Former Gopher basketball MVP scores with election to Basketball Hall of Fame

by V. Paul

Racing 100 miles per hour down the road with cigar smoke from the driver making him sick to his stomach, a Minnesota native found himself going to his first practice for the Boston Celtics clouded with self-doubt.
Nearly 20 years later, he finds himself going to Massachusetts again, but for a different reason.
Former Golden Gopher pivot-man Kevin McHale on Wednesday became the second University men’s basketball player to be elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
John Kundla, the University’s first inductee, joined McHale at the press conference announcing his election, along with former Minneapolis Lakers stars George Mikan and Verne Mikkelson, also Hall-of-Famers.
McHale, 41, played four seasons with the Gophers, from 1976 to 1980, while he worked toward a bachelor’s degree in communications. During his collegiate career, McHale was the team’s most valuable player in 1979 and 1980, rounding out his four years averaging 15.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.
“I had a great time playing there, maybe too good of a time,” McHale said. “All the coaches there, they worked you and they expected you to work hard.”
That hard work was only a game for McHale, who said it felt strange to be honored for something he loved doing.
His life’s work circled from driveway hoop shots in Hibbing, Minn., through University and professional ball until today, shooting hoops at the gym on his off days from his post as vice president of operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“To me it’s relaxation,” McHale said. “Now I picked up golf and I realize why I liked basketball so much.”
His relaxed attitude about basketball never kept McHale from achieving tremendous success on the court. At the University, he was named All-Big Ten in 1979 and 1980. In 1995, McHale was elected the University’s Player of the Century, topping 1970s Mychal Thompson and 1930s Kundla.
With the Celtics as part of a three-man offensive with Robert Parish and Larry Bird, McHale played on three championship-winning teams in 1981, 1984 and 1986.
McHale mined his talent playing in the Iron Range, looking to neighboring schools for a standard to measure himself against. He was always looking to win against Virginia, Chisholm or Buhl, Minn., he said. His focus then, as is now, was to keep playing with an eye on the next level.
“You always thought about improving and getting better,” McHale said. “Can my team go out and beat that team? I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to go out and play.”
At the end of the game, it all comes down to the final score which looked better if it meant winning a bigger game. McHale was awed about being inducted into the Hall of Fame in the same way he was awed when his number was retired. An individual honor like a Hall of Fame spot, however, is much different than a team accomplishment, McHale said.
“There’s nothing like the final buzzer going off and you run off that court and you’re NBA World Champions,” McHale said. “Everybody’s got to do everything, it’s just the ultimate team game.”
McHale does not downplay what the ultimate goal is for a basketball team. To today’s generation of professional basketball players, he offered the message that playing to win was the whole point to playing the game. Making it to the big, big stage means going to the NBA finals, he said.
“The reason I’m standing in front of you right now is I was able to play with the Boston Celtics and win championships and be able to perform on the largest stage in the world: the NBA Finals,” McHale said. “Individual success really follows team success.”