Carr's records stand test of time
Even Dick Vitale would run out of superlatives to describe Austin Carr’s performances.
The 6-4 Notre Dame guard holds NCAA Tournament records for points in a game (61), most field goals in a game (25) and most field goals attempted in a game (44). He scored 158 points in three NCAA Tournament games in 1970, averaging an all-time single-season best 52.7 ppg. He made 68 of his 118 field goal attempts in those games for a sterling .576 shooting percentage. The next year Carr “slumped” to 41.7 ppg (125 points in three NCAA Tournament games). No one else has averaged even 36 ppg in a single season in the NCAA Tournament.
Carr’s 41.3 ppg in seven career NCAA Tournament games shattered Bill Bradley’s 33.7 ppg record. He has three of the six 50-plus point games in NCAA Tournament history (the other three are by Bradley, Oscar Robertson and David Robinson) and five of the 12 highest scoring NCAA Tournament games.
Carr says that preparation and focus played a big role in his success in the NCAA Tournament.
“Usually what I tried to do – what I was taught to do – was to really diagnose the whole team, not just who I had to guard," Carr recalls. "I think that’s what really helped me a lot. At that time in college, they were trying the ‘box and one’ and ‘triangle and two,’ so I had to understand the scheme of the defense in order to figure out where I could get the shots from. That helped me going into the pros, too, because – as a lot of the veterans taught me – I learned how to get ready to play the game not just physically but mentally. When tournament time came, my game was just on because I wanted to win a championship so bad. I got in a zone because of the desire to win a championship.”
Carr’s productivity was not limited to March. He scored 1106 points in 29 games in 1970 (38.1 ppg) and 1101 points in 29 games in 1971 (38.0 ppg), the eighth and ninth most points scored by a Division I player in a season. The AP and UPI voted Carr the 1971 National Player of the Year and he also won the 1971 Naismith Award. Carr ranked second in the NCAA in scoring each of those years. In 1970, Pete Maravich set all-time single-season records with 1381 points and a 44.5 ppg average; in 1971 Johnny Neumann averaged 40.1 ppg (923 points in 23 games). Carr shot .576 from the field and .814 from the free throw line during his college career. His 34.6 ppg career scoring average trails only Maravich.
The former Notre Dame guard explains the physical conditioning and mental discipline required to be such a prolific scorer: “Especially when defenses are set up to stop you, you have to be in great condition and you have to be able to play without the basketball. When I was in high school, my coach always told me that in a 40-minute game, you are only going to have the ball in your hands for five minutes. So you have to learn how to play without the basketball and do things to help your team to win when you don’t have the ball. I learned a lot about how to move without the ball and how to put myself in position to take shots. At the same time, when you are the focus of the defense you have to be in great shape. In the game that I set the record, I shot the ball 44 times and I made 25 of them. That was basically my guideline: the coach didn’t care how many times I shot the ball as long as I shot 50 percent from the field or better – which means that I had to be in great shape because I took almost 40 percent of our shots.”
The Cleveland Cavaliers, fresh off a 15-67 season as an expansion team, drafted Carr with the first overall pick in 1971. Carr averaged 21.2 ppg as a rookie, making the All-Rookie Team despite being limited to 43 games by injuries.
According to Carr, Lenny Wilkens eased his adjustment to the pro game.
“Lenny was very instrumental in me becoming a better guard," Carr says. "I was more of a shooting machine when I was in college. I had to learn how to conserve my energy because I had to play a lot of minutes. At the same time, I had to learn how to get the other four guys involved, because I was so used to everything coming to me. Lenny taught me a lot about how to make passes. I had a problem making backdoor passes and Lenny taught me how to do that and when to do it – little things like if I am going to pass the ball but don’t quite have the angle, always pass the ball at the guy’s head or at his ear, because he has to react to that. That gives you just enough time to get the pass through. I learned those kinds of little things from Lenny that really helped me throughout the rest of my career. Once I started having injuries, I had to start using my mind to stay successful because I lost a step. Once you lose a step in this game, you are in trouble.”
Carr agrees that the mentality of a good shooter is similar to that of a football defensive back who may get burned for a touchdown but has to forget that and be ready for the next play.
