Peers respect basketball junkie Rick Carlisle
Stint with Trail Blazers influenced talented young coaching prospect
DALLAS - He has been the NBA's coach of the year, won 60 percent of his regular-season games and had playoff teams in eight of his nine years as a head coach.
Somehow, though, when the game's great active coaches are discussed, Rick Carlisle's name is often left off the short list.
It may take winning an NBA championship for the Dallas Mavericks coach to join the exclusive club that includes Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers and perhaps George Karl, Doug Collins and Rick Adelman.
But those who have worked with and against Carlisle, 51, have no qualms about his coaching ability.
'He has had some good teams, some veteran teams, and he has put his players in a position where he takes advantage of his talent,' says Portland coach Nate McMillan, Carlisle's adversary in the first-round playoff matchup that continues with Game 3 tonight at the Rose Garden. 'Look at the success he's had. He does a great job.'
'You couldn't ask for a more talented, bright coach,' says Toronto assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo, on whose staff Carlisle served for three seasons in Portland. 'Rick has been a very successful head coach with three different organizations. That doesn't happen often. Everybody in the league thinks he is near the top, no question.'
Carlisle was a member of a Trail Blazer staff that included Dick Harter and Johnny Davis - both NBA head coaches in their own right at one time - as Carlesimo succeeded Adelman after the 1993-94 season. During Carlisle's second year in Portland, Elston Turner replaced Davis.
'You're not going to find a better group of assistants than that,' Carlesimo says.
The Blazers were successful through the Carlesimo years, winning 44, 44 and 49 games with players such as Clyde Drexler, Cliff Robinson, Rod Strickland, Rasheed Wallace and J.R. Rider. It was a changing-of-the-guard era, from the Drexler-led teams that reached the NBA finals twice in the early '90s to the Wallace-led Jail Blazers who came within a hair of making the finals under Mike Dunleavy in 1999-2000.
'It was a great time for me,' Carlisle says, 'a very influential time in terms of my career.'
Harter handled defensive responsibilities in Carlesimo's football-like setup. Davis and Turner took on the offense. Carlisle's chief responsibility was coordinating scouting reports on the opposition. The job usually is divided up on staffs because it is complicated and tedious.
'Rick did all 82 scouting reports,' Carlesimo says. 'It's an almost impossible job, but he did it without complaint, and he did it brilliantly.'
Carlisle's previous coaching experience was five years under two legends - Bill Fitch and Chuck Daly - in New Jersey.
'In Portland, I took on a position that was a lot more responsibility than I'd had,' Carlisle says. 'I'd done scouting, but not putting it together and presenting it. It was a great experience.'
Carlisle's wife, Donna, completed her medical residency at Portland's Legacy Emanuel Medical Center.
'Portland was one of our favorite places to live,' Carlisle says. 'We've visited several times since we moved away.'
Carlesimo says he had no doubts Carlisle would be a successful head coach in the league.
'He's very intelligent, with a good work ethic,' Carlesimo says. 'He had coached for Bill and Chuck, which was a good influence. It wasn't like you had to be real astute to see how talented Rick was. There was no aspect of the game he wouldn't work at.'
Co-captain of a Virginia team that reached the 1984 Final Four, Carlisle had spent five undistinguished NBA seasons as a player. Three of them, though, were with the Boston Celtics, led by Larry Bird, who reached the finals all three years and won the title in 1986.
In 1989, Carlisle joined Fitch's coaching staff in New Jersey. Five years later, he began working with Carlesimo. When Carlesimo was fired after failing to get beyond the first round of the playoffs all three seasons, Carlisle took a year's sabbatical. He visited coaches he admired throughout the country, exchanging ideas and learning new philosophies. He lived in Seattle and worked part-time doing television commentary for the SuperSonics.
'One of the best years of my life,' Carlisle often says.
Carlisle then joined Bird as his chief assistant in Indiana, where the Pacers reached the finals in 1999-2000, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers. When Bird stepped down, following through on a vow to coach no more than three years, he recommended Carlisle as his replacement. Indiana President Donnie Walsh gave the job to Isiah Thomas.
