CORNELIUS, N.C. — He was always the mystery man in the middle, 00 on a team where 33 drew the spotlight and 32 the laughs, a proudly impassive, hugely talented, ever elusive presence.
Robert Parish, “The Chief,” rarely talked to the media and never hung around with Celtics teammates after a game. Associates say he would not answer his phone, letting messages go to voicemail. After leaving the team in 1994, he let his connection to the Green fray and fade, even to the point of selling off his 1986 world championship ring for spending money.
So it was a surprise when this resolute loner picked up the phone at his home in North Carolina on the third ring.
At 8 the following morning, a jovial Parish, looking as if he could still hit that rainbow jumper over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, stretches out on an enormous couch, sips mineral water, and answers questions for nearly two hours.
Parish, 59, said that Bird and McHale, both of whom have held coaching and front office jobs in the league (McHale is the coach of the Houston Rockets), have done nothing to help him in his quest to return to the NBA, although he says he has reached out to them. He calls his Hall of Fame teammates “acquaintances.”
“In my case, I don’t have any friends,’’ Parish said. “I saw Kevin at an event; he said he was going to call me. He never called. I called Larry twice when he was at the Indiana Pacers; he never returned my call. And not just Larry. Across the board, most NBA teams do not call back. You need a court order just to get a phone call back from these organizations. I’m not a part of their fraternity.”
Bird has a rather different recollection. Traveling, he sent a concise text in response to questions from the Globe: “Robert never called me for a job. Period.”
McHale, for his part, expressed remorse in a voicemail. He said he tried to hire Parish when he was in Minnesota, but “I went back and checked . . . we were actually reducing spots at the time. Then I was let go from Minnesota.”
He says he saw Parish later, when McHale worked for TNT.
“I feel terrible about the whole thing, but I just didn’t have a position,’’ McHale said. “I would have loved to have hired Robert if something would’ve came up.”
Parish said he never called former teammate and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge directly, but he has talked to the Celtics.
“You would think Danny would’ve stepped up and said something,’’ he said. “I think he’s got a little pull with the organization. But I didn’t take it personal. I understood.’’
He won championships with these guys, so why no love?
“I know it’s hard to believe,” he said with a shrug, “But trust me, that’s right.”
Pressed for a further explanation, he answered, “I don’t know. I would not consider myself part of Larry’s inner circle, like he’s not in my inner circle. Same thing with Kevin. He’s not in my inner circle; I’m not in his inner circle. Same thing with Danny. You know we respect each other. We had the camaraderie, obviously, collectively, on the team because of our success on the court. But off the court, you know, we weren’t hanging out going to dinner, drinks, going to the movies, double dating, whatever you wanted to do. We weren’t doing any of that.”
Parish is pressed on his relationship with Ainge.
He responds by reaching back in time, telling a story about how Celtics president Red Auerbach and coach K.C. Jones once asked him to take fewer shots because Dennis Johnson and Ainge wanted more scoring opportunities. The Chief readily agreed.
“Danny is selfish, even after I made the sacrifice for him and DJ, he still asked to be traded.’’
Parish said that Bill Walton, whom he calls “the most honest person I ever met, besides my parents,” has given him some realistic advice.
“He said most teams are not going to call you back, it’s not personal, it’s protocol. Don’t take it personal, don’t be insulted by it. It’s just the way it is.”
Several years ago, his representatives reached out to all 30 NBA teams. Only two called him back. Now he’s trying harder. “I’ve been guilty of that, too, not returning phone calls.’’ he said. “We all have. “
He says he’s not angry at his teammates, either.
“I have never sat here and said those [expletive] didn’t call me back. Not one time. I am very proud of this fact.”
Named one of 50 greatest
Nobody played in more NBA games than the Chief. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003 and had been named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history in 1996.
One of the most unselfish players ever to play, Parish was so stoic that teammate Cedric Maxwell started calling him “Chief” after the uncommunicative Native American in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’’
“I want to get the word out,” Parish said. “NBA coach, assistant coach, front office, or television would be fine.’’
The Celtics hired him in 2004 for public relations work, but Parish found the $80,000 salary too low. “I want to make it clear, I’m not whining, and the Celtics owe me nothing. But having said that, you would think at least I would have a conversation about a coaching job, since that’s what I want to do.”
Parish, who earned roughly $24 million in 21 years in the NBA, says he needs a job with a substantial six-to-seven-figure salary. “I don’t want to have to start over. I’m not homeless and I’m not penniless, but I need to work.”
Parish, who lives in an immaculate, tastefully decorated tan stucco home on the edge of a golf course, says his money was drained away because he wasn’t working and he was “too generous” with family, friends, and significant others.
“There’s no need in crying about that now. I’m not making no excuses ’cause I’m to blame. I enjoyed it. I don’t want to come across as Poor Robert.’’
He’s sold all four championship rings, his Basketball Hall of Fame ring, and his 50 Greatest NBA players ring to net several hundred thousand dollars.
He expresses some remorse for selling his Celtics rings, but not a lot. “The truth is, I never looked at them,” he said.
The hardest piece of jewelry to part with was the 50 Greatest NBA players ring.
“For me that signified that I was the player I thought I was. That was vindication for all the naysayers.”
The Chief is sure he could be a head coach or assistant in the NBA.
“I know X’s and O’s. I know when to call a timeout,” he says. “I earn respect. I’m a positive thinker. I’ve got 30 years’ experience playing basketball.”
But he has barely worked since he retired in 1997. He was Coach of the Year with the Maryland Mustangs of the United States Basketball League in 2001, but the team folded. He says that the last three years of his playing career, with Charlotte and Chicago Bulls, were essentially coaching jobs. “I did a lot of mentoring,” he said.
Problems with the law
Parish knows well that there are marks on his resume that get in the way when it comes to getting the kind of high-profile position he longs for. He says he is still constantly reminded of his marijuana bust in 1993 when two ounces of pot arrived via FedEx at his Weston home. A police dog had detected the marijuana in the package. Police followed with a search warrant and he was charged with possession. He paid a $30 fine and was on probation for five years.
“That will never go away,” he says. Parish, who says he smoked marijuana to relax after games, says he stopped smoking in 1995. “But people don’t believe that, and I’ll never live it down.”
The domestic violence incident of June 2, 1987 with his then-wife, Nancy Saad, also still haunts him. “We were in Los Angeles to play the Lakers [in the NBA Finals]. She came by to my hotel and I had a guest. She flips out ’cause I’ve got a guest.”
The argument escalated and Parish lost his temper. He said he pushed her into a doorway across the hall.
“Looking back on it, her intent was to provoke me to do something physically and it succeeded,’’ he said. “I take the blame for that, hook, line and sinker. I’m not going to downplay the domestic violence. I’m not going to downplay that under no circumstance, I regret it. You should never put your hands on a woman, under any circumstances.’’
He admits the pot and the domestic violence are “skeletons in his closet.”
“But you’re talking about the ’80s and ’90s, good gracious . . . Let it go. We all deserve a second chance.”
Parish returns to New England on Saturday for an an autograph signing at the South Shore Plaza in Braintree from noon to 2 p.m.
He said he’d like to live in Boston full-time, but it’s too cold. He has a message for fans who are worried about his well-being.
“I appreciate the love and the concern. I’ve never questioned their love or their loyalty to me. Boston treated me exceptionally well. I have no complaints about the fans or the Celtics organization. I feel like I got a fair shake. All love from both sides, hopefully. I know there’s nothing but love from my side.”