Robert Parish is one of the greatest players ever to have stepped on to a basketball court. In a professional career that lasted a record 21 years, Parish played for two of the greatest teams in National Basketball Association history: the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls. In 1997, Parish was named among the 50 greatest players in NBA history.
Parish was in Mumbai recently to promote the NBA Junior Hoop School programme to conduct coaching camps for students and refresher courses for school coaches. Before launching into a session at the American School of Bombay, Parish spoke to us about life after the NBA, his career, the current crop of NBA stars and his vision for Indian basketball. Edited excerpts:
You played for 21 years professionally, at the highest level. How did you manage that?
Long haul: In a career that lasted 21 seasons, Parish played 1,611 NBA games.
Yes. It’s a record. I was very lucky, of course. I never really got injured. And I really took care of myself. As I grew older I realized that I had to be in shape all year round instead of just during the basketball season. So I always took just a month off after a season and then got back into training right away. (After a pause) And good genes from my family! I recently lost my mother. She was 75. My father is 80 and still going strong.
Did you come from a family that played basketball?
Nope. I picked it up outside...
Of course being 7ft-1½ helps...
Being tall was useful (laughs). But my junior high school coach spotted me when I was in seventh grade. I was 6ft-2 or 6ft-3.
In seventh grade!
Yes. So he noticed me. And then that summer, when I went from seventh to eighth grade, I came back to school 6ft-6. I put on 4 inches over the summer (holds up four astonishingly long fingers)! By the time I was in ninth grade, I was 7ft tall. So my coach told me that I had to try basketball.
Now, you wore a 00 on your jersey all through your career, right?
Again, this was because of my junior high school coach. He told us to pick a number based on how good we were at basketball. When I joined, I got the double zero.
Wait. He thought you were the worst on the team?
He didn’t think. I was the worst guy on the team. No question about that (laughs). But I am the only (one) who ever made it from my junior high school to the NBA!
Now after a long time at the Celtics and then the Charlotte Hornets, you finally played a year for the Chicago Bulls. A lot of people were surprised by that decision so late in your career...you were 43.
It wasn’t part of a plan. After I left the Hornets, I thought my career was over. I was thinking about retiring. And that’s when I got a call from the Bulls asking if I was interested in playing for them for a year. Now they were defending champions, and I figured that I could probably win another championship with them. So I thought...oh sure why not! I wasn’t asking for it, but it happened.
But the Bulls were a much younger, and an awesome, team. Was it difficult for you to fit in with the younger guys?
I was the oldest player in the league! I did get picked on for my age. They called me old man, pops, father time... But professionally, they reminded me a lot of the Boston Celtics. They had a great approach to work, great staff. In a way, it was a mirror of the Boston Celtics.
So did the Bulls give you your nickname The Chief?
Oh no. I got it at the Celtics. I am a big movie fan. Have you seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Well, there is this character in it...the Indian chief. Somebody on the team said that I was like that guy. Quiet, reserved, tough...didn’t talk a lot. So they called me The Chief. The name stuck...even after my playing days. Though I am a little more vocal on the court. But I am not like one of those players, like Dennis Johnson or Cedric Maxwell, who could talk while playing. I could talk. Or, I could play. Not both.
It’s been a while since you left the NBA. How do you think things have changed since your era?
Well, for one thing, the shorts have got much longer (laughs)! But seriously speaking, the players are bigger, faster...more athletic. Obviously they make a lot more money than we used to. Another thing is that the rules have changed. There is not as much contact...banging, touching, pushing. You can’t touch anyone any more. Defence has become more zone-defence. When I was playing, it was more man-to-man.
How has India been? Have you enjoyed the camps? Has Indian basketball impressed?
This is my last stop. I’ve been to Delhi and Bangalore. The people have been very gracious to me. Very caring and accepting of all of us. I am pleasantly surprised by the level of...knowledge the people of India have about me. When I went to a school in Delhi, the kids knew everything about me. My stats, my career... I was real surprised about that. I knew they would know about Jordan and Lebron James. But I am old school, man!
And the quality of basketball?
Again, I was surprised. I know it’s not taken seriously...or as much as cricket. In the US, we play all sports. The people of India just concentrate on one sport...cricket. So I was interested to come here and reach out to the youth. That’s how I got my start. People need to understand the sport.
Did you get a chance to see or play any cricket?
I saw it on TV. But I don’t...get it. But in the same way that India doesn’t really get basketball, either. Yet. But once you get neighbourhood courts and your own Kobe Bryant or Lebron James...India is going to accept basketball too.
But what about short guys like me?
The NBA Slam Dunk champion in 1986 was Spud Webb. He was 5ft 5. Shorter than you, man! So you don’t have to be tall.
Final question. How did you develop that famous rainbow jump shot of yours?
My coach again! He used to take a long broom and wave it in front of me and ask me to shoot over it. So I ended up developing that shot.