http://www.celtic-nation.com/interviews/ed_pinckney/ed_pinckney_page1.htm

 

Ed Pinckney: CENTER STAGE

The Ed Pinckney Interview
By:  Michael D. McClellan | Monday, April 5th, 2004

 

Precious few are the athletes who reach the pinnacle of their chosen sport, and fewer still are the ones who do it against all odds, when the opponent is looked upon as unbeatable and the world decides the outcome before the battle is ever waged.  Those who catch lightning in a bottle often find themselves immortalized on film, their achievements canonized by a society hopelessly in love with the underdog.  The 1980 US Olympic hockey team jumps to mind, their upset against the Russians portrayed most recently in Miracle, as do the achievements of an undersized,  crooked-legged racehorse in the movie Seabiscuit.  Their stories are told and retold with classic Hollywood hyperbole, growing bigger through the generations, until it is nearly impossible to discern fact from fiction.  Many fall victim to their success, cursed by it, unable to escape the long shadow cast by that magical moment when everything comes together and the most improbable of champions is born.  Others are swallowed whole, never outgrowing their past glory.  And then there are those, like Ed Pinckney, who go on to other successes in their lives, holding dear the moment while refusing to be defined solely by it, daring instead to build a legacy beyond that singular, awe-inspiring event.

 

In Pinckney’s case, that singular, awe-inspiring event was the 1985 NCAA Final Four.  David had met Goliath many times on a basketball court, but never before had the underdog appeared so overmatched in a championship game at any level.  Until 1985 that mantle belonged to Norman Dale and tiny Hickory High School, the same group of overachievers depicted so expertly in the ’86 film Hoosiers.  Hickory won their game and guaranteed themselves a place in Hoosier lore, but the stakes were far higher when Villanova squared off against Big East rival Georgetown that Monday night in Rupp Arena.  The Hoyas were Mike Tyson in his prime, crushing opponents with a relentless barrage of speed and power.  The Wildcats were Evander Holyfield, full of heart but viewed by many as nothing more than a glorified light-heavyweight.  And nowhere was this size discrepancy more evident than in the post:  Georgetown boasted Patrick Ewing, one of the greatest centers in the history of collegiate basketball.  Ewing was the intimidator, the “Hoya Destroya”, the seven-footer who blocked shots as if he was the Second Coming of Bill Russell.  Young Ed Pinckney, Ewing’s lithe counterpart, specialized in doing the subtle things that helped his team win games.  Pinckney wasn’t going to overpower you, but he was clearly superior to Ewing in terms of technique.  He was also one of the few players who relished playing Georgetown’s dominant All-American.  Still, those who had even a passing interest in basketball knew that Georgetown was the king of the basketball universe, a dynasty in the making.  The game itself was nothing more than a formality, a requirement for coronation.

 

Nothing in life is certain, however, and on April 1st, 1985, Villanova and Georgetown tipped off with a piece of history at stake.  The Wildcats didn’t play the perfect game, but they came as close to it as any team before or since, a feat made all the more remarkable when you consider Georgetown’s blast-furnace defensive pressure.  Few teams have ever turned up the heat quite like the Hoyas – Nolan Richardson’s Arkansas champions come to mind, as do Jerry Tarkanian’s title team at UNLV – and on this night the Wildcats found themselves up against the dual pressures of Georgetown’s relentless D and the glare of  the national spotlight.  That Villanova somehow won, 66-64, while converting a mind-numbing 78.6% of its field goal attempts (22-of-29), including nine of 10 in the second half, still defies imagination.  That Pinckney played a major role in the upset does not.

 

A graduate of Adlai Stevenson High School, in New York City, Pinckney grew up in lockstep with Big Apple hoops and all that makes it special, keenly aware of both playground legends and NBA Hall-of-Famers alike.  That he flew below most recruiter’s radar screens also comes as no surprise, since Pinckney’s game was more about substance than flash.  He was the ready, steady yeomen who thrived on the challenge of playing against the best competition.  And while that national championship was truly a defining moment, Pinckney viewed it as an incredibly beautiful chapter in his life.

 

As is the case with all good books, the post-Villanova read on Pinckney was loaded with plenty of plot points.  There was his selection as the 10th pick in the 1985 NBA Draft, a dream-come-true for a player with a solid game and a solid reputation to go along with it.  There was his trade from the Sacramento Kings to Boston Celtics, a transaction that put him in the rotation with arguably the greatest frontline in NBA history.  There was the classic Boston-Indiana series in 1991, the one where Larry Bird returned from bouncing his head off of the Boston Garden parquet to outgun a young Chuck Person .  There was the decline of the Big Three and the tragic death of Reggie Lewis.  And then there was Pinckney’s blue-collar, twelve-year NBA career, conclusive proof that the steady big man was more than a one-hit wonder.

