40 years ago, the Celtics pulled off a trade that cemented a championship foundation

The second-best deal in Celtics history occurred 40 years ago Tuesday.

Robert Parish presented Kevin McHale with a jersey autographed by himself and Larry Bird at McHale's number-retirement ceremony in January 1994.
Robert Parish presented Kevin McHale with a jersey autographed by himself and Larry Bird at McHale's number-retirement ceremony in January 1994. –Jim Davis/The Boston Globe

The Celtics have a greater history of pulling off heists than any other franchise in professional sports. No executive will ever top Red Auerbach in terms of Major Deals Won, but in an era of greater league-wide competence and higher degree of difficulty, Danny Ainge has pulled off a few mega-steals of his own. I cannot wait to see how the famous Nets deal — which netted Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — looks five years from now.

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I do know this: As great as that deal may turn out, it won’t crack the top two in Celtics history. The best trade — and arguably the most beneficial transaction in the history of sports in terms of acquiring a single player — was Auerbach’s swap with the St. Louis Hawks on April 30, 1956.

On that date, Auerbach sent Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks for the No. 2 pick in the draft. To ensure that they got the player they wanted, Celtics owner Walter Brown promised one week of the Ice Capades to the Rochester Royals — who owned the No. 1 pick — if they wouldn’t take University of San Francisco center Bill Russell.

Rochester, which couldn’t resist that sweet, sweet Ice Capades revenue, agreed, and took Si Green with the No. 1 overall pick. Russell? He merely became the greatest winner in the history of American team sports. Rochester still holds those Ice Capades dates. They might still have a professional basketball team had they taken Russell.

That’s the greatest trade in Boston history, and the only other transaction in sports history that approaches it in terms of impact was the Red Sox’ sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees. I trust you need no further detail on that one, having watched Fox rehash it on every Sox-Yankees broadcast from, oh, 1995-2004.

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The second-best deal in Celtics history occurred 40 years ago Tuesday. Auerbach and coach Bill Fitch — who pushed for the trade harder than Red did — acquired 26-year-old center Robert Parish and the No. 3 pick in the 1980 NBA Draft from the Warriors for the Nos. 1 and 13 picks in the draft.

With the No. 1 pick, the Warriors took Purdue center Joe Barry Carroll, then added another forward named Rickey Brown with the No. 13 pick. The Celtics took Kevin McHale, a lanky fella from the University of Minnesota, with the No. 3 pick.

Parish and McHale combined for 16 All-Star appearances and helped hang three banners from the Garden rafters as Celtics. Carroll was a perennial underachiever who carried the perfect Peter Vecsey-coined nickname “Joe Barely Cares” for most of his 10-year career. He retired six years before Parish did.

Brown was a journeyman perhaps best known for being one of about a dozen Atlanta Hawks to get roasted by Larry Bird during his 60-point game in 1985.

Looking back four decades later, it’s fascinating to see how it all came to be. The NBA was so different then. Horrible trades were made regularly by terrible organizations. The Celtics happened to own the No. 1 pick that year thanks to the accidental largesse of a certain former Pistons coach named Dick Vitale.

Rumors and mysteries

Vitale was the coach of the Pistons in September 1979 when the Celtics were negotiating compensation with the hapless Detroit franchise for signing free agent M.L. Carr. Vitale helped settle the deal by trading two first-round picks to the Celtics for disgruntled forward Bob McAdoo. One of those picks became the No. 1 choice in the ’80 draft. Vitale was already out of Detroit by that point, having started his second season with a 4-8 record. You may be more familiar with him from his second career, baby.

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The consensus choice for the No. 1 pick in the ’80 draft was Carroll, a talented but passive center from Purdue whom Fitch compared with Parish before the draft. (In Jack McCallum’s fabulous book on the 1990-91 Celtics, “Unfinished Business,’’ Frank Layden, then coach of the Jazz, describes Carroll as someone who looks like “he is on a lifetime coffee break.”)

The Celtics actually preferred McHale, who lived a happy-go-lucky college-kid existence with the Gophers and didn’t know he was a surefire high NBA draft pick until his senior year.

“People think I’m b.s.-ing them with that story,’’ he told McCallum, “but it’s true. I never really took the time to find out if I was good.”