“I would say that you have to have a short memory," Carr explains. "Your mentality has to be to focus on the quality of the shots you take. You can’t go in there taking crazy shots. Lenny Wilkens told me, ‘As a shooter coming off of the pick, you have to take the shot. You can’t hesitate.’ Because the rebounders are getting into rebounding position – everybody gets into position because they know what your job is. If you don’t understand your job, you are going to have a tough time in this league. Believe me, even the stars have roles to play and they have to play them night in and night out. On teams like the Pistons and the Spurs, everybody understands their role and that’s what they do.”
Carr scored 20.5 ppg in 1972-73 in 82 games and 21.9 ppg in 1973-74 in 81 games, earning his only selection to the All-Star team. He played 3097 minutes in 1972-73 and 3,100 minutes the next year, marks not surpassed by a Cavalier until 1980-81 and which still rank seventh and eighth in franchise history. Carr averaged 27.7 ppg in the first six games of the 1974-75 season and led the team in scoring in 14 of the first 20 games before injuring his knee. Carr returned to action later in the season, but he was not the same player, finishing with a 14.5 ppg average in 41 games. The Cavs were 12-8 before Carr was hurt and finished the season 40-42.
The injury forced Carr to alter his game.
“What it really did is make me learn how to take shortcuts," Carr says. "When I had two good legs, I could just jump over people or overpower them and do what I wanted to do. Once I had that knee injury, it changed my gait. Consequently, you run differently. Some nights you have good balance and some nights you don’t have good balance. If you are going to be an athlete, you have to have good balance at all times. I had to learn how to shoot on the move because I could never get my complete balance. On nights that I had good balance, I shot the ball well. It was so much of a change because I had to learn how to ‘cheat.’ In other words, instead of taking two steps to go to the pick, maybe I had to take two steps away from the pick to make sure I got the extra second to get the shot off. I just learned little ways of doing the same job but doing it better.”
Austin Carr was a key reserve on the 1975-76 Cavaliers team that won the Central Division title and defeated the defending Eastern Conference champion Washington Bullets in the playoffs before losing to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics. Carr, still recovering from his knee injury, scored 10.1 ppg during the regular season and increased his average to 11.8 ppg in the playoffs.
He says that the difference between a good, solid team and a championship team is mental, not physical: “Your mindset has to be focused on doing whatever it takes to win. The championship teams understand that fact. Consequently they may take a little extra time in practice working on defensive schemes; they may take a little extra time after practice to work out. They don’t hang out as long socially. They take care of their bodies. They do everything that they have to do (to win) and they sacrifice. You are not guaranteed that you are going to win every game even if you sacrifice but they do that because they know that is one of the best ways to get to the goal, which is winning the championship. What happens is, as you get up the ladder – first round, second round, third round – the teams that sacrifice the most are usually the teams that win in the end because they have the mindset and the physical presence to get the job done.”
The 6-4 guard averaged 16.2 ppg in 1976-77, including a career-high 42 points on April 10 in the season finale against Boston. The Cavs again qualified for the playoffs, but shot only .402 from the field in a 2-1 first round loss to Washington. The arrival of Walt Frazier in 1977-78 cut into Carr’s minutes, but Frazier was injured before the playoffs and Carr averaged 17.5 ppg (second on the team to Campy Russell’s 27.5 ppg) in a first-round loss to Frazier’s old team, the New York Knicks. Carr had his best post-injury season in 1978-79, averaging 17.0 ppg, but the Cavs did not make the playoffs. He played one more season for the Cavs before finishing his career with Dallas and Washington in 1980-81.
Carr is the Cavaliers all-time leader in field goals made and attempted and ranks second to Brad Daugherty in points. Coming into the 2005-06 season, he had the fifth and seventh best single season scoring totals (1775 in ’74, 1685 in ’73) in franchise history.
He is now the Cavaliers’ director of community and business development and has been an analyst on the Cavaliers’ TV network.
He also highly values his membership in the National Basketball Retired Players Association: “Guys who have fallen on hard times – we are helping them out. Medically, you can always get something done (with the NBRPA’s help) if you have to get it done, not only for yourself but for your family. I am a vested member in the NBRPA and I’ll be that way the rest of my life because I just think that’s the way it should be. We are a fraternity that should be organized and should be together. Now everybody is in different phases of life. It’s just a good feeling to have everybody together because everybody has a different kind of expertise that they can add to the association. That, to me, is what it is really all about.”
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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