Last year in an interview with ESPN, Larry Bird told an all-time, old time trash-talk story that was so maniacal, ruthless and absolutely hilarious that it’s the perfect way to kick off the latest installment of #86Celtics.
The story begins one night in Golden State, with the Celtics up big in the fourth quarter, and Boston’s starters just about ready to exit the game. But before that could happen, the Warriors made a substitution and brought one of Kevin McHale’s old friends and college teammates in off the bench. At this point, as Bird tells it, McHale walks up to the guy and says: “Hey, when you get the ball in the low post, turn and shoot it over me. I’ll just act like I’m defending you.”
You know, just a friend helping a friend.
So on the next possession, Golden State throws the ball to McHale’s buddy, who turns and shoots -- and McHale swats it six rows into the stands.
“I felt so bad for the guy,” Bird said, “and he was pissed. I went over to K.C. Jones and I said, ‘Get me out of here. This kid’s out of control.’ It was the worst thing I’d ever seen on the basketball court, but that’s why I remember it to this day. You don’t do that to your friend.”
Larry was laughing as he told the story, and that’s because as much as he wants to pretend that this was one of the worst things he ever saw on a basketball court, he means one of the best. Or at least one of the most legendary. In fact in many ways this incident epitomizes one of the most legendary characteristics of this legendary Celtics team.
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The #86Celtics loved to talk trash. That entire era of Celtics teams did. You know this because you’re either old enough to remember, or because for years you’ve heard stories about Bird, McHale and even Danny Ainge running their mouths; how they’d essentially create a game within a game by infiltrating the opponents’ head space and swimming laps until they snapped.
Naturally most of the best stories surround Bird, because Bird’s probably the greatest trash talker in NBA history. He was diabolical. He was merciless. But he wasn’t like Steven Avery from Manitowoc County, throwing cats in the fire just because. Instead, Bird’s (and all the Celtics') torture was well-calculated and in control, and almost always a means to an end. Often it was for entertainment or motivation. It was the product of boredom. I mean, imagine playing 82 games over an exhausting six-month schedule (back when travel involved commercial flights and really spotty WI-FI) knowing that for at least 70 of those games the other team has no business on the court with you.
Imagine how easy it might be to lose focus, maybe give away games.
So Bird and Co. were always looking for ways to stay engaged, and fill the competitive void, and just have fun. And mostly that manifested into acting like fun-loving, unapologetic a-holes. Like when Bird would be on the block, battling for position with Dennis Rodman, and start yelling: “Hey, give me the ball! Quick before they realize no one’s guarding me!” Or that Christmas Day game when Bird told Chuck Person he had a present for him, waited until Person was on the bench, then jacked up a corner three, turned around and said “Merry F---ing Christmas” as the ball tore through the net. Or those many legendary scenarios -- most notably the one with Xavier McDaniel -- when Bird would tell his man exactly where he was going to get the ball, and exactly where he was going to shoot it, and proceed to do just that.
Beyond that there are stories about how Bird used to send the ball boy to find out the scoring record in each building before the Celtics played. There are stories about him demoralizing rookie versions of Clyde Drexler and Reggie Miller. There are stories about how mad Larry used to get when an opposing coach had the audacity to send a white guy out to guard him. “Ben Poquette?" Bird once asked Doug Collins. “Are you f---ing kidding me?”
There are stories upon stories. These are the stories that survived the test of time and now help define the legacy of Larry Bird, and within that the legacy of the #86Celtics and all those Celtics teams, but everyone once in a while, after all these years, you ever wonder how much has been lost or embellished over time? You know, which stories really happened? Which stories kind of happened? Which stories started with one little thing and then blew up through one big game of telephone -- because why not? We’re talking about the Celtics here. Larry Bird is basketball’s Chuck Norris. We want ridiculous stories. We’ll roll with ridiculous stories.
We’ll believe anything that perpetuates the myth.
But sometimes you can’t help but wonder — what’s real?
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That curiosity led me back to that original story about Kevin McHale’s block -- a.k.a. the worst thing Larry Bird ever saw on a basketball court -- and left me with a few obvious questions. Those questions then packed me into a cannon and shot me down a rabbit hole.
Here I’ll recreate that experience in eight simple steps.
Step 1: The Questions
Who was McHale’s friend? In which game, and in what year did this story happen?
These are basic questions that I didn’t imagine would be hard to figure out given modern technology and the information at hand.
