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3:33 Sports Short #19 // Sixth Man by Nick Ripatrazone

Havlicek, McHale, Walton. Sundays meant 10:30 mass at Our Lady of Mercy, then our family cramped on living room couches, watching the NBA on CBS throughout the afternoon. The Celtics were our team, Boston Garden my home, and my dream was to step on that parquet. I hated the flashy Lakers. Jack Nicholson was an asshole in The Shining but he was even worse courtside. I preferred Bird and Parrish over Worthy and Johnson. I was raised to love the Celtics.

My father and brothers taught me about John Havlicek and his legendary steal against the 76ers. Havlicek proved that the bench had been given a bad name. My father, who played football at Holy Cross a few years after Bob Cousy played basketball, said Cousy thought the sixth man was the most important player on any team. While playing for the Celtics, Cousy’s sixth was Frank Ramsay; Tom Meschery called Ramsey “the first designed shooter off the bench in NBA history.” The Celtics considered the bench essential and necessary. Benches were meant to be deep, not thin; full of reserves, not rejects. Red Auerbach agreed, of course, and for me the Celtics have always been synonymous with planning and patience.

This was the opposite of my earliest memories of sport: Sunday afternoons watching my brother play football for the University of Delaware. 22 helmeted, shadowy figures hulking across faded hash marks, slow-motion effigies from NFL Films. Only years later did I discover the finely crafted, thick packets of Blue Hens plays in his bedroom closet. I grew to embrace the idea that sport was possibly more parts mind than body, that hustle needed to be complemented with knowledge. The sixth man was the ultimate synthesis: the not-so secret weapon, the fresh legs, the rested body.

The sixth man, at least for the Celtics, ensured the game was never finished until the final second disappeared from the clock. Yet the Celtics do not own the concept. John Wooden recruited players to specifically serve as sixth men. Mike Krzyzewski considers the Cameron Crazies Duke’s sixth man—as do most visiting teams. Slightly less intimidating is the “Sixth Man,” the fans at Stanford’s Maples Pavilion. The NBA gives the Sixth Man of the Year award, beginning in 1982 with Bobby Jones, an honor McHale, Ricky Pierce, and Detlef Schrempf have all won twice.

Havlicek is not the only sixth man to hold center stage. Whose dunk capped Kentucky’s 1978 NCAA championship over Duke? Sixth man James Lee. Sixth men evolve; Kobe Bryant was runner-up for the league’s award in 1998. He is no longer a sixth man. Bill Walton won the award in 1986; eight years prior he was MVP of the entire league. Sixth men also revert, but usually for good purpose.

Poet Edward Hirsch has lamented that though “there is an enormous literature in American poetry related to baseball, because it’s pastoral,” much less exists about basketball. Hirsch is certainly aware of the Midwestern basketball archetype, from the cinematic Hoosiers to the storied grassroots teams from Kentucky and Indiana that reeled across panoramic screens at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Basketball, in fact, lives and breathes apocrypha: from Magic Johnson’s claims of shoveling a row of snow from his hoop in Lansing to the fact that no other sport sustains such a healthy pickup existence. The sixth man could, and should, be a romanticized archetype.

The Sixth Man (1996) is one of the movies Roger Ebert “hated, hated, hated,” nothing but a “paint-by-the-numbers sports movie.” The sixth man in the movie is the helpful ghost of a recently deceased player: supernatural bench assistance. Chris Ballard, in Hoops Nation, relates “The Sixth Man Club . . . a group of Boca [Raton] ballplayers, aged twenty-nine to forty-five, who gather at local gyms four times a week, all year round, to play no-bullshit basketball.” The sixth man is the ironic underdog: good enough to start, humble enough to sit. It is nice to have your name announced from the rafters during the opening lineup, but I doubt Kevin McHale cared. He seemed to play more than some starters and even Larry Bird gushed that the long-limbed McHale was essential to the Celtics’ championships during the decade. In basketball, five, it seems, is never enough.

Nick Ripatrazone is a staff writer for The Millions, and has written for The Atlantic, Esquire, The Sewanee Review, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.