 

Following retirement, Pinckney moved effortlessly into broadcasting.  In 2003, he traded in his microphone for an opportunity to return to Villanova as an assistant coach.  The institution and the former player go together like hand and glove, and each is certain to benefit from the presence of the other.  Pinckney is an excellent communicator, and the perfect teacher as well.  It is easy to imagine him as a head coach one day, perhaps guiding the same team that he helped lead to the most improbable of championships.  The NBA could also be a destination.  Pinckney lives each moment with an appreciation for the past and an eye on the future, always moving forward, never allowing himself to become trapped in his own mythology.

 

As Gene Hackman – a.k.a., Norman Dale – would like to have you believe, some things are best left up to Hollywood.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were a McDonald’s All-American while at Adlai Stevenson High School on LaFayette Avenue in the Bronx, New York.  Several other Celtic greats have strong ties to New York, including Red Auerbach, Bob Cousy, Satch Sanders and Tiny Archibald.  Please tell me a little about the basketball culture in New York in general, and about your high school career in particular.

 ED PINCKNEY
There is a strong basketball culture in New York City, and it begins in the streets.  Guys earn reputations on playgrounds and in pickup games, and they want to expand on that by going into different areas of the city.  If you’re from Manhattan, you want to go into Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens.  If you’re from the Bronx, you want to play in the other Burroughs to make a name for yourself.  I was certainly no different in that respect.  I played all over New York, against all types of competition.  Growing up I really enjoyed that aspect of playing basketball.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were the leading scorer on the US team at the 1983 World University Games, where your teammates included Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Kevin Willis and Johnny Dawkins.  What was it like to represent your country in that event?

 ED PINCKNEY
That tournament was a preliminary to the Olympic Games, so it was a great honor to represent the United States.  The guys you mentioned were fantastic to have as teammates, and we’ve kept close ties with each other through the years.  We’ve followed each other’s careers and have kept in touch.  It was a lot of fun and a great experience, even though we weren’t able to win the gold medal.

 

CELTIC-NATION
The 1985  Final Four – you were a huge part of the greatest upset in NCAA basketball history.  Please take me back to Villanova’s 66-64 upset of heavily favored Georgetown University, and the impact that it has had on your life.

 ED PINCKNEY
It’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.  Even though I went on to play twelve seasons in the NBA, that game defined my career as a basketball player.  We were the biggest underdogs in the history of the Final Four, and everyone was picking Georgetown to win that game – with the exception of the players and coaches on our team.  Every year all of those memories come back.  It’s a good feeling to know that you were a part of something so special.

 

CELTIC-NATION
What was it like going up against Patrick Ewing in that situation?  What was your strategy for shutting him down?

 ED PINCKNEY
Remember, you're not talking about the offensive Ewing that he ultimately became with the New York Knicks.  You were far more concerned about him on the defensive end.  He was an intimidator, and his presence on the court always gave you something to worry about.  Am I going to get my shot blocked?  Is he going to throw my shot in the stands?  But that isn’t to say that Ewing couldn’t score; there wasn’t much you could do to stop him when he got the ball deep inside.  I remember a point in that game when he caught two alley-oop passes.  My adrenaline was pumping, and I went up as high as I could on both of those plays.  Ewing was still two feet over me!  I considered myself a good jumper and a good athlete, so to have him do that tells you what kind of player he was.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Georgetown had lost only two games all season, by a total of three points.  What gave your team the confidence that it could pull off the upset?

 ED PINCKNEY
We were both from the Big East, we’d played Georgetown in the regular season, so there was a certain level of familiarity between the two teams.  And even though we didn’t win those games we didn’t get blown out, either.  For the most part we held up against Georgetown’s defensive pressure, which was smothering, and except for some breakdowns at the end of those games, we managed to stay competitive.

Our goal in the championship game was to be patient – if we ever got ahead we were going to take our time and try to take the best shot possible.  We knew that rushing things would lead to mistakes and play into their hands.  Rollie [Massimino, Villanova head coach] talked about that offensive discipline the whole time. "Get the best shot.  I don't care how long it takes.  Just get the best shot."  And with no shot clock, that's exactly what Gary McLain, Dwight Wilbur and Harold Jensen did.

CELTIC-NATION
How did it feel to be honored as the Final Four’s most outstanding player, and where does this accomplishment rank in terms of your overall basketball experience?

