How the Very Different Larry Bird and Kevin McHale teamed
to form the Greatest Forward Tandem in League History
By Cort Reynolds While they were not exactly Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, TV and Broadway’s classic “Odd Couple”, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale combined their very disparate personalities and games to form the greatest forward tandem in NBA history in a superbly efficient and durable pairing from 1980-92.
Larry’s lethal perimeter shooting, precise passing and rugged defensive rebounding meshed perfectly with Kevin’s incredible set of post moves, defensive versatility and offensive glass work.
In their first season as NBA teammates in 1980-81, Bird and McHale accomplished something neither could do in college despite playing on some top teams – they won a championship together.
In 1980-81, second-year man Bird was the league’s MVP runner-up and rookie McHale was a top reserve on the 62-20 Boston team that rallied from 3-1 down to beat Philadelphia in arguably the greatest playoff series ever.
In game six of that epic showdown, the long-armed McHale made arguably the key defensive play of the series. With 76er guard Andrew Toney driving to shoot a runner that would have put the host Sixers ahead in the final minute and perhaps eliminate Boston, Kevin leaped high to block the shot of the Boston Strangler off the glass, and then captured the rebound to save the day.
Boston held on to win 100-98 to even the series 3-3, then won a classic 91-90 decisive contest on Bird’s 15-foot pull-up banker at the end. The Celtics then went on to beat upstart Houston and Moses Malone in the Finals for their first title banner in five years, 4-2.
And so kicked off a great and incredibly productive pairing. Larry Bird never won a title without Kevin McHale, or Robert Parish for that matter. But it was with his gangly forward mate that he would be at his most effective.
They had their similarities, but the differences were much more glaringly apparent.
One wore number 33, the other 32, with both jerseys eventually hanging from the Garden rafters not long after each retired.
One had blonde hair, the other coal black. Bird was the best passing forward ever, while Kevin was viewed through much of his career as a “black hole” who rarely passed the ball back out once he got it inside, ready to do his low post magic.
Larry was an introvert with a sharp sense of humor, and McHale was a gregarious, happy go lucky sort who nevertheless was a rugged competitor when between the lines.
McHale was the better individual defender and shot blocker, Larry the great team defender. The well-positioned and hard-nosed Bird was the consummate defensive rebounding forward, while the quick-leaping, long-armed Kevin was a beast on the offensive glass.
Although Bird could be a prankster himself, he was usually quite serious. Kevin was the one who put pieces of wadded paper in the open mouths of sleeping teammates while their heads reclined on airplanes.
Kevin ate pizza on the bench when hurt, joked with the opposition on the foul line, almost always talking. Bird was the great perimeter shooter, Kevin arguably the greatest low post player ever, certainly among forwards.
Larry was a better leaper than given credit for, especially early in his career, but Kevin was the superior jumper, yet due to his long wingspan, his ability to get up high and quickly as often underrated.
Bird was an instant success, earning Rookie of the Year and first team all-league in his first season. Kevin was a great reserve at first and became the latest Celtic super sixth man over his first four years before an injury to Cedric Maxwell finally got him into the starting lineup in the 1984-85 season. Yet he returned to his sixth man role for much of his last three years. Larry was first team all-league in his first nine seasons, a string stopped only by injury.
But of course the two also had some things in common. Both were extremely smart players, future NBA head coaches and GMs, with high skill levels and a great amount of pride. Each was very good in the clutch and very competitive.
Bird had good low post scoring skills too, but with the emergence of Kevin as a superstar starter inside, he moved his game mostly outside to accommodate the double low post pairing of McHale and Parish.
Ironically, had a few things gone differently, the two unsung and under-recruited high school stars might have even been college teammates.
Bird went to Indiana University briefly in the fall of 1974, while McHale was recruited later by IU, one of only two out of state schools to pursue him at all, Utah being the other. But Bob Knight thought he was too thin for the Big 10 and backed off, so McHale accepted a late offer to stay near home at Minnesota. Thus their careers could have overlapped from 1976-78 at Indiana.
Both also looked up to Bill Walton, their future teammate on the 1986 champion Celtics, in high school and college. McHale had the big redhead’s poster on his college dorm room wall, and switched from his college number of 44 to 32 in the pros in honor of Walton, whose jersey numeral was always 32 before coming to Boston. (He wore 5 with the Celtics, the sum of 3 and 2).
The tight-lipped Bird also had admitted to admiring Walton’s all-around game and great passing skills as a high schooler when Bill was leading UCLA to two titles and three straight Final Fours.
Walton would later call McHale the “second-best post player he ever guarded, behind only Jabbar.”
Sensing Kevin’s vast potential early on, Bird tried to motivate the lanky 6-10 forward-center, saying he could “be the best player in the league - if he worked harder.”
