- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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The former champions, even as they advanced in years and their bodies betrayed them, remained convinced they could steal one more ring.
The Big Three believed they would summon the necessary resolve to make it happen because, simply, they always could. And, right to the bitter end, they resisted in conceding what others kept insisting: Their time had come and gone.
Now, 20 years later, they are viewed as sentimentality gone awry, a trio that should have been blown up before they imploded on their own.
Forgive Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish if they don't see it that way. They amassed 62,460 points, 30,811 rebounds and three NBA championships, more than enough, they feel, to have earned their final, poignant and ultimately fruitless stand.
"Red [Auerbach] used to say 9 out of 10 great players end their careers ungraciously," said McHale. "It's true."
As the NBA's March 15 trade deadline approaches, the Celtics are again charting the diminishing returns of a Big Three, a championship trio that is aging, battling injuries and trying to hang on for one more run. And, like they did with the original Big Three, most prognosticators have declared Boston's title window closed.
"What we went through is similar to what those guys are going through now, but I would say they are more banded together than we were," McHale said. "When I watch them I still see three guys saying, 'Let's do this. Let's win some games together.'
"Their final run has brought out the best in them. Our final run really brought out the worst in us."
In their prime, Bird, Parish and McHale were universally viewed as the best front line in basketball. Bird was the brash leader and the clutch shooter, much like Paul Pierce. McHale was a gifted scorer too, but more interested in tormenting his opponents on the defensive end, similar to the other Kevin (Garnett). Parish was the ageless, regal third spoke who sacrificed scoring in deference to his more celebrated teammates, just as Ray Allen has done during his Celtics tenure.
The common threads among the Vintage Big Three and Nouveau Big Three end there. Pierce, Garnett and Allen were established veterans hastily assembled into a championship-caliber unit. Bird, Parish and McHale grew up in the NBA together, evolving alongside each other for 12 seasons. They established a dynasty that would ultimately crumble under the weight of debilitating injuries and frayed relationships.
At the peak of his career, Bird was the epitome of a team player. Yet in his final days, he was, at times, a petulent superstar who resisted his reduced role, even purposely passing up shots in a game against Detroit and declaring himself a "point forward."
In retrospect, Bird said, he should have retired as far back as 1986.
"The injuries I had made it impossible for me to put in the time on a daily basis to prepare," said Bird. "It was frustrating. Preparation was everything for me.
"People don't realize if you are out two or three weeks, the lights are a lot brighter in the games than when you are practicing. Everything moves a lot faster.
"I couldn't get my shots up when I was hurt. When I came back I was in shape, but not game shape."
Bird endured a host of injuries, including double heel surgery, but chronic back problems (which ultimately led to fusion surgery) reduced him to a shell of himself.
Even though he was warned he was risking permanent damage, McHale played on a broken foot in the 1987 Finals against the Lakers and was never the same player again.
"It was brutal in the end," McHale said. "You've had this level of talent that was 'on demand' your entire life. I could summon it at any time.
"There were nights when I'd be on a rampage and tell our guys, 'I don't care what happens, we're going to win.' Guys would come over to help on defense and I'd wave 'em off.
"When I was on the top of my game, I'd get inside a guy's head and he was done. Whatever he tried, I was one step ahead of him. I was a real jerk, and I loved it.
"And then, one day, it's gone."
Like Bird, McHale was notorious for taunting his opponents with verbal jabs. In later years, when he lost his elevation and his quickness and couldn't back up his bravado, the payback was vicious, and demoralizing.
KG, who now only intermittently plays above the rim, has also experienced this. "It's harder for him, because KG is such a freakish athlete," McHale said. "He was -- and still is on occasion -- a high flier. That's more difficult to maintain."
In the final season of his career, McHale was struggling and determined one day that he needed to go all out in practice, something he could no longer do regularly because he wouldn't have anything left for the games.
"But for me, mentally, I felt I needed to do it this one day," McHale said. "So I told myself, 'Kev, leave it all on the floor.' I went all out for every drill, every play.
"And I had an average practice. All that effort, and I was just another guy. It crushed me. I always had respect for my teammates before, but after that I had a whole new appreciation for guys like Greg Kite, who showed up every single day and put so much effort into their game and got so little results."
Parish was the most athletic and ultimately the healthiest of the Big Three. His teammates' physical struggles left him heartsick.
"It struck a chord with me," said Parish. "They had two of the best work ethics I've ever seen, and their bodies just failed them. I hated it."
The problem was compounded by Bird's demeanor, which habitually soured when he was hurting.
"Larry could be a real pain in the backside when things weren't going his way," Parish said.
"I have no problem with that [description]," Bird said. "My concern at the end was, 'How's my back going to be when I get out of here?' I played two years in total agony."
Bird's daily routine became an excruciating cycle of pain management. He would receive a steroid injection in his back, lie in traction at the hospital in a full body brace, feel some improvement, go to practice, have a flare-up, then wind up back at the hospital for another shot and more traction.
In their final two seasons together, Bird and McHale grew increasingly distant, even mildly antagonistic. The pain and disappointment of their suddenly limited skills wore on both of them.
"At that point Kevin was the healthier of the two, and he felt Larry should have deferred to him more," Parish said. "That's when the relationship really started to deteriorate."
