Hall of Fame center Robert Parish’s place in NBA history is rock solid. 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 teams, 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. These competitions 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.
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 utilized 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 standardized admissions exam, the ACT, and plugged it into the NCAA's predictive formula.
According to a terrific 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 the college wasn't so lucky, and the NCAA warned 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 benefited from 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. Even though the NCAA repealed the 1.6 Rule just four days after announcing Centenary’s sanctions, it refused to budge on Parish and his Centenary teammates.
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. More amazingly, rather than establishing their eligibility in order to 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 the players' 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 team with a seven-foot future Hall of Famer will tend to do. Parish led the Gentlemen to an 87-21 record over four years, 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, fans of the NCAA teams the Gents were dismantling, and pro scouts really knew about the 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 cashed in as a professional player. The Utah Stars drafted him after his freshman season, but Parish refused to make the leap to the pros. Instead he stayed at Centenary and kept winning games that – at least in the NCAA’s eyes – weren’t technically taking place. The relative obscurity didn't put a damper on Parish's NBA prospects - when he finally made his ascent to the pro ranks, the Golden State Warriors selected him with the eighth overall pick in the 1976 NBA Draft.
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 14 weeks the team spent on the old Associated Press Top 20 poll. Parish’s school days might just be the greatest college career that never happened.