Fifty years ago this month, the Philadelphia 76ers meekly lost by 19 points to the Detroit Pistons before a grand total of 1,937 fans at Pittsburgh Civic Arena to finish the 82-game 1972-73 season with 73 losses, an NBA record for futility that somehow still stands.
“The best part of this game was the end,” Kevin Loughery, the guard who had replaced Roy Rubin as coach in the middle of the season, told the Philadelphia Daily News that day.
Loughery added of the season as a whole: “It’s been like some nightmare, in slow motion.”
Five NBA teams, most recently the 10-72 Sixers in 2015-16, would later limp along to lose at least 70 games. The Charlotte Bobcats won only seven games in 2011-12, but they lost 59 games because that season was curtailed and compressed because of a lockout.
Those 1972-73 Sixers set the standard for stinking – and it could have actually been even worse, because they almost inexplicably won five of seven games that February to boost their record to 9-60. Then they reverted to the terrible Sixers, dropping their final 13 games.
Fred “Mad Dog” Carter, a Philadelphia native, led the Sixers in scoring that season with a 20-point average, earning the team’s Most Valuable Player award, a dubious athletic honor if there ever was one.
“My thing was, did I lead us to nine wins, or did I lead us to 73 losses?” Carter, now 78 years old and retired, tells the Guardian from his home in the Philadelphia suburbs. “It’s not something I wear proudly on my chest.”
He remembers walking through airports on road trips that year. The players carried their sneakers in team-issued gym bags, and Carter made sure to put the 76ers logo facing his leg so no one would notice it.
However, Carter says the 19 players on the 9-73ers, as they came to be known, did get along with each other because they had come to the realization that “we knew we weren’t good enough. I’ll tell you what really helped all of us: We had no dissension.”
In fact, Carter says he does not mind retelling old stories to help reporters put together retrospectives on anniversaries, or when other NBA teams close in on 73 losses. The 2015-16 Sixers dragged out the drama for a while, posting their 10th victory in the 78th of their 82 games that season.
He says of his team’s record: “I still want it to stand. As long as it stands, we stay relevant. You’re talking to me now. If [9-73] wasn’t relevant, you wouldn’t be talking to me.”
The 9-73ers did have characters, none more notorious than John Quincy Trapp, an ominous power forward known as “Q,” who was acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers, who had won 69 of 82 regular-season games and took the NBA championship the previous season.
The best “Q” story came when Trapp was told by Roy Rubin, the team’s woefully overmatched coach who lasted only a half-season, to come out of a December game in Detroit, Trapp’s hometown. Trapp told Rubin to check out his friend in the meager crowd of 1,646.
Rubin turned around, the legend has it, to see Trapp’s friend open his coat to reveal a handgun. Rubin decided to keep Trapp in the game, which the Sixers lost by 28 points, dropping their record to 3-31.
That was the seventh game of a 14-game losing streak. The Sixers opened the season with 15 losses and later lost 20 straight games. Trapp played only 39 games for Philadelphia before the 76ers cut him with two months left in the season.
“I don’t know what happened to Q,” Carter says of Trapp, who is believed to have passed away, though records of his death can’t be found. “Interesting player. I didn’t see that [gun incident], but my teammates told me about it later.
“And I refrain from saying too much, because John probably has kids and grandkids now. I think if he’d been on a more talented team, his skills would have come out a little more.”
No athlete gains a whole lot from winning just 11% of their team’s games, but Carter says a half-century later that he was much better equipped to handle the 1972-73 season than he would have thought. He had been toughened up for the experience.
He was one of four children to a mother who was a domestic worker and a father who was a junk dealer. Fred often helped out his pop: “We were Sanford and Son before there was Sanford and Son,” he says, referring to the sitcom starring Redd Foxx.
Carter dropped out of Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia and was ready to join the army, but there was no one at the enlistment office the day he showed up. So he went with his girlfriend that Sunday to her freshman orientation at nearby Cheyney University.
He saw many familiar faces that day, and he thought he was smarter than many of them were, so he went back to school to earn his high school diploma. The legendary coach at Mount St. Mary’s, the late Jim Phelan, recruited Carter to play at the school in rural Maryland.
“I said, ‘Coach, how many Black students are in the school?,’ and he said, ‘Well, look in the mirror, and that’s the only Black player you’ll see there,’” Carter recalls.
Carter thrived at Mount St Mary’s. The Baltimore Bullets took him in the third round of the 1969 NBA draft. He played two full seasons for the Bullets, helping them get to the NBA finals in 1971. He was traded to Philadelphia early in the 1971-72 season.
Those Sixers won 30 games, then were jolted by the defection of their best player, Billy Cunningham, to Carolina of the American Basketball Association in June 1972 – around the same time the Sixers named Rubin, from Long Island University, as their new coach. Al McGuire and Adolph Rupp had turned them down. The Sixers put a help-wanted ad in the paper.
It became apparent that Rubin, who died in 2013, did not know what he was getting into. The Daily News called him Poor Roy Rubin. Carter remembers how Rubin made too much of a preseason victory over the Boston Celtics: “Kevin and I just looked at each other and said, ‘Boston had their third and fourth teams in there!’ Roy just did not understand that.”
With Cunningham gone and the hobbled guard Hal Greer at the end of his NBA career, Carter figured he had to take more shots for the Sixers. That was not easy. Their opponents took them quite seriously because losing to the feeble Sixers would be embarrassing.
“We were a band of misfits, you could say,” he says.
Carter would play in the NBA for four more seasons, and he’d help the Sixers get to the playoffs in 1976 before he was traded to Milwaukee. He went on to coach Philadelphia for the better part of two seasons, later becoming an analyst for ESPN.
Asked a half-century later what he remembered about the last game of that historically bad season, Carter says, “It was like the phrase Dr King said: ‘Free at last. Free at last.’ What we went through that year was almost like the Bataan Death March.”
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