100 in 100: Pender County’s M.L. Carr, heart-and-soul NBA champion

Perhaps best known for his depth role with the 1980s Celtics, the Wallace native won two NBA titles

Wallace's M.L. Carr won two NBA titles in Boston and later coached the Celtics. (Paul R. Benoit / AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Pender County

M.L. Carr

Mention M.L. Carr’s name to any casual Boston Celtics fan and the first thing they’re likely to tell you is that he’s the guy who sat at the end of the bench waving a towel to help rile up fans at Boston Garden during the team’s 1984 championship run.

But the 6-foot-6 forward was much more than just the most famous NBA cheerleader this side of the Laker Girls.


Carr got to the NBA the hard way, battling through racial prejudice as the first black player on the basketball team at Wallace-Rose Hill High School and through the obscurity of playing his college career far off the beaten path at Guilford College. He was good enough during his senior season — averaging 18.4 points and 12.5 rebounds while leading the Quakers to the 1973 NAIA national championship — that he caught the eye of scouts from not one, but two professional leagues.

After his playing career, M.L. Carr worked in the Celtics’ front office, including two years as coach in the 1990s. (Jim Rogash / AP Photo)

He was drafted by both the NBA’s Kansas City-Omaha Kings and the Kentucky Colonels of the old ABA. But after getting cut by both, kicking around with various semi-pro teams and playing in Israel to keep his hoop dream alive, he caught on with the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis in 1975 and was picked up by the Detroit Pistons the following year when the ABA and NBA merged.

Carr led the league in steals in 1979 and was selected to the NBA’s All-Defensive team before signing with the Celtics as a free agent. When that happened, Pistons coach Dick Vitale (yes, that Dick Vitale) lamented that “we just had the heart and soul ripped from our team.” He was just as much a “glue guy” in Boston, where he became the team’s defensive stopper in helping Larry Bird and Co. to the 1981 NBA title.

Three years later, Carr won a second ring with the Celtics. Although his role was greatly diminished by then, he still found a way to contribute with more than just a towel by recording a key steal and dunk in overtime against the Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. He stayed with the team after his retirement, serving numerous roles including head coach and director of basketball operations.