M. L. Carr--He’s Celtic That You Love to Hate : At the End of His Career at the End of the Bench, the Veteran Waves Towel and Helps When He Can

Times Staff Writer

You’ll almost always find M. L. Carr sitting on the last seat of the Boston Celtics’ bench, a towel wrapped around his neck and hands cupped at his mouth so that every word he says can be clearly projected onto the court.

Most games, Carr is content to remain in that familiar spot and urge his teammates with a wave of his towel or make a few unsavory remarks to the opposition.

But when the National Basketball Assn. championship series suddenly turned violent in Game 3 Sunday, Carr squirmed in his seat and hoped Celtics Coach K.C. Jones would send him in.

“That was my type of game,” Carr said before practice Monday at the Forum. “Of course, I wanted to play! I could’ve helped the team in that type of situation. My rule is, I don’t play dirty until somebody provokes me. Then, I get dirty. I wouldn’t have taken anything off anybody.”

Perhaps it was fortunate for all concerned that Carr, who has a long and controversial history of fighting, didn’t get in until after all the scuffles were over and the outcome had been determined. If Carr had played earlier, it might have touched off an all-out brawl on the court and caused rioting in the Forum seats.


Even when Carr merely waves that towel over his head, it inspires hatred in the usually laid-back Laker fans. The Lakers themselves try to ignore Carr in hopes that he’ll just go away.

“I have no comment on M. L. Carr,” Laker Coach Pat Riley said tersely.

Without question, the Celtics’ 34-year-old small forward with the big mouth is the most hated Celtic in Los Angeles, as well as most everywhere else in the league. People boo Danny Ainge and call Kevin McHale a thug, but at least the fans have respect for those players’ basketball talents.

Not so with Carr, an 11-year veteran who used to be a Celtic regular but who rarely plays anymore and will probably retire after the playoffs. There is a genuine dislike, mostly because of his brash towel waving, that unmistakable smile and strut, his previous on-court bouts and just his overall attitude.

“People see me as arrogant and cocky, and I don’t really have any qualms with that,” Carr said.

“They’re probably right. I accept that image as part of the love-hate thing that is part of the Celtics. A lot of people see me as the embodiment of the Celtics because I’m into Celtic pride and Celtic mystique. I go along with it because I’d rather they yell at me on the bench than someone on the court.”

It isn’t often that a player will match a fan heckle for heckle, but Carr makes it a regular feature.

Before Game 1 against the Lakers in Boston last week, Carr traded good-natured sneers and jeers with Jack Nicholson, the actor and Laker fan. And when he gets some playing time, Carr has been known to, uh, get physical, as his record of fine and ejections clearly shows.

This much is clear, though: For a player whose remaining ability is marginal, Carr certainly has drawn a lot of attention to himself. In Boston, his attitude has made him almost as popular as Larry Bird, which is saying a lot. In the NBA’s other 22 cities, fans no doubt want to shove that towel down his throat.

“I went on a speaking tour last summer and everywhere I went, the first words out of people’s mouths were, ‘I hate M. L. Carr,’ ” Celtic teammate Cedric Maxwell said in a recent Sport magazine article. "(But) If you rank the most popular athletes in Boston, M. L. is No. 3, behind Larry (Bird) and Doug Flutie. And if Flutie didn’t throw no 60-yard touchdown pass, then M. L.'d be No. 2.”

Although Carr maintains that he doesn’t seek the attention, you can tell by his reaction that he thoroughly enjoys it. Positive or negative, it doesn’t matter as long as Carr gets noticed.

About an hour before the start of Game 3 Sunday at the Forum, Carr and a few teammates went out to shoot. They drew scattered boos from Laker fans, who circled the court to get a closer look. When they noticed that Carr was smiling and clowning with teammates, the inevitable heckles began.

“Hey, M. L.,” one man yelled. “Why you warming up if you’re not going to get in the game?”

“I don’t work weekends,” Carr said, smiling. “Do you?”

Another fan cussed out Carr in Spanish. But since Carr doesn’t know the language, his only comeback was “No comprende, man.”

This is all part of M. L.'s act, one that has been around the NBA for 11 seasons.

Carr’s mouth has always been his best, but certainly not his only, weapon.

Carr has been involved in several notorious fights and can’t even remember how much money he has lost to fines and suspensions. He was thrown out of a game last season and fined $1,750 for decking Detroit Piston center Bill Laimbeer with a forearm to the face. He was fined $3,000 just this season for joining the notorious Bird-Julius Erving brawl.

Perhaps most damaging to Carr’s reputation was his fight with Atlanta’s Tree Rollins in 1982. Both players were ejected for throwing elbows and, according to Rollins, Carr threatened him with a knife. Carr denied it and a league investigation proved nothing, but Carr thought he could never live down that episode.

“That was something that affected me, but it didn’t devastate me,” Carr said. “It was something I didn’t want to linger over my head.”

Carr has been a member of two championship teams since joining the Celtics in 1979-80, the same year Bird arrived in Boston. He played a supporting role on the 1980-81 championship team, averaging 7.4 points and 25 minutes. But last season, at 33, he was most known for waving the white towel over his head and taunting the Lakers.

So far in this championship series, Carr has played only in the final stages of the first and third games, both blowouts. But the way Carr figures it, he’s fortunate to still be in the league at 34.

“I think the word I’d use to describe it is blessed,” said Carr, who admits he doesn’t have great basketball skills. “Millions of people would like to be in my position. Not only kids but big people.

“I wouldn’t tell any kid to go chase a dream of basketball if it isn’t going to materialize. But I always thought I could make it,” said Carr, who finished his collegiate playing career at Guilford College in North Carolina in 1973.

He thought that even after he had been cut by the Kentucky Colonels of the old American Basketball Assn. and had failed subsequent tryouts with Kansas City, Philadelphia and Boston.

Carr continued playing basketball at night in the old Eastern League and took day jobs. He worked as a prison guard for a brief time and was a used car salesman for almost a year. Carr laughs when asked to recall his days as a fast-talking used car salesman.

“It was like anything else,” he said. “You set a goal and you go for it. In two months, I was the second-leading salesman.”

Eventually, Carr landed a spot on the St. Louis Spirits’ roster and then joined the Detroit Pistons when the ABA-NBA merger took place. Known for defense and aggressiveness more than scoring, Carr still averaged in double figures in his three seasons with Detroit.

After the 1978-79 season, Carr signed as a free agent with the Celtics. Since Carr had been a starter, the Pistons wanted Bob McAdoo, then with the Celtics, as compensation. Celtic President Red Auerbach agreed to the deal, provided Detroit would also give Boston two first-round draft choices. “I had talent,” Carr said. “I didn’t stay in the league 11 years just by talking.”

Ever since the deal, Carr has been caught up in being a Celtic. He says the so-called Celtic pride isn’t a cliche to him. When the Celtics held a pregame retirement party for Red Auerbach earlier this season, Carr was so overcome by emotion that he cried.

“If I’m upset, I don’t care who knows it,” Carr said. “If I’m sentimental about something, I want people to know it. I’m not too big to cry. I cry all the time. And when I’m happy, you’ll see a smile as big as Magic Johnson’s.”

Monday, Carr was not smiling. The Celtics had not only lost Game 3 of the series to the Lakers but had been pushed around in the process. In this instance, Carr wanted people to know he was mad.

“I’m here to win ballgames,” he said. “I’m not going to compromise anything to win. If they put me in Game 4, it’ll be a war. If K. C. calls my name, I’ll be ready.”

Already, you can hear fans at the Forum booing.