 ED PINCKNEY
It’s pretty high up there.  When you think of all the schools competing just to get in the tournament, and then to help get your team through it with the win and to be called MVP in the process – that was a great accomplishment, and one of the highest honors I’ve ever received.  But to me, being selected in the first round of the NBA Draft ranks higher in terms of personal achievements.  It’s a statement that, on that date, I was worthy of being a top 10 selection.  To me that’s the highest compliment I could have ever received.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Ewing was Ewing, but I’ve always thought of Michael Graham as one of John Thompson’s most physical and intimidating players.  What was it like playing against him?

 ED PINCKNEY
I don’t think there was a tougher forward at the college level in terms of intensity and raw talent.  You never felt you were going to have an easy time when you played against Michael Graham.  If all I had to do was score against him my job would have been very difficult, but then I had to turn around and try to stop him on the defensive end of the floor.  He was a brutal assignment.

 

CELTIC-NATION
The 1985 NBA Draft was the first to feature the Draft Lottery, and was also one of the deepest ever.  In addition to yourself and fellow Big East nemesis Patrick Ewing, the ’85 draft included such talent as Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Joe Dumars, A.C. Green, Charles Oakley and Arvydas Sabonis.  Did you have any idea that Phoenix would take you with the 10th pick overall?

 ED PINCKNEY
There was some talk about it in the press, but I didn’t speak to the Suns directly in terms of me being drafted by them.  I was happy to go there – Jim McCloud was the head coach at the time, and he was very well-respected around the NBA.  Alvin Adams was still playing.  He showed me what it was like to be a professional, and he was an invaluable source of basketball wisdom.  I also had the opportunity to be Larry Nance’s understudy, which was a great, great experience.  Larry taught me the importance of taking care of my body.  He preached conditioning from my first day of training camp.  It was a blessing to be associated with these guys, and I attribute my NBA success to the great base that I was able to establish in Phoenix.  The things I learned then were especially valuable later in my career.  By knowing how to play the game and how to take care of my body, I was able to play 12 seasons in the NBA, and there aren’t many people who can say that.

 

CELTIC-NATION
The 1986 NBA Draft was the antithesis of your draft class – some even call it cursed.   One reason for this was the death of Maryland star Len Bias, who died from a cocaine overdose two days after being selected by the Boston Celtics.  Where were you when you heard the news of Bias’ death?

 ED PINCKNEY
I was back home in New York City.  I just remember being shocked.  It was so surreal, because I knew Len Bias and we’d just played against each other twice – once in Cole Fieldhouse, and then again in the NCAA tournament.  The first game Bias was unstoppable.  He scored 30 points on us, tearing us up on the blocks.  We won the rematch, which put us into the Elite Eight during our run to the championship.  It was a lower scoring game than the first one, 46-43, and a big reason we won was because we were able to contain Bias.  That was the key.  His death was like the Kennedy assassination – you’ll always remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about it.  It took awhile for the shock to wear off, and then I remember feeling a deep sense of disappointment.  Bias was going to be a superstar.  To have a tragedy like that happen, you just didn’t want to believe it.

 

CELTIC-NATION
After playing against him, how good do you think Bias would have been had he lived?

 ED PINCKNEY
There was no question – Bias was going to be great.  He was a 6’-8” athlete who could do everything on the court.  He could run, jump, dunk, defend…he had a great shooting touch from the outside, and he was so strong underneath the basket.  In my mind he would have been an All-Star many times over, and could quite possibly still be playing today.  With Bias joining Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, the Celtics were poised to win several more championships.  It’s hard to tell how many banners would be hanging from the rafters had he lived.

CELTIC-NATION
You arrived in Boston on February 23rd, 1989, as part of a midseason trade involving current Celtic VP of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge.  What do you remember most about your first few weeks in a Celtics uniform?

 ED PINCKNEY
Just trying to figure out if I was going to stay with the team, and how I was going to convince them that I belonged.  Earning the respect of the players was also a huge concern for me.  Coming over with Joe Klein, I didn’t know how I was going to gain the respect of the Big Three.  My immediate concern was fitting in with them and contributing, which actually go hand-in-hand.  I knew that I had a chance of staying with the ball club if I came in and helped them out.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Ironically, Boston played Sacramento just one day before the trade that made you a Celtic, and in that game Robert Parish collected his 10,000th rebound.  Please tell me a little about Robert.

