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There are at least three things you need to know about Fred Carter before you call him nuts for rooting for the New Jersey Nets to let his 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers team rest in peace as the biggest losers in NBA history.
|Mike Ratliff of the Kings battled Fred Carter for the ball in the 76ers' first home win of the 1972-73 season.|
Carter's nickname is "Mad Dog," which right away suggests a certain contrarian streak. Two, Carter finds skewed beauty in another nickname of his that has stuck: "best player on the worst team ever." That's why Carter will not break out any champagne if the Nets bounce his 9-73 Philadelphia team from the record books by failing to win at least two of their remaining games.
"No, no, I am sweating this -- I am sweating it tremendously," Carter says. "I watch every game of theirs. I root for the Nets. I always tell people we worked hard for that record. All of our players did.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's ours."
Even 37 years later, there's a lot to like about that 76ers team, and it starts with Carter's counterintuitive but highly original argument: "Immortality is gained in only so many ways, you know?"
Still, that's not the only reason it would be sad to see the 8-63 Nets shove the Sixers aside. Quite often in sports the only crime that's worse than being historically bad is being irredeemably boring while you're at it. Look at the lingering affection for Casey Stengel and his bumbling Mets. Remember the circus around Ted Stepien's old Cavs teams? Sonnets have been written about the Cubs' long history of misery, for god's sake.
Carter's 76ers had a certain eccentricity, too, a sort of commendable perspective about their hapless majesty that the current Nets can't match. The '72-73 Sixers, for example, found their head coach by running a classified ad after Marquette's Al McGuire and everyone else they approached turned them down. The Nets? One running joke now is that the Russian billionaire who's trying to buy the team might rename them the Nyets.
|Nets fans who bother to show up have expressed their displeasure with the team.|
"Honestly, I think it would be good for the Nets not to break our record," says Kevin Loughery, Carter's backcourt mate with the '72-73 Sixers. "The record means nothing to me. But the Nets -- they've gotta set some goals."
You have to love that, too. There's something great about a bunch of athletes who are big enough and self-confident enough to genuinely prefer living in infamy. Doesn't it make you an honest-to-God tough guy, a sort of real-life Schwarzenegger character to say, "We came. We tried. We stunk. So deal with it."?
Couldn't Mercury Morris and the other 1972 Miami Dolphins who behave like cranky old men every time someone threatens to match their perfect NFL season learn something about graciousness from the '72-73 Sixers?
"Wellllll " Loughery laughs, "that's a different kind of record."
The '72-73 Sixers had separate losing streaks of 14, 15 and 20 games. They were 0-for-November, nearly 0-for-Hanukkah season, pretty much close to winless after the vernal equinox that year. You name it, they probably oh-fer'ed it.
Lousiness was predicted. And boy, did they deliver. Billy Cunningham, their best player, jumped to the ABA before the season. Then their GM and future Hall of Fame coach, Jack Ramsay, bolted for Buffalo, leaving a boatload of bad personnel decisions behind him. Loughery took over as player-coach after Roy Rubin -- the Long Island University coach with no pro experience who answered the Sixers' classified ad -- was fired at the All-Star break with a 4-47 record. But not before a New York pal of Rubin's began coming to games with a megaphone to shout down grumbling fans.
"I remember we beat Boston in a preseason game," Carter says, "and when we got back to the locker room Rubin was there saying, 'I told you we would beat the Boston Celtics! HA! Who do they think they are?' The Boston Celtics! That was unfortunate. Kevin Loughery and I just looked at each other. We thought, 'This guy doesn't have a clue.'"
|The 76ers didn't help Carter's cause last week, beating the Nets 108-97.|
Carter played eight seasons in the NBA, all told. He is credited with inventing the fist bump that everyone from Kobe Bryant to President Obama uses today. He made a game-winning jumper in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals to beat Red Holzman's Knicks and send his Baltimore Bullets team, with Wes Unseld and Earl Monroe, winging into the 1971 Finals. They lost. Just two seasons later he found himself stuck in the morass in Philly but refused to despair. He averaged 20.9 points and, like Loughery, went on to be a coach and TV analyst in the NBA.
"But nobody remembers me much for that," Carter says. "Just 9-73. That's why I say that's my only way to immortality. And it's not looking good for me."
The Nets still need one win just to tie the Sixers. Only 11 games to go.
Until Monday -- when Nets CEO Brett Yormark shouted at a fan who watched the Nets' home loss to Miami with a bag over his head -- New Jersey had been taking its whuppings rather politely this season. But the Nets stirred and beat visiting Sacramento on Wednesday for their first win in nearly three weeks. The Nets are young, but their talent is still better than their record.
"That's why if we can just survive this year, I think we'll be OK," Carter says. "The NBA is weaker than when we played with only 17 teams. With 31, there are more winnable games. That's why when the Nets got to No. 7, I felt safe. Then all of a sudden they got stuck on seven I always figured if they got to eight, they'd fight like hell to get to nine.
"The Nets have to somehow get it done."
Carter will be watching every day the rest of the way. He says no matter how badly the '72-73 Sixers played, the idea of slacking off never occurred to him. Asked if he has any advice for the Nets, he grows serious and says: "You can't have that loser's look on the bench. It's important for your career. Because organizations are afraid of guys like that. Some guys will not survive this. Coaches don't. Players won't."
Carter laughs and booms, "Yes. I wish they'd get 10 wins already. They're killing me."
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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