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How the NCAA Made Robert Parish Disappear


It’s tough to question Hall of Fame center Robert Parish’s place in NBA history. He won three titles with the Boston Celtics dynasty of the 80s (and added a fourth as a backup with the 1997 Chicago Bulls), made nine All-Star games, and holds the league’s career record for games played with 1611. He must have had a dominant college career, too, right?

Yes and no. Parish was awesome, but according to the NCAA, the games he played in at Louisiana’s Centenary never took place. They weren’t vacated like so many other rule-breaking squads’ wins have been, either. The games technically didn’t count even as they were being played. Let’s look at how an all-time great wound up in such a strange position.

[Image: © Steve Lipofsky/Corbis]

Only a Test

Parish’s odd college career traces its roots back to his high school days and an old NCAA rule. When Parish was gearing up for his collegiate days in 1972, the NCAA used a formula known as “the 1.6 rule” that weighed standardized test scores and high school grades to predict student-athletes’ college GPAs. If a player figured to earn at least a 1.600 GPA, he or she was eligible to play NCAA sports. Parish hadn’t taken the SAT, so Centenary converted his score from an equivalent in order to fit the NCAA’s formula.

According to an incredibly interesting feature Sam Moses wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1975, Centenary had made similar conversions to fit scores into the formula a dozen times over the previous two years. This time, though, the NCAA swooped in and told Centenary that the maneuver was illegal. Centenary could avoid major NCAA sanctions, though, if it would rescind the scholarships of Parish and four incoming teammates who had received similar conversions.

They Fought the Law

If this situation arose today, the school would almost certainly roll over to the NCAA’s wishes. But tiny Centenary, then the smallest school in Division I, held firm. The school argued that there was nothing in the rules forbidding such a test score conversion, and it wasn’t just going to suddenly tell five kids they couldn’t go to college because of some arcane NCAA policy. (As Peter May noted in his Celtics book The Big Three, the truly curious part of Centenary’s defiance is that the school could have simply gotten Parish to take the SAT and establish his eligibility. He would have only needed to earn a meager 450 on the test to become eligible.)

Of course, fighting the NCAA is only marginally less futile than fighting city hall. The NCAA dropped the hammer on Centenary to the tune of six years of probation in which the Gentlemen couldn’t appear in the postseason or have their statistics reported in NCAA publications. The NCAA repealed the 1.6 Rule that caused the stink just four days after announcing Centenary’s sanctions, but it refused to budge on Parish and his Centenary teammates who had violated the overturned rule.

At this point the story takes an odd turn: rather than give in to the NCAA’s demands, Centenary decided to run out a team full of players the NCAA had ruled ineligible. And rather than establish their eligibility and transfer to schools that weren’t on NCAA lockdown, the players stuck around. Parish later told Moses, “I didn’t transfer because Centenary did nothing wrong. And I have no regrets. None.”

In Court and on the Court

Centenary even took to the courtroom to try to get the players’ eligibility reinstated, but it was no use. A federal suit ended in a judge denying the players’ request. By the time this first case had run its course, Parish’s freshman season had ended. During Parish’s junior year, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Centenary’s appeal and upheld every element of the lower court’s decision.

While the Gents weren’t having any luck in court, they were tearing things up on the court, as a small school team with a seven-foot future Hall of Famer will tend to do. Parish led the Gentlemen to an 87-21 record over his four years at the school, including a 22-5 mark his senior season. He also put up ludicrous stat lines – for his collegiate career he averaged nearly 22 points and 17 rebounds a game – but the NCAA probation meant that nobody outside of Centenary’s fans and pro scouts really knew what kind of monstrous career he was having. It’s easy to see why Moses’ SI piece on Parish bore the title “Invisible in the Post.”

Parish didn’t have to play in such obscurity, though. He could have jumped to the ABA and made some serious cash as a professional player. The Utah Stars drafted him after his freshman season, but Parish refused to make the leap to the pros and pick up the cash. Instead he stayed at Centenary and kept winning games that – at least in the NCAA’s eyes – weren’t technically taking place.

When he eventually did make his ascent to the pro ranks, it was as a member of the Golden State Warriors, who took him with the eighth overall pick in the 1976 NBA Draft. Four years later he ended up in Boston as the result of one of sports’ all-time great heist trades: Parish and the third overall pick in the 1980 NBA Draft (fellow Hall of Famer Kevin McHale) went to the Celtics, while the Warriors got the first overall pick in the same draft, which the team used on solid-but-unspectacular center Joe Barry Carroll.

The Greatest There Never Was

Parish graduated from Centenary in 1976, but the NCAA still hasn’t eased its stance on his numbers. To this day, none of Parish’s eye-popping stats appear in the NCAA’s record books, even though his career average of 16.9 rebounds per game would hold the post-1973 record by nearly two boards a game. The only real relic of the Gents’ dominant run with Parish in the middle is the record of 14 weeks the team spent on the old Associated Press Top 20 poll during his time at Centenary. Parish’s school days might just be the greatest college career that never happened.

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