Boston Celtics coach M.L. Carr leaped from the bench, arms
raised, then pirouetted down the sideline, his silk tie flapping
in his face. Boston guard David Wesley had just stroked a
three-pointer at the buzzer, giving his team a 50-48 halftime
lead over the Sacramento Kings, and Carr ran toward the locker
room pumping his fist. As he passed the FleetCenter press
section, a reporter yelled to him, "M.L.! You're supposed to
lose these games. Remember?"
Carr stopped abruptly. "Sorry," he said, grinning, before
resuming his dash to the dressing room. "I lost my head."
But in the second half of that Feb. 26 game, order was quickly
restored. With guard Mitch Richmond pouring in 26 of his
game-high 38 points, the Kings overtook the Celtics and won
111-105 for their first victory in Boston in 18 years. As the
Celtics jogged off the court, their fans applauded
appreciatively. All in all, it had been a good night. The home
team had played hard, and it had lost, thereby dropping itself
nearer to the bottom of the league standings and closer to the
No. 1 pick in the June draft.
Ask hard-core Boston fans who their favorite Celtic is, and
they'll answer in unison: Tim Duncan, the Wake Forest senior
who's expected to be the grand prize in an otherwise thin draft.
The drop-off from the No. 1 to the No. 2 pick is significant
this year, giving a dismal team such as the Celtics extra reason
to want as many Ping-Pong balls as possible in the NBA's
weighted, 13-team draft lottery. The only way to get the most
Ping-Pong balls among nonexpansion teams (the Toronto Raptors
and Vancouver Grizzlies aren't eligible for the top pick until
1999) is to have the poorest record. And so, in a sense, the
Celtics win by losing. "It's the weirdest situation I've ever
been in," says Carr. "We bust our tail, lose, and fans slap me
on the back, saying, 'Great job.'"
After Sunday's 114-90 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Celtics had
dropped 17 of 18 and their record was 12-50, better only than
the Grizzlies' 11-52 mark. Moreover, Boston's record in games
decided by four points or less was a demoralizing 1-13. The
Celtics' performance in close games has encouraged whispers that
Boston has been tanking. Some skeptics point to strange
combinations on the floor at crucial moments and puzzling
distribution of playing time. They wonder, for instance, why
little-used backup center Steve Hamer was removed from the
lineup just as he started doing some damage (seven points and
four rebounds in eight minutes) in a 98-95 loss to the Indiana
Pacers on March 4. Seemingly the most damning evidence came on
Feb. 28, when the Celtics led the Detroit Pistons 84-82 with .3
of a second remaining. NBA rules specify that with so little
time left, a player can't catch a pass before shooting and
still be considered to have gotten off his shot before time
expired, so a team has only one option--an alley-oop pass and a
tap-in. Yet Boston let 6'2" Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter
position himself under the basket and tip in the tying hoop.
Detroit won 106-100 in overtime. Says one general manager, "That
game caught my eye. I don't think they're trying to lose on
purpose, but I don't think they're trying to win on purpose,
"That annoys me," Carr counters. "Don't you think putting
yourself up two with three tenths of a second left is a pretty
strange way to lose a game? I told our guys to defend their
biggest guy and best leaper, Theo Ratliff. But then Hunter went
backdoor, and we got caught."
Carr points to a more basic reason for the Celtics' record.
"Look at our roster," he says. "We've been decimated by
injuries." Indeed, through last weekend Boston led the league in
man-games lost to injury (335). Last season's leading scorer,
forward Dino Radja, had surgery on his left knee in January,
sidelining him for the remainder of the season. Its top
three-point shooter, guard Dana Barros, had surgery on his left
ankle in February and will be out at least until April. On March
4 guard Greg Minor had an operation on his right foot; he will
be out for the season. With centers Pervis Ellison (fractured
toe) and Frank Brickowski (right shoulder surgery) done for
'96-97 as well, the Celtics have no shot blocker in the middle.
That's a big reason that they are abysmal defensively; at week's
end they were worst in the NBA in points allowed (106.5 per
game) and in opponents' field goal percentage (.500).
Yet Boston has done little to fill its personnel needs, for
instance, using a virtually unknown rookie, Brett Szabo, a
refugee from the CBA and the German League, as its starting
center rather than trading for help. "I don't blame the
Celtics," says one Eastern Conference coach. "We'd do the same
if we had a chance at the No. 1 pick."
Carr, who has been Boston's coach and director of basketball
operations since June 1995, says he knew in the preseason that
his team might be subjected to scrutiny about tanking, so he
called New Jersey Nets general manager John Nash and offered to
swap No. 1 picks. That way, he surmised, nobody could question
whether his club was playing hard enough, since any losses would
benefit New Jersey. Nash confirms that Carr approached him twice
on the subject. "I admire his courage and his creativity," says
Nash, "but at the time it wasn't something we felt we should
do." Imagine if the Nets had made the deal. Boston would now be
facing the increasing possibility that Duncan, its ray of hope,
would instead shine in New Jersey.
Call it the Curse of Len Bias. Since June 1986, the last time
the Celtics won the NBA championship, Bias, Boston's top draft
pick that year, died of cocaine intoxication; in the ensuing
seven years injuries to stars Bill Walton (foot), Larry Bird
(back) and Kevin McHale (foot) prematurely ended their careers;
and in '93 All-Star Reggie Lewis collapsed and died of heart
failure. Add some unwise No. 1 draft picks (notably Michael
Smith in '89 and Acie Earl in '93) and some ill-advised
free-agent signings (Dominique Wilkins in '94 and Barros in
'95), and the decline of this once proud franchise, which has 16
championship banners hanging from the arena rafters, hardly
In the eye of the storm is the charismatic Carr, who won over
Boston fans as a hustling, towel-waving player from 1979 to '85.
This season Carr's upbeat demeanor has been his best asset.
"M.L. seems to be emotionally detached from the whole mess,"
says Boston Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, now one of the Celtics'
television analysts. "We've gotten used to today's players
laughing and playing cards 20 minutes after a tough loss, but
not the coaches. They bleed. But M.L. doesn't."
NBA sources say the league office has been monitoring all
potential lottery teams to make sure they're putting forth their
best efforts and has not found Boston's performance suspect.
Nevertheless, the Celtics remain in an enviable position in the
Duncan sweepstakes. Plus, they own the Dallas Mavericks'
first-round pick, acquired in a trade last June that sent center
Eric Montross and Boston's '96 first-round pick to the Mavs. The
Celtics also obtained Dallas's '96 first-round pick in that deal
and used it to select forward Antoine Walker, one of Boston's
few bright spots this season. With the Mavs at 19-41 at week's
end, their pick in June should be in the top eight.
Who will coach those lottery picks is unsettled. Celtics sources
say that while Carr hopes to keep his executive post next
season, he's considering relinquishing his coaching duties. The
people's choice to replace him is Kentucky coach Rick Pitino,
but, say sources inside and outside the club, Pitino would never
work with Carr. Celtics owner Paul Gaston would not comment last
week on his level of interest in Pitino, but one team executive
cautions, "Don't underestimate the relationship between Paul and
M.L." Another scenario has Bird, currently a Boston special
assistant, emerging as a player in the front office. (He has
made it clear he has no interest in coaching.)
For now Bird remains in the shadows, watching Boston's futile
campaign from afar. Last Thursday in Charlotte, the Celtics
clung to a three-point lead with 21 seconds to go, but Hornets
sniper Glen Rice drilled a trey to tie the game.
In overtime Boston (surprise!) lost 122-121. Unfazed, Celtics
fans happily drifted off to sleep, visions of Ping-Pong balls
dancing in their heads.