Come back and see me in about six years,’ ” he added. “I might say then that I wished I never had heard of basketball.’’
He stopped taking painkillers and eventually won a cumulative injury workers’ compensation claim against the league.
Thomas “Toby’’ Kimball was born Sept. 7, 1942. He was a legendary prep player in Greater Boston, leading Belmont Hill to 55 straight wins over three years.
William Croke, the prep school’s athletic director at the time, told the Globe that Toby Kimball was the greatest all-around high school athlete he ever saw.
At UConn, he averaged 18.4 points and 17.9 rebounds, leading the school to three Yankee Conference championships and three NCAA Tournament berths, including a regional final in 1964. In his last year, he averaged 21 rebounds a game, leading the nation.
Tim Kimball told the Associated Press one of the greatest honors of his father’s life was having his name placed on the wall at UConn’s Gampel Pavilion in 2006 as part of the Huskies of Honor.
In addition to his son, Mr. Kimball leaves his wife of 50 years, Helen, and two grandchildren.
His family plans a service in Boston at a later date.
Tim Kimball described his father as a big kid, the kind of guy who would ‘‘do a cannonball at a pool on vacation in Palm Springs to get the stuffy people on the other side wet.’’
He said his father never boasted about his basketball ability, always emphasizing that it was a team game.
‘‘He joked that he became a good rebounder because he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn door,’’ Tim Kimball said. ‘‘He wasn’t a shooter, but boy did he have rebounds.’’Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.