“Why can’t you be more like Larry?” asked Bill Fitch, coach of the Celtics from 1979-83, who was at times exasperated by McHale’s early less serious basketball dedication, at least compared to the no-nonsense Bird.
“Because I have a life,” replied Kevin.
Years after they had all retired, in 2003 the controversial redhead had a short-lived reality TV show called “Bill Walton’s Long, Strange Trip.” On one episode Walton and his friend Al visited McHale when he was general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves. As part of the show’s storyline, Walton’s intentionally annoying and unathletic sidekick repeatedly tried to get Kevin to admit he was better than Bird, whom he provocatively stated was overrated.
But Kevin would not take the bait, insisting that Larry, who carried all the pressure of being "the white hope" and focus of the opposition, as well as the caretaker of the Celtic tradition, was the team leader and the greater all-around player.
“When I first started practicing with Larry, I would call my friends back home and tell them, you gotta see this guy Bird, he is unbelievable…he pulled the hidden ball/fake pass trick on me. Larry had a very quick first step.”
In another episode Walton visited Bird at his home in Indiana, where Larry upset Bill, a fine chess player, in a match, then laughingly refused to grant him a rematch.
McHale and Bird both loved to torment Danny Ainge, whom they saw as the proverbial bratty little brother. But although there was mutual respect, there was also competition between Larry and Kevin.
When McHale put together his superb first team all-league campaign in 1986-87, some observers even thought Kevin had surpassed Larry, the three-time reigning league MVP, as the Celtic MVP as well as possibly the league MVP.
In that season, Bird and McHale drove each other to became the only forward duo from the same team ever to make first team All-NBA. McHale shot a league-best 60.4 percent from the field and tallied a career-best 26.1 points a game.
He also snared 9.9 rebounds, passed out 2.6 assists and blocked 2.2 shots per game while making 83.6 percent from the foul line. Oh, and he also made first team all-defense. Kevin’s lateral movement, smarts, length and leaping ability were so good that he could guard anyone from Adrian Dantley to Moses Malone.
Not bad, especially since he broke a bone in his foot late in the campaign, an injury he soldiered on with bravely throughout the grueling 1987 playoffs. An injury that caused him to miss the first 18 games of the following season, and still causes him to limp to this day along the sidelines while coaching the Houston Rockets.
Bird narrowly topped McHale statistically that magical campaign, averaging 28.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 1.8 steals per game. He shot 52.5 percent from the field, 91 percent from the foul line and 40 percent beyond the arc. Try doing that, LeBron – especially without all the traveling, palming, uncalled charges and star foul calls.
Thus the duo combined for 54.2 points, 19.1 rebounds, 10.2 assists and over 56 percent field goal shooting and 87 percent from the charity stripe in that first team all-league campaign. Amazing production and efficiency, considering they only took a combined 37.2 official shots per game (Bird 20.2, McHale 17.0).
Their private competition spurred each other to greater heights. On March 3, 1985, Kevin burned Detroit for 56 points to break John Havlicek’s club record of 54.
On McHale’s record day, he sank an astounding 22 of 28 shots from the floor, as well as 12 of 13 free throws, while also pulling down 16 rebounds. In that same game, Bird scored 23 points and dished out 10 assists as the Celtics won a 138-129 shootout.
“He should have scored more,” warned Bird, “the record will soon fall.” Good prediction.
Just nine days later Larry torched Atlanta for 60 points, his career high and still the Celtic club record, in New Orleans. He buried 22 of 36 from the floor and 14 of 15 free throws while also canning half of the four triples he tried.
Perhaps the best shot he made, an off balance 27-foot trey while falling into the Atlanta bench after a foul, rimmed around and in but the potential four-point play was waved off.
McHale only took 14 shots that day, making half of them for 14 points, as Boston won 126-115. Larry broke Kevin’s mark at the foul line, and received congratulatory hand slaps from McHale and Ainge after maing the first of two shots.
On the last play, Dennis Johnson passed up an open shot to hit Bird stepping into a 19-footer straight on from the circle, and Larry swished it perfectly into the center of the basket at the horn.
Happy for the driven superstar, Bird’s teammates mobbed him and mussed up his blonde mane, including a smiling McHale, DJ, Quinn Buckner and Rick Carlisle.
The year 1986 would be the pinnacle for the Bird-era Celtics, as they rolled to a 67-15 regular season, blew into the Finals with an 11-1 playoff mark, and then took out the Olajuwon/Samposn Twin Towers with their own Hall of Fame frontline 4-2, augmented by new sixth man of the year Walton.
Despite the shocking death of Len Bias and crippling injuries to Walton and Scott Wedman the next season, Boston heroically endured consecutive seven-game battles with rivals Milwaukee and Detroit just to reach the Finals. Meanwhile, the Lakers swept two sub-.500 teams in Phoenix and Seattle, and beat a 42-40 Golden State squad 4-1 in its relative cakewalk to the championship series.