McHale recalled his surprise when reading that Louisville star Darrell Griffith, who wanted to play for the Celtics but went No. 2 to the Jazz, backed out of a college all-star game in Hawaii to make sure he didn’t get hurt before the draft.

“What’s with this guy?” said McHale, as recounted by McCallum. “Miss a free trip to Hawaii? I went over there, drank pina coladas and beer, and won the MVP.“

Before the trade, the Warriors intended to take McHale with the No. 3 pick, despite a visit in Minnesota with Golden State coach Al Attles that may have raised some concerns about McHale’s seriousness of purpose. He picked Attles up at the airport in jeans and a sweat shirt, driving a 1966 Plymouth with bad brakes.

“He must have thought I was a psycho or something,’’ McHale recalled in the book.

The Celtics preferred McHale to Carroll, but didn’t let anyone know, according to Peter May in his book, “The Last Banner,’’ about the 1985-86 Celtics.

“Auerbach played it cagey,’’ wrote May. “So did coach Bill Fitch. Publicly, the Celtics lusted after Joe Barry Carroll, the center from Purdue; privately, they wanted McHale, but wanted to somehow work a deal where they wouldn’t draft him first overall. McHale was good, but he wasn’t that good.”

On the day of the draft, mystery and rumors surrounded the Celtics’ plan. Wrote Bob Ryan in the Globe, “They’ve got the No. 1 pick, and no offseason story has so captivated the local basketball public in the 34-year history of the Boston Celtics.”

The possibility of a trade with the Warriors was an open secret, but the parameters were still broad. There was talk of trading the No. 1 pick for Parish and troubled point guard John Lucas. Another possibility was sending the Nos. 1 and 13 picks plus center Rick Robey to the Warriors for the No. 3 pick, Parish, and Lucas.

Ryan also cited rumors involving Bulls center Artis Gilmore and Kings point guard Phil Ford coming to the Celtics.

Meanwhile, the Warriors tried to hide their hand, claiming they were content with keeping Parish, drafting McHale at No. 3, and then trying to sign free agent forward Truck Robinson.

(It’s amusing to look back and read how down Fitch was on Robey, who was taken three picks before draft-eligible Bird in 1978 by the Pacers and quickly sent to the Celtics. “There is no doubt in my mind that he [Robey] is not the guy to go 82 times a year as your center for the next five years,’’ said Fitch to Ryan. The Celtics eventually traded him in June 1983 to the Suns for perceived malcontent guard Dennis Johnson. I believe that qualifies as another heist.)

Even better

It’s worth remembering that the 26-year-old Parish’s reputation was not sterling as a Warrior. Golden State wanted him to be more of a post presence and to stop shooting jumpers. His effort was often questioned, which might be hard to fathom for Celtics fans who grew up watching him outrun every big man in the league in the ‘80s. But the Warriors’ roster was among the league leaders in bad influences in the drug-fueled late ‘70s.

Parish, who had ankle and feet problems as a young player, lasted 21 years in the NBA, but he told May he might have retired as a young man had he not been traded to Boston. (He also said Rick Barry was the most “arrogant individual I’ve ever met in my life,’’ which was not an uncommon sentiment.) At the time of the deal, he had just one year left on his contract.

Parish was at a crossroads. Though he eventually proved to be a selfless teammate who had no interest in the spotlight, the Celtics could not have been sure what they were getting at that point. In a column that poked fun at his own knack for being wrong about trades, the Globe’s Ray Fitzgerald wrote in a piece that ran two days after the deal about his skepticism of Parish.

“The last time I saw Parish … he did not remind me of Kareem or Artis Gilmore or even Rick Robey,’’ wrote Fitzgerald.

“He la-de-dahed through a televised game from the Coast, a 7-foot invisible man. Phlegmatic is a good word, and also disinterested, and lethargic makes three. A change of scenery and a chance to play for a contender and join the Celtics’ ‘family’ will change all that. Sure it will.”

Wasn’t the first time a sportswriter was wrong about a trade. As it turns out, Auerbach, Fitch, and the Celtics got this deal more right than even they knew then.

It wasn’t the best trade in Celtics history, because that title is retired until someone wins as many rings as Russell, and that’s never happening. But it brought the second-best center in franchise history, and another future Hall of Famer in McHale. Most organizations have never pulled off a deal nearly as beneficial.

When you can get two-thirds of what would come to be known as The Big Three in one swoop, that’s a trade that requires no excuse to celebrate.

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