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ON BASKETBALL

For Carroll, leaving Celtics is great escape

John Carroll may not realize it now, because he is, as politicians like to say, "between jobs." But he is really the fortunate one in all this. He handled an impossible situation as well as he could, managed to maintain his dignity in the face of player insurrection and management meddling, and now doesn't have to deal with the mess that has become the Boston Celtics.

And what a fine mess it is. Did you happen to get a look at those TV ratings for Games 3 and 4 against Indiana? More people watched the Penn Relays than either Celtics game, the Friday night game registering a pathetic 0.6 (although it was simulcast on ESPN). More people watched the pre-race show for the Aaron's 499, whatever that is.

And for the first time in more than a quarter century, the Celtics did not sell out a home playoff game. In fact, the attendance numbers for both games were somewhat misleading because season ticket-holders who anted up for next year by a certain date were given additional freebies to the playoffs.

We haven't even touched on the mess on the court, which includes handling "a lot of agendas" as Carroll noted yesterday in an interview. Among the known agendas: Ricky Davis complained about not getting enough shots even as he deliberately missed a mandatory team dinner in Miami the night before a big game with the Heat. And that was before he complained about Carroll not calling his number enough prior to the Game 4 mercy killing at the FleetCenter. Marcus Banks, a rookie, complained about not getting enough minutes during the playoffs. Chucky Atkins called his teammates "soft," Paul Pierce called for more "intestinal fortitude" and Mark Blount was like the Count of Monte Cristo, crossing off the days until his freedom.

That's what we know. And all on a 36-win team that had no right being in the postseason, but happened to land there even as the know-it-alls above Carroll wanted him to play the kids and make the playoffs at the same time.

I don't think the Celtics were worse off even in the mid-1990s. At least back then, there was some discernible interest in the team. There's none, now. Zero. There'd be more interest in a lockout. You have players feuding, players' insubordination, a papered house for the playoffs, owners wondering why there aren't more dunks for Davis, and Danny Ainge actually saying he didn't decide to release/fire/remove Carroll until Monday morning.

Asked yesterday if he wanted to continue coaching the Celtics, Carroll said "yes." My guess is that if his answer could have been scripted in subtitles, it would have been, `Are you [expletive] kidding me?' Ainge's hire had better be ultra-prepared for what lies ahead. My suggestion would be to call Jim O'Brien and Carroll before signing on the dotted line.

"It was a challenge juggling all the agendas," Carroll said. "And there were a lot of agendas. A coach being thrust into a situation where winning isn't just the only agenda is always going to be in an extremely difficult position."

Carroll knew he was toast all along. He could read that he was a "Dead Coach Walking" and joke about it because he knew he was. He secretly might have hoped differently, but, instinctively, he knew. He knew the patent disingenuousness of the remarks that he'd be considered along with everyone else for the real deal. He knew because he's a coach and a coach's life is usually -- almost always -- subject to the whim of either someone above you or below you. It's a tough tightrope to walk in even the most benign conditions, let alone a hoop Hurricane Hugo.

"Being a head coach is the ultimate in coaching," Carroll said. "I enjoyed being an assistant coach. I love being a head coach."

Carroll is using the last three months as a learning process, which he feels can only make him a better head coach in his next job. He views everything that happened as something that hardened him, improved him as a coach, and made him eminently more qualified than he was the day before O'Brien resigned.

"The old adage, until you walk in a man's shoes, you don't know? Now, I know," he said. "I could not have had a better experience in terms of being put in an impossible situation. I got firsthand experience not only in basketball, but in all of the things that are potential learning experiences, or dilemmas, or pitfalls, of being a head coach in the NBA. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything in life."

Carroll said he has hired an agent and would like another crack at a head coaching gig in the league. He also realizes that may not come to pass and that he might return to someone's bench as an assistant, maybe even O'Brien's in Philadelphia. He also conceded he could be a house husband next season.

"I feel as though this was my job interview in the sense that people saw how I handled the situation," he said. "And there are some people who might say, `If I take this guy who worked under these circumstances and put him in a situation more stable and with a different roster, how would he handle it? Would I be able to work with this guy? I saw what he did under those circumstances. I saw that he worked with Danny under those circumstances. Maybe I could work with him under less volatile circumstances.'

"I don't believe there's anyone who watched our games and said, `This guy can't coach.' I think they said, `These guys won the games they were supposed to win and won a couple games they weren't supposed to win.' I believe that my colleagues know what it was like to play our team. I'd like to be a head coach again and I'm going to pursue that first. I'm not going to sell myself short for one second -- and I don't think I should.' "

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