A guy who played with Kevin McHale at the University of Minnesota and then played for the Golden State Warriors -- how many guys could possibly fit that description?
Step 2: The Internet, Part I
According to Basketball-Reference, the answer is none. Zero.
Only four of McHale’s Minnesota teammates played in the NBA, but none of them ever played for the Warriors.
So, was Larry lying? Confused? Did he simply misremember? Maybe it was a Minnesota teammate on a different NBA team? Maybe it was a guy on Golden State that didn’t go to Minnesota? Maybe? Maybe?!
For some reason the part about the old college friend seemed like the most trustworthy aspect of the story. McHale would’ve had to have some prior relationship to extend that kind of offer, and especially for the guy to believe it. So I started with the list of four McHale college teammates that played in the NBA, and immediately crossed off two them. They were two guards -- Trent Tucker and Ray Williams -- who, regardless of which team they played for, would’ve never been matched up against McHale in the post.
That left two big men -- Mychal Thompson and Randy Breuer -- and if forced to choose which one would most likely be the target of this kind of prank, well, you tell me:
-- Mychal Thompson was two years ahead of McHale at Minnesota. He was a former No. 1 overall pick, nicknamed Sweet Bells, who averaged 13.7 points and 7.4 rebounds over a 12-year NBA career.
-- Randy Breuer was a freshman when Kevin McHale was a senior. He was the 18th overall pick in 1983 and averaged 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds over 11 years in the NBA. His nickname was Brew.
So yeah. My best guess was that Randy Breuer was the victim.
But when? And where?
Step 3: A Conversation with Randy Breuer
I called Randy Breuer at home in Minnesota, and talked to his wife, who was very nice, but Randy wasn’t home. So I left a message, and a few hours later there was a call back from the North Star state.
“Hey, this is Rich.”
“Rich, Randy Breuer here.”
“Mr. Breuer. Thanks so much for getting back to me.”
“Sure, um, so -- I don’t know if your wife said anything or you heard about this before, but I’m calling because Larry Bird recently told a story about a trick that Kevin McHale pulled back in the 80s on a former college teammate and . . . “
“Oh yeah, I know this one. Where he told the guy to take a shot?”
“Yes! So, was that you?”
“Nope. It was Chris Engler.”
Step 4: The Internet, Part II
According to Basketball-Reference, Chris Engler was a third-round pick by the Golden State Warriors (so that checks out) in 1982. He graduated from the University of Wyoming (which explains why he’s not listed as a Minnesota alum), but only after transferring FROM Minnesota (where he spent two years alongside Kevin McHale).
Engler played two seasons with the Warriors, and then bounced around the NBA, CBA and Europe before retiring in 1988. After basketball, he went to law school and practiced family law for a few years. However, he burned out quickly -- too much “adults behaving badly” -- and ultimately went back to school to become a teacher.
Today Engler is a social studies teacher at Stillwater High School in Stillwater, Minnesota, and equipped with this information, I needed to speak with him. But first I needed to wrap things up with Breuer.
Step 5: What the Buck?
“Wow, OK. Mr. Breuer, thanks so much for your help. If it was you that got blocked I wanted to talk about it a little more, but I appreciate you giving me Chris’ name and . . . “
“Well, I was there when it happened.”
“Wait, you were there?”
“Yeah, Chris was with Milwaukee at the time.”
“That’s funny, because Bird said it was against the Warriors, but -- okay, so did he tell you about it after the fact? How did you eventually hear the story?
“I literally watched it happen on the court. I was in the game. Kevin’s guarding Chris and all of a sudden I hear, ‘Go ahead and shoot it, Chris. Come on, go ahead.’ And in my head the whole time I’m thinking, yeah, don’t trust him. Next thing I know, the shot’s blocked out of bounds.”
“Bird said Chris was pretty pissed off when it happened. Do you remember that?”
“Well yeah, probably. I mean he just got a trick pulled on him. But me I was just laughing along with everyone else.”
“Man, that’s amazing. And really, thanks so much for all this information. I appreciate your time.”
“Yup. No problem. You just had the wrong white guy from Minnesota.”
Step 6: The Internet, Part III
I quickly found a work contact number for the other white guy from Minnesota, but the message on Chris Engler’s voicemail said to send him an e-mail. So I sent him an e-mail, and shortly after that, I got this reply.
“You can call me after 4 pm Central – I’m sure my version of events differs from what you’ve heard.”
