Editor’s note: This article was published in the May 19, 1997, editions of The Boston Globe.
SECAUCUS, N.J. — You could see the disappointment on his face yesterday, even if it was a smile the Celtics’ M.L. Carr flashed for the cameras.
And you could practically hear the entire Celtics organization groan as it was announced that Boston hadn’t won the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, even though it had had the best odds of any team (36 percent) to win the right to select Wake Forest center Tim Duncan, the best player in college basketball.
Instead, the Celtics came away with the No. 3 and No. 6 picks. The San Antonio Spurs, a team that already has a star center in David Robinson, won the No. 1 selection.
Not being able to land Duncan was a big blow to new Celtics coach Rick Pitino as he tries to rebuild the 15-67 team. Barring a trade, Pitino will start this new Celtics era without a dominant center.
Instead, the Celtics have two of the draft’s top six picks. That wouldn’t be so bad if this were 1984, when Michael Jordan went third and Charles Barkley was fifth. But this is 1997, and, as Pitino said, “The No. 7 pick could be better than the No. 2 pick.”
And the No. 1 pick?
“The only way I could see us trading Tim Duncan is if someone offered us Michael, Magic, and Larry,” Spurs coach and general manager Gregg Popovich said.
The Celtics no longer have Larry Bird. They certainly don’t have a Jordan or Magic Johnson, either. That didn’t stop Pitino from contacting Popovich five minutes after the lottery ended to discuss a trade. He knows such a deal would have to include the No. 3 and No. 6 picks, a future No. 1 choice, and possibly his best player, and that still might not be enough.
“Trading the rights to Duncan? If you were stricken with some strange illness, you might do it,” said Vancouver president and general manager Stu Jackson. “Other than that, I just can’t see it. It’s just such a huge difference between No. 1 and 2.”
How much of a difference?
“Night and day,” said Gary Fitzsimmons, the Cavaliers director of player personnel.
That leaves the Celtics in the position of working the phones and working out the likes of Villanova’s Tim Thomas, Kentucky’s Ron Mercer, Bowling Green point guard Antonio Daniels, and Colgate center Adonal Foyle. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
No one was surprised when deputy commissioner Russ Granik pulled the Celtics’ logo out of the No. 6 envelope. That was the pick the Celtics received from Dallas last summer; since the Mavericks were the league’s sixth-worst team, that meant the lottery was going as could have been predicted. But when Vancouver’s logo came out of the No. 4 envelope, Carr, now the team’s executive vice president for corporate development, looked as if he wanted to faint. He turned to Jackson and said, “It just turned.”
He was right. The next envelope also contained a Celtics card. The Grizzlies, not eligible to pick first, had a 45-percent chance of landing the No. 2 pick. Vancouver and Boston, the two worst teams in the league, were nowhere near the No. 1 pick.
As Carr and Jackson slumped in their chairs, Philadelphia president Pat Croce pumped his fist. He sat three chairs away from Carr and clutched a Waterford crystal ball and a 14-year-old shoestring.
“The original Boston Strangler, Andrew Toney, sent it to me this week,” Croce said. “It’s from 1983; Andrew said he wanted to help. We didn’t want Boston to get the top pick. Geez, there would have been a volcanic eruption if we had come away with No. 1.”
Instead they were second. As Spurs chairman Peter Holt posed for the cameras, Croce held the lucky shoestring crazily. He wondered if he should give it to Carr. He was told it wouldn’t be a good idea, since Carr had just received some unsettling news.
Carr tried to laugh, too. It sounded hollow.
“I can tell you this,” he said, “Coach Pitino will do the right thing with the picks. He knows what he’s doing, he knows college basketball.”
Pitino, who did not attend the lottery selection show, said he wasn’t depressed by the outcome, either.
“The only thing I’m disappointed in is that we can’t start practice tomorrow. I’m very anxious to get started,” he said.
Pitino was asked if things would have been different if he had come to the swamplands in place of Carr. He chuckled and said no.
Perhaps Carr should have taken former Celtic Wayne Embry’s advice. When Carr entered the studio, Embry, the Cavaliers GM, told him he should have brought his signature towel. Carr laughed again. A half-hour later, he gathered with a group of Celtic representatives in the building’s Green Room. No one was laughing.
The afternoon resembled so many Celtic games from last season: They stayed close, but didn’t win.