Posted Mar 30 2010 11:15AM
It got raucous Monday in a gym not known for much of that lately, thanks to the New Jersey Nets' come-from-behind victory over the San Antonio Spurs. The Nets were thrilled not just with the 90-84 outcome but with winning for the 10th time this season, dodging a piece of unwanted NBA history.
Most in the crowd of 13,053 in the Izod Center were happy to have witnessed both a quality basketball game and the excitement of accomplishing, y'know, at least something this season.
And somewhere in Philadelphia, a champagne cork might have been popping.
For most of this season, as New Jersey crept closer to what now is mathematically unattainable -- the NBA's worst single-season record ever --the alumni of the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers may have been monitoring the situation more closely than the rest of us. Maybe those guys -- most of whom made peace long ago with their insufferable 9-73 record that is, in fact, a record -- were gathering like a mirror image of the undefeated 1972 NFL Miami Dolphins, who reputedly break out champagne whenever some aspiring successor takes its first loss. Only in the Sixers' case, they'd be toasting some contemporary team's 10th victory. (Funny that the NFL's best and the NBA's worst were both on display that fall and winter of 1972-73.)
Obviously the Nets were celebrating Monday. "It's a big relief. Guys really wanted to get this off our backs," New Jersey point guard Devin Harris said. "Nobody wants to be the worst team in history."
Not so fast. Fred (Mad Dog) Carter, the leading scorer (20 ppg), longtime NBA broadcast analyst and unofficial spokesman for that Philadelphia team, is just fine lugging his share of that distinction through life.
Carter, who started his career with the Baltimore Bullets, was traded to Philly in 1971 and played for the Sixers until 1976, when he was sent to the Bucks.
He realized long ago that infamy's second cousin is immortality, and he talked about it last week just before the Nets got hot. And made him very happy:
NBA.com: You've said in the past that when a team gets close to undercutting you guys, you "go to church and light candles" in the hope that divine intervention might keep that Philadelphia team as the worst ever. Really?
Fred Carter: This is a record that I'd like us to keep. When you think about immortality, most people gain immortality by being able to accomplish things, whether it's touchdowns, kickoff returns, scoring 60 points in a game or 100 points or win seven titles or whatever they do. For us, with the 9-73 76ers team, look, you've probably spoken to a lot of other guys. I've spoken to a lot of people this year. Would I have spoken to them? Would you have spoken to the other guys?
NBA.com: You're OK with being associated with what most of us would presume was a negative thing?
FC: I played in the NBA Finals [with Baltimore]. We [the Bullets] beat the Knicks in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. And we were the first team to win Game 7, on the road, coming from two games down. And it was my jump shot that was a deciding factor. But nobody remembers that. I remember it.
You know Tony Bruno, a radio personality, ESPN and Philadelphia? He labeled me as "the best player on the worst team ever." You can take that as a negative if you like, but it's better to be remembered. Spell my name right!
NBA.com: So it's better than being in that vast gray area of forgettably bad teams.
FC: We could be a like a tree that fell in the forest and nobody heard of us. Now, someone is tracking down our record every few years.
NBA.com: Do you guys actually get together and celebrate when a team wins No. 10? Dallas finished 11-71 in 1992-93 and Denver had the same record in 1997-98.
FC: No, we don't. Individually, maybe. But then it's been plenty of years now. This is 2010! This is as close as it's been threatened. I can tell you that when the Denver Nuggets got to 10, they all autographed a basketball and sent it to me. Which was really cute.
NBA.com: Any special bond among you guys who endured that, like spending time in the same foxhole?
FC: No, because it's been 38 years. It took a lot of us a long time to get past that. Now we look at it -- not as a badge of honor but it does belong to us. You talk to Kevin Loughery and some of those guys, they're not interested in giving that up.
NBA.com: Yet your team had a spurt in February that year in which you won five times in seven games. You must have enjoyed that at the time.