Step 7: Conversation with Chris Engler
“Hey, Chris. This is Rich. So thanks for talking with me. I’m really excited to hear your side of this story, and like I said, I got your name from Randy Breuer. Did you guys play together in Minnesota?
“I recruited him, actually. And then was smart enough to know I wasn’t going to play and got the hell out of there after that.”
“Haha. Okay, so the block, what happened? What’s your story?”
“Well, the nice story would be that Kevin McHale is a very trusting individual, but he’s not. He’s a prankster! I played with him for two years at the U, and he’s a great guy and really funny. And he did tell me to shoot it when I got the ball. But like I’d ever believe that.”
“OK, so you knew it was coming?”
“Yes. I know Kevin better than that. What happened was that we worked the ball around the perimeter forever, and then of course it ends up in my hands with two seconds on the shot clock, and I’m just like ‘Thanks, guys.’ It wasn’t as if I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just turn around and shoot it because Kevin said I can.’ It was either take the shot-clock violation or throw up a shot. And just as I did that, Kevin comes over like gang busters and there’s the block.”=
“Wow. So it’s interesting that you say that, because the whole reason I got started tracking you down was on the idea that for as legendary as this Celtics team is, it’s sometimes hard to tell what's real and what’s an urban legend. And now the details are all murky. For instance when Larry Bird told the original story, he said that the game was in Golden State, and he must’ve just been confused because you had formerly played at Golden State. Randy Breuer told me this happened when you were with Milwaukee."
“Hmm. You know, I don’t remember it being with Milwaukee. I thought it was Golden State, too.”
“Yeah, but that’s the thing. It’s, uh, I don’t’ know, it was a long time ago. That’s in the burned out part of the memory.
“Haha. So your memory is Golden State, too. Yet Breuer remembers literally being on the court in Milwaukee. This is crazy."
“Well, just remember that Randy’s 7-3. The altitude’s thinner up there.”
Step 8: The Internet, Part IV
Okay, so now the only thing that’s clear is that nothing is really clear. All we know is that Kevin McHale blocked his old friend Chris Engler at some point late in some game in the 1980s. We know that Engler was most likely playing for the Warriors or Bucks. We know that the Celtics most likely won. Now what can we do with this information?
Well, according to Basketball-Reference, Engler only played five career games against the Celtics as a member of Milwaukee or Golden State. The Warriors won one of those, so that leaves four possible times when this incident took place.
January 12, 1983: The Celtics won big (139-117) but the game was in Boston, and didn’t Larry say it was on the road? And also Engler got into the game, but according to the box score he didn’t take a shot.
January 11, 1984: This game was also in Boston, and also a Celtics blowout (135-112). In the official box score, McHale is credited with a block, and while Engel is NOT credited with a field attempt over three minutes of action, he is credited with a turnover. Maybe the shot had such little chance that it didn’t even count as a shot? Maybe it deflected off his face for a turnover?
February 16, 1984: The Celtics won by 10 in Golden State, which lines up with some of Bird’s initial story, but Engler shot 1-1 from the field.
January 7, 1987: This is the only game Engler played against the Celtics while he was on the Bucks, and he played 18 minutes. Randy Breuer also played a bunch in this game, and Kevin McHale registered a block, and the Celtics won 119-92, which lines up with the initial blow out narrative.
And you know what, crowning this Milwaukee game as THE game is tempting. It kind of makes sense. But could it possibly be that Randy Breuer is the one person that remembers this story better than anyone else in the world?
It can’t possibly be.
Because here’s a story from the Los Angeles Times in 1986, a full year before that Bucks game, that references the McHale story. The block had already happened. So yes, it was against the Warriors. It was most likely in January 1983 or January 1984. And in terms of what really happened, while it would be great to just take Engler’s word that it was all a matter of the shot clock, there’s also the matter of this . . .
Here’s Engler’s account of the McHale story in that same L.A. Times article:
“The first time I got into a game against the Celtics, they were up by 20 points in the fourth quarter,” he said. “Kevin and I were coming up court, and he whispered to me: 'When you get the ball, just move in close and shoot a jumper. I won't even block it. I want to make you look good.’ I thought it was nice of him. So the first time I got the ball, I took my time and went up for my shot. Next thing I knew, Kevin was slapping the ball off my forehead. He smiled and said, ‘Sorry, I lied.’ ”
Hmm. Yeah. I don’t know. Who knows what to believe? After hours of research and numerous calls to Minnesota you’d think we’d have a better understanding of the situation. Instead my only real understanding is this:
Some myths are better left unbusted.