Fred Carter, MVP of the worst team in NBA history and now unofficial caretaker of its legacy, says the current edition of the 76ers is even worse -- and never mind the math.
This year’s Sixers have lost 25 straight games. They can equal the league record for consecutive defeats, established by the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers, with a loss Thursday in Houston. They can surpass it by falling Saturday at home to Detroit.
Still, they are 15-56. The 1972-73 Sixers, for whom Carter was a starting guard, finished 9-73.
Then again, the record book says one thing, the eye test another. Asked Monday to compare the roster of his team with that of this year’s club, he said, “It’s not even close. We were a much better team, but we were in a much stronger league.”
There were only 17 NBA teams then, compared to 30 now.
“The talent,” the 69-year-old Carter said, “was not as thinned-out as it is today. Therefore you have much tougher teams to go up against every night.”
He played so long ago, the players had to wash their own uniforms. And he said he used to expedite the process by wearing his jersey and shorts into the shower after games.
For a very long time, he tried to wash away the stink of that horrid season, too. But finally he came to embrace it, to wear it proudly. As he told me in 2008, “When you go through life, you'd like to be remembered some kind of way. For me, it's 9-73. If someone goes 8-74, you're no longer remembered.”
He put it even more eloquently in May 2013: “The first graffiti was written on the railroad trestles during World War II, and it said, ‘Kilroy was here.’”
That was indelible, unforgettable. So too was 9-73.
The roster that season included, at one time or another, five players -– Hall of Fame guard Hal Greer, guard Tom Van Arsdale and forwards John Block, Bob Rule and Bill Bridges -– who would combine to appear in 18 All-Star Games. (Ten of those appearances were by Greer, who played in just 38 games in ’72-73, the last of his 15 seasons.)
This year’s team has combined for exactly zero All-Star appearances to date.
“There’s a difference in terms of what transpired when I was playing as opposed to what’s going on now,” said Carter, a native Philadelphian who now lives in Plymouth Meeting. “When I was playing [losing] was not intentionally done. For some reason management thought that they had put together a good team that could win games. Unfortunately that was not the case. In the case of the [current] Sixers, this is all by design from Day One.”
He examined the Sixers’ roster at the beginning of this season and figured they might make a run at 9-73 –- which, again, would not be his preference.
“When they got off to that 3-0 start,” he said, “that was settled right then.”
That start seems very long ago indeed. The Sixers haven’t won since Jan. 29, and at the trade deadline in February dealt veterans Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen for next to nothing.
First-year coach Brett Brown said a few weeks ago he wonders “all the time” if his team can win so much as one more game this season. More recently he said that while it is not “slit-your-wrist time,” any victory from here on out “would be considered an upset.”
He has been steadfast in pointing out that the Sixers are trying to build a program, a culture. But like sausage-making, it has not been pretty to watch.
Carter said the challenge for a player in such a situation is to keep playing hard, no matter what the scoreboard or standings say.
“You have to have respect for yourself and for the game of basketball,” he said, “and for the fans who paid money to see you play. You walk into a doctor’s office, you expect the doctor to give you his best effort. You walk into a dentist, you expect him to give his best effort. He can’t take the day off. Or you go to a concert -– well, you don’t expect them to take the day off. Therefore your professionalism dictates that you give your best. That’s something they have to learn, because their career depends upon it.”
Of all the Sixers, veteran forward Thaddeus Young has distinguished himself that way. If he was respected before this debacle, that has increased tenfold.
As Carter said, “I feel for a guy like Thaddeus Young.”
Carter, who played collegiately at Mount St. Mary’s, began his pro career in 1969 with the old Baltimore Bullets. It was there that he earned his nickname –- “Mad Dog” –- because, he said, he bit veteran forward Ray Scott during a particularly fierce one-on-one drill. He also played in the 1971 NBA Finals, in which the Bullets were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.
