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Not Worth Beans : Celtics Are Off to Their Worst Start, but M.L. Carr Won't Throw In the Towel

December 27, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — In a way, nothing ever changes. Celtics are Celtics, Lakers are Lakers and never the twain shall meet without one of them going away mad.

"You know what city you're in right now?" says M.L. Carr, incredulous that someone has suggested there are two or three NBA glamour franchises.

"There was only one! Forget the Lakers, man!

"Let me rile this up, get this thing stirred up before I get out there! Shoot on the Lakers, 76ers and the Knicks! There was only one team! I want to stir it up! I want to make sure they sell out when I get there. If Shaq can't sell it out, I can sell it out. They can come boo me!"

Sure, why not? Laker fans will be glad to picket Carr tonight for old times' sake, but in the real world everything changes. The old towel-waving substitute may now be coach and general manager, but the Lakers have bigger fish to fry and the rivalry is in his head.

If the Lakers are having problems with chemistry or ticket sales in the Shaquille O'Neal era, they're way beyond the Celtics, now sunk deep enough to get their mail by gopher.

Four years after Larry Bird, the Celtics haven't hit bottom yet, although this season may take care of that. They're off to their worst start (5-19) and seem destined to go into their own record book, upside down.

One way or another, they'll never forget this season. For the first two months, they haven't had a center, only Dino Radja standing in, backed up by ungainly, goggled Brett Szabo, who reminds one of UCLA's post-Larry Farmer reconstruction in the '80s, when a Bruin alumnus looked at an awkward new transfer and proclaimed it the Jack Haley Era.

Szabo only has to sub for Radja a few minutes a game. Carr inherits the throne of Red Auerbach, who created three dynasties out of thin air, using nothing more than his wits to steal Bill Russell, Dave Cowens, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, etc.

There's no percentage in following a legend, so if Carr followed a vision that was, let's say, peculiar, while continuously proclaiming the coming of Dynasty IV, people didn't compare him to his failed predecessor, Dave Gavitt. In Carr's case, the comparisons, muttered within Boston, published elsewhere, are more to Bozo the Clown.

What, him worry?

"Greatest opportunity in America, if you ask me!" Carr trumpets, as if he's taping a motivational video.

"When I took this position, I said I'm the right guy. And I knew what was going to come down. I knew the hits, I knew the knocks. That was why I knew I was the right guy, because I can deal with it.

"You don't make me shake and waver. I have a mission. I have a vision of what this is supposed to be about . . .

"All you want to do is carve out your niche among the great ones, great players, great teams. The whole thing is about championships, and that's why I don't lose sight of it. Tonight's game, tomorrow's game, the next game, that's not what I'm looking for. [Note: That was fortunate because they lost all three.] My goal is to win an NBA championship, No. 17 for the Boston Celtics.

"And I won't deny, every now and then--most of the time actually--the media makes jokes of me for doing that. 'Gee, this guy, where is he coming from? He's got a 4-12 record, he's talking about a championship.' But that's what my goal is. My goal is not to be 5-12 or 12-12 or 18-4. My goal is to win an NBA championship, nothing short of that.

"I didn't waver as a player. I said, 'I'm supposed to stop you.' If I couldn't stop you a conventional way, I'd stop you an unconventional way. The bottom line is, my job was to stop you and I became the bad guy with that--he's a thug. The bottom line is, guess what? He was stopped."

If his octopus defense, tenacity and courage were enough this time around, everyone would be much happier in Boston.

In the real world, they're up to Year III of the Carr Era and heading for the bottom at flank speed. His 17th banner is a wish made on a star and this is the NBA, not Disneyland.

*

How can you blame a man whose life has been a dream come true for believing in fairy tales?

Michael Leon Carr was born in the hamlet of Wallace, N.C. His father, John Henry Carr, was a textile worker who never made more than $5.65 an hour. Yearning for a better life for his children, John Henry stressed the value of education and hard work.

M.L., however, was so driven, so positive things would work out, he says his father feared for him.

M.L. became one of 27 black students who integrated Rose Hill High in 1965. He also became the first black basketball player in the conference. John Henry asked if he wanted to go through that. M.L. said he did.

He was called racial names and saw his number on a dummy hanging from the ceiling in an opposing school's gym. What can talk-radio callers do to him these days that compares to that?

He was a star at tiny Guilford College, but the Kansas City Kings cut him, as did the ABA's Kentucky Colonels and the Celtics, before he got stuck as a valued reserve specializing in agitation and whatever else was necessary.

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