If ever there was a year when the Boston Celtics felt like reenacting the Boston Tea Party, this was it.
As the National Basketball Association celebrated its 50th anniversary, the Celtics turned in a performance so miserable that it belonged only one place: at the bottom of Boston Harbor.
Heading into Sunday's final game against the Toronto Raptors, Boston's main incentive was to avoid the total disgrace of finishing dead last among 29 teams. Only Canada's other second-year expansion club, the Vancouver Grizzlies, could spare Boston that embarrassment.
Heading into the season's final weekend, Boston owned a franchise-worst 14-66 record that was more than 50 wins behind the pace of its 1985-86 edition, which captured the last of the team's 16 glorious championships.
During this historic campaign, the league paid tribute to many of the Celtic greats who've had a role in writing the NBA's first five decades - Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, and many more. Yet on the court, opponents took turns burying, not praising the Celtics whose top player is rookie Antoine Walker.
Ironically, perhaps the most indelible image of the season is not from any game, but from a comical television ad in which two local furniture store proprietors outshine Celtics Rick Fox and David Wesley in executing a fancy dunk shot.
Also ironically, the man who has coached this team is M.L. Carr, who is perhaps best remembered for waving a white towel as an enthusiastic sub on the Bird-era championship teams. The much-criticized Carr might have been tempted to wave a towel of surrender this year, but he didn't, nor did he buckle under intense media pressure to comment on whether he or someone else - the University of Kentucky's Rick Pitino or perhaps Bird - would coach the team next season.
Since he also serves as Boston's executive vice-president and director of basketball operations, Carr theoretically could fire himself, since in a much questioned decision two years ago, he also hired himself.
Carr has been resolute in his hard-line refusal to discuss the coaching situation, other than to say repeatedly: "We will not comment on any personnel decisions until the end of the season." Before doing anything, Carr has said he wants to consult with his boss, team owner Paul Gaston, who stirred up a hornet's nest last season when he publicly said of the Celtics, "We stink."
Gaston has assumed a much lower profile this season, perhaps content in the knowledge that misery has its rewards in the NBA. The team's record assures it of a high draft choice, and maybe even the very first pick in the league's June 25 player selections.
The drafting order for the 13 teams that did not make the playoffs will be determined May 18 at the annual lottery, with this year's drawing to be held at the headquarters of NBA Entertainment in Seacaucus, N.J.
By virtue of their abysmal record, the Celtics not only get more Ping-Pong balls in the hopper, they also own those of the lowly Dallas Mavericks, who relinquished their first-round draft choice in a trade with Boston. (As expansion teams, Vancouver and Toronto are ineligible for the very first pick in 1997 and 1998.)
The prospects for acquiring some major building blocks, therefore, are good. In a best case scenario, Boston would get the No. 1 choice and use it to draft Wake Forest University's seven-foot Tim Duncan, an All-American center.
Duncan could conceivably have the kind of impact that Shaquille O'Neal (since traded to the Lakers) once had on the Orlando Magic, which improved its record from 21-61 before Shaq arrived to 57-25 three years later.
Bostonians don't have to be reminded of the impact one key player can make. After all, the Celtics have seen the franchise reborn on two occasions: first when center Dave Cowens arrived in 1970, and then when Bird showed up in 1979 to ensure countless sellouts at the old Boston Garden, which still stands. The Celtic championship banners and famous parquet floor moved next door two years ago, but neither the Celtics nor the Bruins, who failed to make the hockey playoffs this year for the first time in 30 years, have filled the new building with scrapbook moments.
Perhaps the biggest thrill witnessed in the FleetCenter came when a Celtics fan hit a halftime shot worth $77,777. Otherwise, a glitzy pregame video that reviewed historical Celtic highlights vainly attempted to retain the good vibes.
As with many championship teams, Boston played out the string with its nucleus of 1980s stars intact - Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and Danny Ainge. A dip in the road seemed inevitable, but the deaths of Len Bias, the team's first draft pick in 1986, and Reggie Lewis, a 1993 All-Star, created an almost unbridgeable chasm.
Conventional NBA wisdom says that sometimes a team has to hit rock bottom before it can hope to soar, so knowledgeable Celtic fans in some ways have accepted the team's sad present condition. Now, though, they know the rebuilding must begin.