FC: Winning for us was a big deal. Because they were few and far between. By that time, Kevin Loughery had taken over as head coach. Kevin and I were teammates in Baltimore and in Philadelphia before he became the head coach. He did the best job he could do under the circumstances. What people forget is that we had more talent than what the Nets have. But it was a very talented league -- there were only 17 teams in the league then. We played everybody four times. You'd get L.A. with Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain two times out there and two times in Philadelphia. The Knicks with Clyde [Walt Frazier] and Earl Monroe and Willis [Reed]. You'd get the Celtics with [John] Havlicek and that crew, Jo Jo White, etc. So we were in a much tougher league. We had talented people. We just weren't good enough.
NBA.com: You didn't quit in games or on the season?
FC: No, we did not. And we did not have the sense that we were just not good enough. [With the spurt in February], you're talking about a time when the season is still strong and long. It's just that we played a little better basketball at that time. You know, we had 19 different players come through our turnstiles. Nineteen players! That's a heck of a lot.
NBA.com: Was it a matter of responding to Loughery as coach?
FC: We did. Think about this: Roy Rubin was the head coach [when the season started] and he came out of [Long Island University] Division II. Had no NBA experience at all. Now in the preseason, we're playing against the Boston Celtics. We won and he's in the locker room, celebrating and saying, "Aw, the Celtics, we're a good team, we can beat them," this and that. This was a preseason game. Kevin Loughery and I looked at each other and knew then. This guy has never played. He didn't understand preseason games and what the Celtics were doing.
So when Kevin became the head coach, now all of a sudden there was a little more solidarity. We knew we had leadership. Now there was a purpose. You respect that -- when you know the leadership is there, you go out and you play better. Kevin did a very good job.
NBA.com: Of that team's 41 "home" games, you played 10 on neutral courts in Pittsburgh and Hershey, Pa., and only 31 in Philadelphia. What was it like at The Spectrum that season?
FC: We had one or two fans with bags over their heads. But our fans were good. They'd cheer for us. They had empathy for us. Even players on other teams, they felt for us. For example, before the start of games when you're out there shooting and chatting, a lot of guys felt sorry for us. Until the whistle blew. Then they didn 't want to lose to us.
NBA.com: I'm guessing you didn't appreciate pity from your opponents. The Nets probably didn't either this season.
FC: My message to the Nets players has been, no matter what happens, every game you go out and play hard. You don't hang your head, no matter what. Because there's a name for the winners in the world and -- Steely Dan sings that -- that's why they call Alabama the Crimson Tide. For me, just call me Deacon Blues.
NBA.com: You can be a "winner" on a loser, and vice versa?
FC: If you look in the college draft, Duke and (North) Carolina and even Florida lately, teams draft guys off of winning teams because these guys know how to win. If you're from a losing team, NBA teams are apt to not want you because they watch you play, they see you not give effort, they watch you on the bench hanging your head, they see you quit. They don't want to bring that stench to their ballclubs.
I averaged 20 points a game for that team. And it was a tough league. If I was their best player -- which is not saying a hell of lot -- then other teams were going to focus on stopping me. So I had to play hard every single night. That's what the Nets players [had] to do. They're protecting their integrity, they're protecting their reputations as players.
NBA.com: You wear the record well now, but what was that first offseason like, coming off that terrible performance?
FC: It was a miserable summer. I was voted the team's Most Valuable Player and I asked the guys in the media when they had the banquet, "Did I lead this team to nine wins or did I lead them to 73 losses?" To me, it was kind of embarrassing to be a team's Most Valuable Player on a team that accomplished nothing. Forget what they would have done without me -- what did I do?
But that's why I talk about immortality. It can be achieved in many ways. It's like the guy from the guy [in the stands] for the Chicago Cubs who stuck his [hands] out for the fly ball. Immortality. However negative. Immortality.
Of course, I can't remember his name.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
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