Above the Parquet: “Thank God For Marty Conlon”

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The 1996-1997 Boston Celtics had a forgettable season, winning only 15 games during their 50th anniversary season as one of the original NBA franchises.  The Celtics had hopes this would land them the number one overall draft pick in the NBA Draft.  That NBA Draft had Tim Duncan waiting in the wings and the Celtics had their eyes locked in on Duncan. 


Photo courtesy of ballslife.com
The Celtics were attempting to rebuild, then head coach and general manager M.L. Carr was trying to tank for that top pick.  While hoping the ping pong balls will fall in your favor is a tricky situation, Carr was “taking one for the team” in hopes he could land the prized top pick. 

That season, the Celtics had a starting five of rookie Antoine Walker, David Wesley, Dana Barros, Dino Radja and Celtics captain Rick Fox.  Carr would build a lackluster roster with the likes of Todd Day, Marty Conlon, Nate Driggers, Pervis Ellison and Brett Szabo. 

"I was bringing in guys like Nate Driggers and Brett Szabo,” Carr would say to ESPN.  "It was a joke.  But the idea was not to make a move that would help us too much."

Fox described the 96-97 season as “incredibly painful” to be a part of and it was the most challenging season of his career.  Fox averaged 15.4 PPG that season, a year in which he battled with a bad case of plantar fascia but he tried to be that leader this team desperately needed.  However, Carr wouldn’t allow the team to win, he had his eye on the big picture.  His Celtics teams would purposely lose games so they could have a chance to land Duncan and immediately change the fate of the Boston Celtics. 

The injuries mounted that season.  In the midst of losing they lost players all season long.  Radja, Barros, Dee Brown, Greg Minor and Ellison all battled some sort of injury.  When the team would lose, fans would vocalize their displeasure and frustrations of the horrid year on the Celtics' parquet. The Celtics suffered a 13-game losing streak between February and March and lost 34 or their final 38.  Things felt grim in Boston; Carr got death threats as the losses mounted. 

In a season that just defied logic, a year where they’d want to lose just to have that chance, that small chance to get the golden goose in Duncan.  Celtics icon Red Auerbach was concerned for Carr. Auerbach told Carr he was “worried about him”.  But to Carr’s credit, he stayed the course and focused on the objective, try and motivate his players to play hard but to lose. 

Shop for NBA Jerseys at Fanatics!While the Celtics were effectively tanking, the Grizzlies and Spurs were having horrendous seasons as well.  Those two franchises as well were trying to earn the chance of landing Duncan too.  The Grizzlies would win one less game than the C’s that year, they had 14 wins. 

The Spurs also maneuvered themselves in a position to land the Wake Forest star.  The Spurs started the season 3-15, that would lead to the dismissal of head coach Bob Hill and enter in Gregg Popovich who was the director of basketball operations.  The Spurs sat down big man David Robinson due to an injury and finished the season 17-47 in the hopes the ping pong balls would bounce their way and they would land Duncan. 

The Celtics season of mediocrity would ensue, including a game that I won’t forget watching with my dad as a kid.  The Celtics were playing the Atlanta Hawks at the Fleet Center in Boston.  The Celtics started the game off rough, so rough that the Hawks went on a 19-0 run in the first quarter.

The Hawks were dominating the Celtics on floor and scoring at will versus the inept C’s.  Until an unlikely person scored the Celtics first points of the game and garner a line from Celtics announcer Tommy Heinsohn.  Marty Conlon made a jump shot from 10 feet and finally put the Celtics on the board at 5:15 left in the first quarter. 

Heinsohn would have a line in the Celtics telecast that I will never forget, with energy and euphoria, he would proclaim following the Conlon jump shot, “Thank God for Marty Conlon”.  I can hear the words so clearly like it were yesterday and it will be one of the few lines I will never forget.  The Celtics would get beat in that game, 114-90.  Conlon would end up with 16 points in the loss for the Celtics, while Todd Day would knock down 33 points. 

That game was par for the course for the Celtics.  The ownership group would go on to fire Carr following the dismal season and they would look to rejuvenate the Celtics lore by making a huge coaching hire.  Rick Pitino was brought in to save the Boston Celtics and draft Duncan with the first overall selection.  It finally felt like the sun was going to rise over the Fleet Center and the C’s for once.  The Celtics were finally going to land the big prize they so desperately needed to bring this team back to relevancy. 

In the spring in 1997 the lottery rolled around and finally the team who would select first overall would be announced.  Duncan was the consensus and Pitino was ready to draft the big man.  But unfortunately, the luck of the Irish was not with the Celtics.  Instead, the Spurs won the lottery and they selected Duncan and went on to win five NBA Championships. 

Duncan won three NBA Finals MVP’s and was a two-time NBA MVP.  The Celtics never won a championship under Pitino. The C's would not know the feeling of an NBA Championship for years, well after the Pitino nightmare. 

The Celtics wound up with the No. 3 pick, which they used to draft Chauncey Billups, and the No. 6 pick, which they used to draft Ron Mercer.  Both players would only end up staying with the Celtics for two seasons because Pitino traded them both. 

The 96-97 season was a failure on and off the court.  The attempts to tank got M.L. Carr fired, they didn’t get the top pick and they hired Pitino, which was an absolute disaster.  The only big take away for me for that season was that blowout game against Atlanta in March.  While everything never seemed to go the Celtics way, for one night they could say “thank God for Marty Conlon", the only bright spot of that dreaded season. 



Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisHenrique

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Boston Sports Syndicate: Above the Parquet: “Thank God For Marty Conlon”
Above the Parquet: “Thank God For Marty Conlon”
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