 ED PINCKNEY
Robert was the consummate pro.  He was one of the first big men to truly take care of his body, and all of that conditioning certainly paid off for him.  Just think about it; to be able to play that many seasons in the NBA is incredible.  He was a model of consistency – you could always count on a productive Robert Parish in the lineup, and you didn’t have to worry about him missing a bunch of games due to injury.  Chief was also the greatest running big man to ever play the game – nobody his size ran the floor like him for that many years.

His personality was ideally suited to playing alongside Larry Bird and Kevin McHale.  Those guys were huge, huge parts of the offense, so having someone like Robert doing all the unsung things helped create the greatest frontline ever.  I have so much respect for Chief.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Everyone has a favorite story about the great Red Auerbach.  After all these years, which one stands out most in your mind?

 ED PINCKNEY
I remember my first full season with the team.  We won fifty-two games that year, but ended up losing in the first round to the New York Knicks.  Coming from Sacramento, where it was a major accomplishment just to win twenty-five games, winning more than fifty games qualified as a pretty successful season.  So naturally I thought that we’d accomplished something by simply reaching that mark and making the playoffs.

We had a breakup dinner following that opening round loss to the Knicks, and Red addressed the team.  He started off by saying how horrible the season was, and how he wasn’t satisfied with what we’d accomplished.  He went on for several minutes, expressing his disappointment.  I’ll never forget that, because it showed me that Red used a different stick to measure the success of the Boston Celtics.  He was responsible for all of those banners, all those titles, and he measured the team’s success strictly in championships.  There are a lot of things that I remember about Red, but that stands out the most.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Parish, McHale and Bird will forever be known as the Big Three.  As a post player, what was it like playing with arguably the greatest frontline in NBA history?

 ED PINCKNEY
Arguably isn’t accurate.  Larry, Kevin and Robert are the greatest frontline ever, and I don’t think its even close.  I can’t think of another group that combined the talents of these three guys.  They were all great individually, but together they were truly greater than the sum of their parts.  They meshed so well together, and the chemistry between them was unbelievable.

For me, it was an experience of a lifetime to play with these guys.  I learned something new every day.  Those who saw them in the games got a taste for how competitive they were, but you really didn’t get the full effect unless you saw them in practice.  It was an absolute war.  The intensity of those scrimmages was so great, and it made the team better prepared to play in the actual games themselves.

Bird and McHale were always talking trash, always talking about whose team was going to win.  Parish was the same way – he had this public persona, and everyone thought he was quiet.  Parish wanted to win those scrimmages just as badly as Bird and McHale, and he did his share of talking.  He always thought his team was going to come out on top.

The great thing about those scrimmages was that you never had the same team.  Bird would take the reserves and try to win with them, and then everyone would rotate.  It was unbelievable.  Guarding any of those three guys was torture, and you usually came out on the short end of the stick [laughs].  It was a great environment – there was never a dull moment, and I’ve been able to use those lessons to grow as a coach.

 CELTIC-NATION
In your opinion, who was the most underrated Boston Celtic you ever played with?

 ED PINCKNEY
It would be between Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson.  Everyone had a great appreciation for Larry Bird and, to a lesser degree, Kevin McHale.  But Parish and DJ worked in the shadows, so to speak, so in that respect their talents may have been somewhat overlooked.  If you take a look at the current Laker team, with Shaq, Kobe, Gary Payton and Karl Malone, you see how difficult it is for four stars to coexist.  There is just so much basketball and limelight to go around.  And then you look at the Big Three, and those guys were together seven, eight, nine years.  That’s unheard of today.  When you have that much talent, someone has to not shoot as much.  That person has to lower his personal expectations for the better of the team.  He has to go out and do his job, let the other guys score the points and grab the headlines.  Parish was that person.  You couldn’t have that situation today – Parish could have gone anywhere and started.  He could have been the one who stirred the cup.  So in that respect he’s the most underrated.

DJ was the same in many respects, but he didn’t play with these guys as long.  He’d been a star in Seattle, and then in Phoenix, so coming to Boston he had to subjugate his game so that it meshed with Robert, Kevin and Larry.  DJ made everything happen – he played incredible defense, he hit clutch shots, and he distributed the basketball.  If you look at those types of things, then he would have been the most underrated.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You played in only seven games during the 1992-93 season.  For an athlete who had played in 70 or more games per season since turning pro, how hard was it for you not to be on the court and battling with your teammates?

 ED PINCKNEY
It was extremely difficult.  Had I been healthy, I felt that I could have helped that team go deep into the playoffs.  We lost to Charlotte that season, but we had a good core of young players.  We had Reggie Lewis, Brian Shaw, Joe Klein and myself.  Dee Brown was just coming into his own.  So is was disappointing not being able to contribute to the turning around of the ball club.  It killed me not to be out on the floor with those guys.

