With New Arena, Celtics Seek Old Form

In what observers call a desperate move or a brilliant stroke, Boston's storied franchise has a coach who's never coached

WITH unabashed self-confidence, Michael Leon Carr has made himself perhaps the most titled person in Boston Celtics history. Already executive vice president and director of basketball operations, after having been a Celtic player from 1979-'85, Carr added ''head coach'' to his office door last spring. Whether that was folly, genius, or something in between will become clearer as the National Basketball season opens.

''It wasn't an easy decision, but it was a decision that felt right at the time,'' Carr says of his self-appointment. Standing in black shirt, pants, and shoes at the Celtics' gym in suburban Waltham, the new coach looks the part, but lacks the portfolio.

M.L. Carr has no coaching experience at any level.

Some call it a desperate move by Paul Gaston, the club's still-green chairman of the board, to salvage a lost era. Others say it's a risky but inspired attempt to launch a successful new era as the team moves into a new arena, the FleetCenter. The Celtics, winners of 16 championships, have been mediocre at best since superstar Larry Bird retired in 1992.

Jackie MacMullan, who covers pro basketball for the Boston Globe, says the team ''could well be 0 for November.'' And Hank Hersch of Sports Illustrated predicts that Carr will be the first coach fired this season - by himself, of course. The Celtics were 2-6 in the preseason.

''Coach'' Willie Maye, sports director at WILD radio and a member of the SportsChannel's Celtic broadcast team, says that many of the people he talks with expect the roof to cave in on Carr. The key, Maye says, is for Carr to ''get his hands on a couple of ballplayers who can make him a better coach. But at the same time, he will make a lot of players better players. He's a players' coach.''

Carr smiles through it all.

''When you are part of a team that is following in the tradition established by Red Auerbach and all the great players through the years,'' Carr says, ''the standards are very high. I want the players to understand that, but I also want them to understand that they are capable of carving out their own niche.''

That is exactly what Carr himself is trying to do and, in some ways, has done throughout his life. The first inkling this writer had of Carr's ability to make his mark came 18 years ago in an interview with Jack Jensen, Carr's former coach at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C.

Asked to speak about Lloyd Free, then the flashiest player in the National Basketball Association, Jensen shifted the focus to another Guilford product: Carr. Jensen said Carr was special, a natural leader. In so many words, Jensen's message was: ''This guy's going places.''

Indeed, since integrating Wallace- Rose Hill High School's basketball team in Wallace, N.C., 30 years ago, amateur poet and first-class talker Carr has never looked back. As he sees it, every curve in the road is another opportunity.

''That's why I am where I am right now,'' he says. ''I'm taking advantage of the opportunity. If the young people have any doubts that their dreams and aspirations cannot happen, I have two examples to dispute that: Red Auerbach gave me the opportunity to play here, and Paul Gaston provided me with the chance to run the organization.''

If that sounds easy, the record shows that Carr has paid his dues. His career is paved with persistence.

He tried out for the Kentucky Colonels of the old American Basketball Association in 1973. Failing that, he played minor-league ball and got his first introduction to the Celtics in 1974, when he was signed as a free agent but put on waivers five days later. He played in Israel, then with the St. Louis Spirit and the Detroit Pistons. The Celtics signed him as a free agent in 1979 and kept him as a valued 6 ft. 6 in. reserve for his last six years in the NBA, including the 1981 and '84 championships.

In retirement, Carr turned business entrepreneur and Celtic scout. In 1991 he was named director of community relations. He vaulted to head of basketball operations last year before making what MacMullan calls Carr's biggest blunder, ''naming himself absolute ruler'' of the club.

When people question his lack of coaching experience, Carr likes to joke that he's already logged plenty of time on the bench - at the far end.

Cedric Maxwell, a former teammate and now a newly hired radio commentator on Celtic broadcasts, is optimistic that Carr can shoulder his twin responsibilities.

''I've been around M.L. for a long time,'' Maxwell says, ''and I think he's one of those special people who can possibly pull this off.''

Carr points out that others in the NBA serve as coach and personnel director: Miami's Pat Riley, Philadelphia's John Lucas, Denver's Bernie Bickerstaff, and Milwaukee's Mike Dunleavy. These guys all cut their teeth first as coaches, though.

Carr says he possesses the chief requisite for the job: an ability to communicate. ''You've got to be a 'people person,' '' he says. ''You've got to understand personnel and that guys at this level all have an internal motivation that drives them to excel. We just have to tap into that.''

TEAM captain Dee Brown is enthusiastic at the prospect of playing for Carr. ''M.L. knows a lot about us as players; he knows what we like to do and how we like to do it,'' Brown says. ''Communication is going to be easy because we're going to be in positions we're comfortable with.''

This year, with a roster top-heavy with guards, Carr plans to assemble an up-tempo attack. Some question if front-court players like Dino Radja and Eric Montross can adjust, but Carr says he will not waver.

Things may look ugly for a time, he says, but he expects the team to gel by mid-January. ''It's a lot easier to stay in games if you're not running [fast breaks],'' he says. ''But when we start throwing the ball into the seventh and eighth rows, I'm not going to pull back. I'm just going to tell the fans in those rows to stay alert.'' He will tolerate, even encourage mistakes, he says, ''because if you're not making a few mistakes you're not doing anything.''

He wants the old Celtic pride that he came to symbolize with his towel-waving, cheerleading antics on the bench. ''The fans will not accept us going through the motions,'' he says, ''and they're not going to get that.''

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