Instead, Carlisle was hired as head coach at Detroit, where he coached the Pistons to consecutive 50-32 seasons, won the Central Division both years and was named coach of the year the first season. After his second season, he was fired and replaced by Larry Brown - mostly, it would seem, because management considered Brown the better coach.
The timing was good, though, because Thomas had been fired at Indiana and Bird was the team's new president/basketball operations. Bird hired Carlisle, whose first team went an NBA-best 61-21 and reached the Eastern Conference finals.
Carlisle was around for the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl of 2005, and he felt the Pacers, led by Reggie Miller, Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest, never quite recovered from a psychological standpoint.
After a 35-47 record in 2006-07 - his only losing season in his nine years as a head coach - Carlisle was relieved of his duties. He spent a year working as a studio analyst for ESPN before signing a four-year deal with the Mavericks in 2008.
Following Carlesimo's lead, Carlisle put together a dynamite staff, led by former head coaches Terry Stotts and Dwane Casey. Fate played a part in the trio joining forces. All three were out of jobs when they were among a group of 15 who attended a clinic for former players and assistant coaches that the NBA had arranged in Secaucus, N.J.
'That gave us another opportunity to spend time together,' Stotts says.
Stotts also flew to Carlisle's home in South Carolina, visiting with his eventual boss for three days.
A detail guy
Carlisle breaks his assistants' coaching duties down similar to the way Carlesimo did it in Portland. Casey handles the defense. Stotts has offensive responsibilities.
'Rick is great to work with,' says Casey, head coach at Minnesota for a season and a half from 2005-07. 'He gives his assistants a lot of responsibility, but I've learned a lot from him. He's very organized, very analytical with his approach. He's a basketball junkie, and he is one of the best I've been around as a coach who develops players.'
Stotts says he, too, has learned much during his 2 1/2 seasons on Carlisle's Dallas staff.
'Rick's a fantastic coach,' says Stotts, head coach with Atlanta and Milwaukee for four seasons from 2002-07. 'He is detailed, he knows the game, he is passionate about the game.'
Stotts played for George Karl in the CBA and coached with him for several seasons in Seattle.
'They both have a passion and respect and knowledge of the game that is a platform for wherever else you go,' Stotts says. 'They're similar in some ways, but they're different, too. Rick is a detail guy. We watch a lot of (video) with the team. He is very hands-on on the court. George was looser. He gives a lot of freedom to his players to make decisions. That works for him.
'One thing I've learned through my years of coaching - there is no one best way. If you're true to your style, if you're enthusiastic and have a certain aptitude for it, you can be successful. George and Rick are two great examples.'
Funny, too, how perceptions are different. Ask Jason Kidd about playing for Carlisle, the first thing the veteran point guard mentions is, 'He's a coach who gives us a little freedom to express ourselves on and off the court.'
'He has been great to play for,' Kidd says. 'He is a student of the game. That's what hopefully is going to help us win this series - the adjustments he has to make. Our guys trust he is going to help us do the right things.'
Carlisle's life is more than just basketball. He and Donna have one daughter, Abby, and family time is at a premium in the offseason. He is a low-handicap golfer who in recent years has gotten into Ping Pong ('check him out,' Casey says, 'he's pretty good'). And he is a good enough pianist that he drew rave reviews after playing the national anthem at a sports celebrity awards banquet last September.
'Rick has a great sense of humor,' Stotts says. 'He's witty. But he's so businesslike in his approach to the game, a lot of people don't get to see the personality.'
This time of year, of course, it's all about basketball.
Carlisle's career regular-season record - 443-295, with 50 or more wins in six of his nine seasons - is sparkling. His playoff record - 38-41 - is ordinary. He'd like nothing more than to get this Maverick team to the finals. There seems to an extra strut to his step as he coaches in this series.
'Playoff basketball is the ultimate,' he says. 'You have to love it.'