 

CELTIC-NATION
The 1992-93 season was notable for three reasons:  Larry Bird’s retirement before the season started, the passing of legendary announcer Johnny Most in January, and heart-related death of burgeoning star Reggie Lewis shortly after the season is over.  Please touch on each of these individuals, and how the loss of each impacted the Celtic organization.

 ED PINCKNEY
Lets start with Johnny Most.  Teams have labels, people with whom the team is identified.  When you talked about the Boston Celtics, you quickly realized that Johnny Most was a huge part of the Celtic Mystique.  He was like Chick Hearn in that regard – Hearn was as big a part of the Lakers as anyone, calling all of those games through the years.  Most was his counterpart in Boston.  He had that gravelly voice, one that you could easily identify with.  He let fans know that he was with the team, that he was on their side.  The Celtics lost a lot in terms of mystique when he passed away.

I remember Most being a big part of our pre-game ritual.  We’d be on the bus, and Most would get into these verbal sparring matches with the players, mostly the Big Three.  They would give it to him and he would give it right back – it was a great relationship, because these guys cared deeply about him and vice versa.  It was very casual, and it kept the team loose.  I never really got into it with him, because I was the new guy and I didn’t have the same comfort zone as the other guys.  Johnny Most was a special person.

Losing Reggie was another tragic blow to the Celtics organization.  He was the future of the ball club, the person who was going to lead the team after the Big Three called it quits.  The Celtics lost a great player, but the city lost a great man.  Reggie Lewis did so much for Boston – he’d go around, giving away sneakers to poor children who couldn’t afford a pair of their own.  He’d do all of these incredible deeds, - donating his time to summer basketball camps, giving turkey dinners away at Thanksgiving – and yet he shunned the attention because he didn’t want his community work played up in the media.  His funeral was a testament to how important Reggie had become to the City of Boston.  Thousands of people showed up to pay their respects.  It was an unbelievable scene.

Larry’s retirement marked the end of an era – how do you replace one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA?  He was the leader of this team for so long, and also its identity.  It was a big loss in so many ways.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Reggie Lewis played in 80 regular season games before collapsing in the playoffs against Charlotte on April 29th, 1993.  Was there ever any prior indication that something might be wrong?

 ED PINCKNEY
No, not really.  Each team has physicals that the players must go through, and the exams are very thorough.  As far as I know, Reggie passed every exam with flying colors.  It was an unfortunate event for both him and his family.  It was a crushing loss.

As for the team, his death meant that there would be no passing of the torch from Bird to Lewis.  I remember being there for Larry’s retirement ceremony.  Magic was there.  It was just one of those incredible nights that you’ll never forget for as long as you live.  It drove home the point that Reggie was the new leader of this team, and that he was the sixth captain in team history.  He was going to be the one to take over.

 CELTIC-NATION
May 5th, 1991:  Larry Bird dives to the floor during the second quarter of Game 5 of a playoff series against the Indiana Pacers.  He slams his head against the parquet, but returns to finish with 32 points as the Celtics eliminate Indiana 124-121.  What was the atmosphere like in that game?

 ED PINCKNEY
It was crazy – outrageous.  Bird was battling with Chuck Person when that happened.  There was a lot of jawing in the press and on the court between those two, and Chuck was saying things like he was going to kill Bird in that series.  Person was the young gun, and he talked a lot of trash.  He said he was going to dethrone the great Larry Bird.  Bird welcomed the challenge.  In so many words he told Person to bring it.  To see Bird step up to the challenge, to come back from being hurt and silence Person like that – to me, it was one of the most intense individual match-ups that I’d ever witnessed.

 

CELTIC-NATION
On March 1st, center Mark Blount became the first Boston player in a decade to score more than 20 points and grab more than 20 rebounds in the same game.  The last time that happened was on April 19th, 1994 against Milwaukee.  The player on that night had 21 points and 22 rebounds.  Do you remember who he was?

 ED PINCKNEY
Yeah, I could kill Mark Blount for ending my streak [laughs].  I was broadcasting a Heat game when that graphic came up on the scoreboard.  I know Mark well, so it was great fun.  I’m glad that he was able to do it, and I’m happy to see him developing into such a good post player.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Final Question:  You’ve achieved great success in your life.  You are universally respected and admired by many people, both inside and outside of the NBA.  If you could offer one piece of advice on life to others, what would that be?

ED PINCKNEY
In any situation, just work as hard as you can.  Be honest with yourself and with others.

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