With McHale hobbled by a broken bone in one foot and a sprained ankle on the other, even the ultimate grinder in Bird (and team doctors) advised McHale not to play through all the injuries or risk permanent injury.
“If I was Kevin I wouldn’t play, he might ruin his career,” grimly offered Bird, but it was unlikely Larry himself would have followed his own advice. Undoubtedly McHale earned an even higher level of respect from Bird for gritting through such painful injuries and playing well as Boston still almost won the title and might have, if not for the injuries and some notoriously bad officiating calls, particularly in the pivotal game four 107-106 epic loss.
Gutting out 39.4 minutes over 19 playoff contests that brutally hot spring and summer, McHale still made 58.4 percent of his shots, grabbed 9.2 rebounds and played solid defense while scoring 21.1 points.
For his part, Bird played a league record 1,015 minutes in that bruising post-season, averaging 44.1 minutes, 27 points, 10 rebounds and 7.2 assists per outing in 23 intense games while shooting 48 percent from the field and 91 percent from the charity stripe.
The next year, with McHale lacking some of the quickness and lift he previously possessed due to the foot injury, Boston failed to make the NBA Finals for the first time since 1983 as they lost to “Bad Boy” nemesis Detroit in six games at the Eastern title round.
In their first eight seasons together, Bird and McHale made it to seven Eastern Conference finals, five NBA Finals, and won three championships. In year nine Bird missed all but the first six games due to double Achilles surgery, and when he came back in 1989-90, the duo still made the All-Star Game but was not quite the same due to age and increasing immobility.
In their final three seasons together, McHale at times returned to his sixth man role, but they still formed the best offensive forward tandem in the NBA. Alas, Boston never got past the eastern semifinals during this time as age and injury as well as the Pistons, Bulls and Cavaliers caught up with the Celtics.
Yet Boston played valiantly to the end without complaint. In 1991, McHale was unstoppable in a six-game second round series loss to the Pistons, which ended in an overtime heartbreaker at the Palace. If not for a obviously blown goal-tending call that disallowed a McHale tip-in near the end of regulation that would have won the game, Boston, who was also playing without Parish, would have forced game seven back home and been favored.
In 1992, their partnership came to an end after 13 years and 12 seasons following a game seven loss at Cleveland, again in the eastern semifinals. McHale was not chosen to play on that summer’s Original Dream Team, denying them one last chance to go out together on top with a gold medal. Had the team been chosen a few years earlier, Kevin certainly would have been included as his inside arsenal was still nearly impossible to guard.
The next season would be McHale’s last. Without Bird to give him his perfect post feeds, Kevin saw his minutes dwindle to their lowest level since his rookie campaign over a decade earlier.
Yet he still averaged 10.7 points in just 23 minutes a game, despite gaining weight and missing Larry’s perfect entry feeds and pick and roll dishes.
McHale had one last great performance up his sleeve for game two of the first round of the playoffs vs. a young and hungry Charlotte squad in 1993. With Boston up 1-0 but playing without sidelined leading scorer Reggie Lewis, McHale came off the pines to take the stricken swingman’s place as the primary Celtic offensive weapon.
Turning back the clock, he tossed in 13 clutch fourth period points to force overtime. Boston trailed by a basket in the final seconds when Parish missed his favorite turnaround baseline jumper. Stationed wisely on the weakside for a potential carom, Kevin jumped once, twice, three times over the much younger 6-6 Larry Johnson and ultimately tipped the rebound to himself.
With great body control belying his 35 years and creaky knees, he kept the ball up high as always over the flailing Johnson. Showing his still-feathery soft touch, Kevin then cleanly drained his patented fadeaway jumper from 13 feet out along the right baseline with just six seconds left in the first overtime to tie it as the recently-retired Bird cheered him on from the stands in a rare appearance at the Boston Garden.
Kevin also yanked down 10 rebounds and drilled an uncannily accurate 13 of 18 shots to tally 30 points, nearly a third of the Boston output. But with puzzlingly few touches, even he could not prevent a devastating double OT 99-98 loss to the Hornets of Johnson and Alonzo Mourning.
They simply lacked enough offense without Lewis, who had passed out due to an eventually fatal heart problem during game one, and missed Bird’s poised presence in the clutch.
It turned out to be McHale’s last game at the hallowed Gah-den.
Four days later in Charlotte with the Celtics down 2-1 and facing elimination in the best of five series, McHale tossed in 19 points on typically efficient eight of 14 shooting, and also snared six rebounds.