"The injuries made us all ornery," McHale said. "We were all experiencing the same thing and we were just miserable."
"When you are injured, you can't move, you can't do what you want, so you don't want to talk to anybody," Bird said. "You just want to be alone."
For McHale, the ultimate indignity was his inability to get a stop on the defensive end.
"I'm matching up with players who are nothing special and they don't even see me," McHale said. "They are scoring over me like I'm not even there.
"After one particularly rough night, I remember I went home and cried. I cried over the loss of that part of me that had been with me since I was 13 years old."
Celtic lore tells us Boston fielded proposals that would have sent Bird to Indiana, McHale to Dallas and Parish to Seattle, but Auerbach refused to pull the trigger on any of them.
"I will always be grateful for Red for not trading me," McHale said. "It meant the world to me to play my entire career with the Celtics. I know people want to criticize him now but I loved the fact Red said, 'Screw it, these are my guys.' There was real honor to it, something you hardly ever see today."
Bird wonders aloud if some of the so-called deals fall under the category of revisionist history. He points out that as late as the 1990-91 season, the Celtics were 29-5 and legitimate contenders before his back went out and McHale sprained his ankle.
"I think those trade rumors were BS," Bird said. "Danny [Ainge] can sit there and say he talked to Red about trading us before we got too old, but all I know is I talked to Red all the time and he never -- ever -- told me, 'I could trade you for Chuck Person' or anyone else."
Bird finally walked away from the game in 1992. He was in so much pain he termed his retirement "the happiest day of my life."
McHale left one season later, in 1993, but not before he had a celebrated blow-up with coach Chris Ford, his friend and former teammate. Ford left him on the bench during crunch time of a key game and McHale uncharacteristically criticized him during his postgame comments.
"That was the part of me who wasn't a very good person at that point," McHale conceded. "That was the part of me who wouldn't quit, who couldn't let go. I was trying to get myself out of a funk and it wasn't working. So when Doc [Ford] didn't play me a lot in that game, I'm thinking, 'Well, if you had just given me a few more minutes I could have done something.' Of course, looking back, that wasn't true."
McHale issued a public apology the next day, then went home and told his wife, Lynn, he was done.
Parish left the Celtics in 1994 for Charlotte, where he played two seasons. His final year in the league was in 1996-97, when he played with Michael Jordan in Chicago and won another ring.
There, he regained an appreciation for Bird's leadership style.
"What set Larry apart from Magic and Jordan was he wasn't an in-your-face leader like they were," Parish said. "He had too much respect for us. If you weren't having a good night, he was more inclined to encourage you, or not say anything at all.
"But Magic and Jordan would jump all over you."
In one of his first practices with the Bulls, Parish botched one of the plays and was amused to find Jordan jawing at him just inches from his face.
"I told him, 'I'm not as enamored with you as these other guys. I've got some rings too,' " Parish recalled. "At that point he told me, 'I'm going to kick your ass.' I took one step closer and said, 'No, you really aren't.' After that he didn't bother me."
Parish said he should have retired at least two years sooner than he did, a fact that was drilled home to him repeatedly in Bulls workouts. "By the end, Luc Longley and Bill Wennington were killing me in practice," he said. "Clearly I stayed on too long."
Parish remains an avid fan of the NBA and is impressed with how the current Big Three have handled their final days.
"Those three guys gave us a reason to be proud of the Celtics again," Parish said. "I give Paul Pierce all the credit. He put his ego aside for the betterment of the team. That speaks volumes about him as a person."
Asked if he thought Bird could have done that had Parish and McHale joined Bird later in his career, Parish emitted one of his deep-throated guffaws and said, "Hell no! Larry got off easy with me. He never had to worry about my ego interfering. He's lucky. He knows it."
The passage of time and the addition of perspective have erased any rancor among the original Big Three. These days, they celebrate their era of dominance with jokes and handshakes and incriminating stories about one another.
As for the New Three, McHale says he sees "a fire" in Boston's veteran trio that looks quite familiar.
"On any given night they are capable of jumping into the way-back machine and making it happen," McHale said. "The problem is, some nights the way-back machine doesn't work."
When apprised of McHale's comments, Pierce laughed, then shrugged.
"We're probably not as consistent as we were in the past," said Pierce, "but there's four of us now [including Rajon Rondo], and as long as one or two of us have got it going that night, I like our chances. Plus, we're all pretty healthy right now. That's the key."
Pierce acknowledged his veteran teammates are acutely aware the clock is ticking.
"We know this might be our last go-around," he said, "so we're trying to enjoy it."
Bird predicts the Noveau Three, like the Vintage Three, will remain intact until the end of this season, when the contracts of both Allen and Garnett expire.
"Here's the thing," Bird said. "When Danny and I talked about trading for Ray, he wanted Tyler Hansbrough and a first-round pick. If that's the value he's putting on Ray Allen, he ain't getting it. That tells me he's in no hurry to trade him.
"All that talk about Danny blowing it up, about not making the same mistakes as Red, is fine.
"But now that it's his turn to pull the trigger, it's a helluva lot harder than it looks."
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
For Bird, McHale and Parish, the 2012 Celtics stir bittersweet memories.