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Miss the Game? No Way

For all the fond memories, a seven-time All-Star is glad his NBA playing days are over

Everyone figures that newly retired players suffer severe withdrawal pains around this time of year. How can guys like me get up every morning without having the camaraderie, the male bonding, the challenge, the competitiveness, the excitement of the game? Well, I'll give you my two answers: my kids and pheasant hunting. My kids—there are five of them—get me up. And the prospect of hunting gets me out the door.

I'm here to tell you, folks, that as wonderful as my memories of 13 years with the Boston Celtics are, I don't miss playing professional basketball at all.

Would I feel differently if my last few seasons hadn't been filled with physical pain and the mental burden of playing on a mediocre team? Maybe. But by the time I hung it up, I was good and ready. In fact, although I never said it publicly, I almost quit before last season. The only reason I stayed on was that my three oldest kids (Kristyn, 10; Mikey, 8; and Joey, 6) couldn't stand the thought of not being ball boys—or, in the case of Kristyn, ball girl—or not going to practice and games with me, that whole deal. That probably isn't the best reason to climb into a basketball uniform every day, but I'll tell you, the most enjoyable memories I have from last season are of watching the joy those kids got out of shooting around with their dad, retrieving balls and hanging out with the guys.

I don't plan on being one of those bitter old guys who lie on the couch and talk about how much better the game was when we played it. But there are several things that started bothering me in my final seasons.

No matter what the league office says, expansion has diluted the NBA. I'm now a TV broadcaster and part-time coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves, a 1989 expansion team, but I'm sorry, that doesn't change my thinking. Everyone talks about what a great job the Charlotte Hornets did last season by winning 44 games, but, hey, the Hornets had both Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning and they were playing against competition whose ranks had been thinned by expansion. In a league that wasn't so diluted, put either Johnson or Mourning on a veteran team and watch that team go from, say, 40 wins to 55 victories—now that would mean something.

I give the Chicago Bulls a lot of credit for winning three straight NBA titles, but, come on, does anyone honestly think those teams, even with Michael Jordan, could have beaten the 1985-86 champions with Larry Bird, Robert Parish, myself, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson and Bill Walton? Or the Los Angeles Laker champs of '86-87 and '87-88 with Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Michael Cooper and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Or the Detroit Piston teams of Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, which played great defense and won the '88-89 and '89-90 titles? Michael was the Bulls' only truly great player, and was he really better than Larry? I'm not sure. He could score more, he was more flamboyant, and he was a better individual defender. But could he rebound like Birdie? No. Could he pass like Birdie or even Magic? No. Was he as unselfish as Larry or Magic? No.

I also think the league has been hurt by the three-referee system that started in 1988. When there were two refs, both ran the floor and called what they saw. Now the floor is divided into zones and the refs spend half their time saying, "That's not my call." The three-ref system forced the NBA to bring in a lot of young guys who don't know how to call a game and who always defer to the senior ref. When chief of officials Darell Garretson works a game, the other guys just look at him, and he makes every call. The league might as well have these young guys painted onto the floor, like the free throw lane.

The other thing I've noticed is that the NBA has become an MTV league. It's rock 'n' roll basketball. There's a lot of noise, hip commercials, video, rap music. Personalities like Shaquille O'Neal and Harold Miner are created immediately, right out of the box. You used to get respect in this league by winning. A player who put up big numbers on a losing team—and there were a lot of them—was just another guy moaning about getting no respect. That doesn't seem to be the case now.

I'm sounding like the cranky guy on the couch, huh? I'm sure Bob Cousy and Bill Russell shook their heads when our generation came in. They must have thought, Man, what's with these guys? The NBA will go on, I know that. It really surprised me when everyone in the media started wringing their hands, worrying about the fate of the league, when Michael retired. You should know better. Wilt, Russell, Cooz—everybody leaves, and it's out of sight, out of mind. That lesson came to me a few years ago when I was talking at a school and I said, "Man, you should've seen Dr. J in his prime," and the kids all went, "Who?" They had never heard of the guy two years after he retired.

I know they'll forget Kevin McHale pretty quickly too. But I'm looking forward to Jan. 30 when my number will be retired at Boston Garden. I know it'll be an emotional night for me.

It's incredible the bad breaks that have happened to the Celtics over the last several years: the death of Lenny Bias, the injuries to key players, the unbelievable death of Reggie Lewis this summer. But I can replay the good times in my head. What it was really all about was winning, what it meant to be in that locker room, on top of your game, a part of something that was the best in the world. Thank goodness we had that feeling in Boston for a while. And though I didn't go out on top, I'll take those memories to the grave.