The pingpong balls didn’t bounce the Boston Celtics’ way in 1997, effectively crushing their dreams of landing Tim Duncan in the subsequent NBA draft.
But that didn’t stop the C’s from making a last-ditch effort for the big man out of Wake Forest.
The Celtics wound up with the No. 3 and No. 6 picks in the 1997 NBA Draft despite entering the lottery with the best odds of any team (36 percent) to secure the No. 1 pick. The San Antonio Spurs won the lottery and the right to draft Duncan with the top overall selection.
“The only way I could see us trading Tim Duncan is if someone offered us Michael (Jordan), Magic (Johnson), and Larry (Bird),” Spurs coach and general manager Gregg Popovich said at the time, according to The Boston Globe.
Still, the Celtics reached out.
M.L. Carr, who represented the Celtics at the lottery despite having just been replaced as Boston’s head coach and head of basketball operations by Rick Pitino, was tasked with making the phone call.
“I went to Popovich, he felt sorry that I even had to ask,” Carr told NBC Sports Boston’s Chris Forsberg this week. “Because I knew right then, to get Tim Duncan away from San Antonio, we’d have to give them the Prudential Center, all the money on the Mass Pike, you’d have to give them all of the North End, you’d have to give them all the suburbs, and probably the Callahan Tunnel revenue, as well as the Ted Williams revenue for the next 40-50 years. And it still probably wouldn’t have been enough to give it up.
“It was a stupid question,” he added. “A stupid question you have to ask, and Popovich knew it so he said, ‘No, we think we’re going to hold onto it.’ I had to do it.”
The Celtics ultimately drafted Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer with the third and sixth picks, respectively, after the Spurs selected Duncan first as expected. Neither player made an impact with Boston, as Billups’ success in the NBA came after the Celtics traded him midway through his rookie season.
The whole ordeal was a sign of things to come for Boston, which was coming off a 15-67 season in 1996-97. Pitino’s tenure proved disastrous, while Duncan won five NBA titles with San Antonio.