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.