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Mark Heisler / ON THE NBA

Carlisle's Robotic Reputation Computes to No. 1 in the East

March 04, 2004|Mark Heisler

Be careful what you wish for, all you little coaches out there, attending your clinics, drawing your Xs and O's on napkins in diners at midnight, dreaming your dreams....

Rick Carlisle had a dream job of his own as an Indiana Pacer assistant under Larry Bird. When Bird stepped down, the Pacers hired Isiah Thomas and Carlisle was on the street.

So he went to Detroit, where he became coach of the year as a rookie with the Pistons, then finished fourth in the balloting in his second season, right before they fired him.

Luckily, for Carlisle anyway, Bird, who had just returned to Indiana as general manager, fired Thomas and hired Carlisle back.

Thomas subsequently became the Knicks' general manager and got to fire a coach too -- Don Chaney.

If you want to know how, astonishingly, 14 of 15 Eastern Conference NBA teams changed coaches within nine months, it started last spring when the Pistons pulled the plug on Carlisle, who, until that moment, had been considered a success story. That set off nine months of musical coaches, only Atlanta's Terry Stotts surviving, and only because his team was being sold.

Nine months later, Carlisle sat innocently for interviews at All-Star media day, wearing a baseball cap, his forelock tumbling boyishly over his forehead, as earnest as ever but no more colorful.

His presence as an All-Star coach represented an epic turnaround, so everyone plumbed the depth of his heartbreak. Unfortunately, he was not Dennis Rodman and this wasn't the Oprah Winfrey show.

"Hey, my experience in Detroit was great," Carlisle said, acting as though he were serious.

"For two years I had terrific players who wanted to win, and for a first-time coach to get into a situation like that was a great opportunity. I owe a lot to [GM] Joe Dumars and to Mr. [owner Bob] Davidson for giving me that chance.

"You know, when it was over, I looked back and just felt really fortunate to have had the chance."

He probably felt really fortunate to have had all summer to relax and collect unemployment too. In Detroit, reporters called Carlisle "Rain Man" for his somber tone and "robotic" for his emotional range. Even Bird, his sponsor, says, "He's just a weird dude."

Of course, students of the game might also have noticed that Carlisle took a 32-50 Piston team to two 50-win seasons, won two division titles and is still in first place in the same division with a different team.

Who knows, maybe it's not a coincidence.

"He won 50 games [in each of his two seasons] with a Detroit team that didn't have as much talent as we have," says the Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal. "So you put him with a team that has the talent and the ability that we have, I mean, it's a great thing.

"I mean, if I had to choose a coach to replace Isiah Thomas, it'd be Rick Carlisle."

That wasn't what O'Neal said last summer when he got the news. He went off to the media, saying management had promised him Thomas was coming back, adding that if he'd known what was coming, he wouldn't have re-signed.

And it wasn't that O'Neal didn't know Carlisle, who was an assistant in Portland when O'Neal was a rookie.

This Carlisle person takes some getting used to -- and not everyone does that.

Mowed Down in Motown

Not that there aren't more out there like Carlisle these days.

There's a new studious breed of NBA coaches, who weren't former stars or even former NBA players -- or, in the case of New Jersey's Lawrence Frank, even a high school player.

They may not look any more dashing than the 5-8 Frank, who's also known as Doogie Howser and jokes about not being able to get into games or movies; or Houston's Jeff Van Gundy, or Toronto's Kevin O'Neill, or Carlisle.

These are the guys who are revolutionizing the game, or choking it by slowing it down, depending on your point of view.

They're obsessives who worry about spending more time with their VCRs than with their children. They may look sad-eyed, like Van Gundy; dweeby, like Frank; or like a store window mannequin, like Carlisle, but they're united by a love of the game that's greater than they could tell you, if they ever opened up to anyone but each other.

They attract fellow obsessives, even if they're different in every other way, as when Carlisle, a lowly Celtic scrub from upstate New York, hit it off with Bird, the Celtic superstar who used to bill himself as "the Hick from French Lick," which is where Carlisle used to go in the summer to work out with Larry Legend.

"He'd come down to French Lick and we'd work out and about an hour after we'd worked out, he'd be gone for four or five hours and you wouldn't see him," says Bird. "Somebody would say, 'Where'd Rick go?' and I'd say, 'I don't know; he'll come back.'

"And sure enough, he'd come back and he'd be doing something, and all of a sudden, he's gone again ...

"He's just a weird dude. My wife and I would just go, whatever. That's just Rick."

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