The Hornets led 88-70 before a delirious home crowd heading to the fourth period, but number 32 helped lead a gutty Celtic comeback that quieted them. Boston chipped away at the lead and on the strength of a 14-2 run, they took a 103-102 lead in the final minute after a steal and layup by Sherman Douglas. Yet after a rare 10-second backcourt violation by the Celtics, Charlotte had a reprieve with 21.9 ticks left.
Mourning’s step-back (read travel) jumper from the top of the key gave Charlotte an apparent 104-103 win with just 0.4 officially left, although the shot went through with at least 0.7 to go.
But while the Hornets celebrated wildly with a pile-up on the floor, Boston knew it had a slim chance left and called timeout to advance the ball to halfcourt for a final shot to stay alive. A play was drawn up for Kevin to take the ball out of bounds and throw a nearly 50-foot pass to former dunk champion Dee Brown on an alley-oop play.
McHale, knowing it was potentially the last play of his career, rose to the occasion and tossed a perfect two-hand overhead pass to Brown, who received a back screen from Xavier McDaniel and broke wide open for a short shot at a game-winner just to the right of the rim.
The pass was exactly on target and at the right height, and the 6-1 Brown soared high off two feet to snare it. Yet as he caught the ball and attempted to tip it in, he was fouled, and his muted try was also probably goal-tended as the clock expired.
Despite animated protests from several Celtics, there was no call of a foul or goal-tend, even though a referee’s whistle could be heard blowing at the buzzer on TV. Like in 1991, McHale and company had been eliminated on the road in a gut-wrenching barnburner on a missed goaltending call.
Surely as in Detroit two years earlier, the raucous crowd had helped intimidate the officials into ruling for the home team. No way were they going to ruin the first series victory in the history of the expansion Hornet franchise, especially at the hands of the storied Celtics.
So Kevin called it quits and then retired back home to Minnesota, where he put together a Timberwolve team that advanced to the Western Conference Finals in 2004 before losing to Los Angeles. Bird also returned home to Indiana and coached the Pacers to their three best NBA seasons from 1997-2000.
After two trips to the East Finals in 1998-99, Bird guided Indiana to its only NBA Finals thus far in 2000, where they lost to who else but the hated Lakers in six tough games.
In their 12 seasons together, Bird and McHale averaged over 43 points and 18 rebounds per game and won three titles, while coming close several other times. With a little luck and better health, they could easily have doubled that already impressive ring total. In their prime seasons as a starting tandem, those numbers improved to roughly 50 and 20 while making an uber-efficient over 55 percent from the field goal and 85 percent at the foul line.
Those eye-catching numbers would have been even greater had McHale not spent about half of his career as a sixth man, and if the Celtics had not been so balanced and team-oriented. The duo also combined to earn nine all-defense selections, six by McHale and three by Bird.
Over their 11 full campaigns together (sans the 1988-89 campaign where Bird missed 76 games), Boston averaged 59.9 wins a season, best in the NBA during that span despite playing in the much tougher Eastern Conference of that era.
When they lined up on the same side of the floor on offense, defenses had an unenviable problem – double down on McHale or go one on one with Bird or Kevin? It was a problem no defense ever solved.
With Bird’s precise post entry passing, he almost unfailingly led the nimble McHale into his vast array of post moves, throwing the ball away from the defense as well. If the defense sagged in on Kevin, Bird would kill them with his deadly perimeter shotmaking. No forward duo has ever been as tall, as talented, as skilled, smarter or more productive in all phases of the game.
And they did it all despite being quite different on and off the court. None other than Charles Barkley has repeatedly called McHale the best player he ever matched up against, and Bird is almost universally considered the best forward in NBA history period, if not the greatest all-around player.
And of course, both made the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players half-century list in 1997, the only forward tandem to do so.
So with apologies to Neil Simon, Tony Randall, Jack Klugman and the writer of the “Odd Couple” opening melody, the disparate duo composed much more exceptionally sweet music together than the familiar TV show song (da duh dut duh dut duh dut, da dut da dut dutuh) on their 13-year trip odyssey together from the Garden to Springfield, Massachusetts.
Greatest NBA Forward Duos, with team and years played together:
Bird/McHale, Celtics 1980-92
Julius Erving/Bobby Jones, 76ers 1978-86
Billy Cunningham/Chet Walker, 76ers 1965-70
Elgin Baylor/Rudy LaRusso, Lakers 1960-66
Bird/Cedric Maxwell, Celtics 1979-84
Bob Pettit/Cliff Hagan, Hawks 1956-65
John Havlicek/Bailey Howell, Celtics 1967-70
Dave DeBusschere/Bill Bradley, Knicks 1968-74
Maurice Stokes/Jack Twyman, Royals 1957-59
Chet Walker/Bob Love, Bulls 1971-76
Special mention: Rick Barry/Jamaal (Keith) Wilkes, Warriors 1974-77; John Havlicek/Don Nelson or Paul Silas, Celtics 1970-76