Twenty-three years after the ping pong balls defied the Boston Celtics in the 1997 NBA Draft lottery, M.L. Carr contends the most painful moment came a short while after the San Antonio Spurs vaulted to the No. 1 pick.
Carr, representing the Celtics despite having been replaced as both the head of basketball operations and head coach by Rick Pitino, was on stage in Secaucus, N.J., when Boston saw its logo appear in envelopes representing picks Nos. 3 and 6.
While the Spurs were still basking in the glow of their leap that would soon deliver Tim Duncan and kickstart their own title run, Carr got sent an impossible task.
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"We worked very hard to put the team in position to get, potentially, the first pick. It didn’t happen. When it didn’t happen, obviously there was disappointment,” Carr said Monday on the anniversary of the defiant ping pong balls. “We came up with the third pick. I got a call from the folks in Boston, the Pitino group, asking, ‘Could we give picks to [Spurs coach and president of basketball operations Gregg] Popovich and ask him if he would trade the first pick for a couple — like third and six. And, obviously, you gotta do it; it’s what they asked.”
So Carr engaged the Spurs contingent, despite knowing full well what the answer to his query would be.
"I went to Popovich, he felt sorry that I even had to ask,” said Carr. "Because I knew right then, to get Tim Duncan away from San Antonio, we’d have to give them the Prudential Center, all the money on the Mass Pike, you’d have to give them all of the North End, you’d have to give them all the suburbs, and probably the Callahan Tunnel revenue, as well as the Ted Williams revenue for the next 40-50 years. And it still probably wouldn’t have been enough to give it up.
It was a stupid question. A stupid question you have to ask, and Popovich knew it so he said, ‘No, we think we’re going to hold onto it.’ I had to do it.
Not even the ever positive Carr, famous for his emphatic towel waving during his playing days while winning two titles in the early 80s, could put a positive spin on missing out on Duncan.
“It was a bad moment for the Celtics. Because we we had the best opportunity with the ping pong balls and it went the other way,” said Carr. "It would have been great to have Timmy because there would have been more banners flying, I’m sure.”
Needless to say, you won’t see the 1997 lottery ceremony on NBC Sports Boston’s Classic Celtics series anytime soon. Told, though, that a new generation of Celtics fans are being exposed to Carr and those 80s Celtics team because of the classic games, Carr playfully admitted that’s actually a negative for him.
"The only problem I have with the old games coming up and classic sports is that I have to be truthful to my five grandkids. I can’t tell them I was the best player on the Celtics because they’re looking and saying, ‘Pop Pop, Larry Bird looks like he might have been better than you,’” said Carr with a laugh. "And I can’t tell them I’m the best player to come out of Wallace, [North Carolina] because they may look at ["The Last Dance" documentary] and say, ‘Michael Jordan, yeah, I think he’s better, too, Pop Pop.’
"I’ve gotta be honest and tell them I was just happy to be on the team.”