But in October 1971 Carter was traded to the Sixers, just as their fortunes had taken a downward turn. Most of the players who comprised their 1966-67 championship team -– Wilt Chamberlain, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson and Wali Jones -– were gone. Replacements had not been found; the Sixers’ first-round draft picks between ’67 and ’71 (made by Jack Ramsay, the general manager the first two of those years, and his successor, Don DeJardin) were Craig Raymond, Shaler Halimon, Bud Ogden, Al Henry and Dana Lewis. None of them played more than 74 games for the Sixers, nor averaged more than four points a game.
Ramsay, destined for the Hall of Fame, coached the team for four years, but fled in 1972 for the Buffalo Braves. His replacement, Roy Rubin, was hired away from Division II Long Island University the same day a judge ruled that the Sixers’ star forward, Billy Cunningham, had to honor the contract he had signed with the ABA’s Carolina Cougars three years earlier.
Setting the tone
In the team’s very first meeting, the new coach laid down the law: No smoking in the locker room. Carter protested, saying he needed to light up; it relaxed him. Immediately Rubin caved, pulling Carter aside and saying he was free to do so. “He didn’t say it to everybody, but he let me know that I could,” Carter said.
In another private conversation Rubin told him to shoot every chance he got –- “because,” Carter said, “we had guys that couldn’t score.” Carter averaged over 19 points a game that season, most in his career to that point.
The Sixers beat the Celtics (or, at least, the Celtics’ backups) in a preseason game, and Carter said Rubin “just danced around the locker room afterward and said, ‘Hell with the Celtics. We can beat them. I told you we were going to be good.’” The players were left shaking their heads, knowing full well the team’s shortcomings.
Carter would later tell Sports Illustrated that having Rubin in charge “was a joke, like letting a teenager run a large corporation.” It is a stance he still maintains.
“He was definitely a fish out of water, coming in from a Division II school, LIU,” he said. “Had no idea or concept of NBA basketball. He knew basketball, but on a professional level, NBA level, it’s a totally different game. You’re not dealing with boys. You’re dealing with men, and men who have boys.”
Rubin died in August 2013. He argued over the years, notably in interviews with SI and the New York Times, that he was not the only one at fault. “Why can't someone else take some of the blame?" he asked SI during that season. “I'm not the one who misses the shots, who throws the ball away, who won't box out. They're killing me. They're trying to take my livelihood away from me."
It was reported that he lost 45 pounds during his 105 days on the job, or roughly one for every game he lost (47, in 51 games). Relieved of his duties at the All-Star break, he never coached in the NBA again. One of his players, Kevin Loughery, succeeded him and went 5-26, and would enjoy a long career on the sideline.
The season, which began with a 15-game losing streak and ended with 13 straight defeats, included a 20-game skid (the franchise record before this season). It was so bad, Carter said, the players would slink through airports with the logos on their travel bags turned inward, toward their legs, making it difficult for other travelers to identify them.
“We were the universal health spa of the league,” he said. “Everybody got well.”
He played four more years after that, and eight in all. He also served as the Sixers’ head coach for a season-plus in the ‘90s, and has done some broadcasting.
But more than anything else, he has been the spokesman for the ’72-73 club. Every time a team has been poised to threaten their record, reporters have reached out to him. They did so when Chicago started out 6-42 in 2000-01, when Orlando was 1-19 in ’03-04, when New Orleans opened 2-29 in ’04-05, when New Jersey was 7-57 in ’09-10. None of those teams managed to finish with a worse record than the ’72-73 Sixers. The closest any club has come was 11-71, the records put up by the 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks and the ’97-98 Denver Nuggets.
And while the Charlotte Bobcats went 7-59 in the lockout-shortened ’11-12 season –- thus fashioning the lowest winning percentage of all time (.106) -– 9-73 looms as a record that might not ever be broken.
In Carter’s view, though, a worse team has now emerged. And never mind what the record book says.