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 moist 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 arid 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, either."
"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 seems surprising.