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P.J.'s road show comes 'home' to Portland

Former Blazers coach excited to see his old friends in Portland


by: STEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES -  P.J. Carlesimo says he's a better coach today with the Brooklyn Nets than he was when he roamed the sidelines with the Trail Blazers from 1994-97, but he wasn't sure going into this season if he would get another chance to lead a team.The Brooklyn Nets’ visit to the Rose Garden next Wednesday to face the Trail Blazers will mean more for P.J. Carlesimo than just a return to the place where he started his NBA coaching career.

It will also be a chance to reunite with his family, which is making its home these days in Seattle. Wife Carolyn and sons Kyle, 10, and Casey, 7, will be on hand for the Nets’ game in Portland.

“It will be great to see a lot of the people I worked with and became friends with during my time there,” says Carlesimo, the Blazers’ head coach from 1994-97 who is serving as the Nets’ interim coach following the Dec. 27 firing of Avery Johnson. “But having Carolyn and the kids there will make it really special.”

The Carlesimos chose to make Seattle their home base after living there during P.J.’s time as head coach of the SuperSonics in 2007-08. For the past two seasons — after Carlesimo was hired as chief assistant to Johnson with the then-New Jersey Nets — the family has remained in Seattle during the long months P.J. is coaching.

“It’s been terrible to be away from them so long — extremely hard,” he says. “They’ve flown out to see me twice in New York this season, and I came out to Portland to be with them while Kyle was playing in a basketball tournament there in February. I think he had six games in three days, so I was in Portland the last three days of the All-Star break.”

Carlesimo, you may remember, was a bachelor until marrying Carolyn at age 51 in 2001. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006 but is doing well now.

“All the checkups have been super,” her husband says.

The Nets were 39-28 and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference heading into the second stop on an eight-game, 13-day road trip that had them in Dallas on Wednesday night. They were 25-14 since Carlesimo took over as interim head coach.

“We’re a decent team,” he says. “The guys are doing a good job. In the East, it’s Miami out ahead of everyone and then seven teams that could finish anywhere from No. 2 to 8.

“We need to get up one more level to really be successful in the playoffs, but we’re in the mix. We’re not consistent enough. That’s what separates the elite teams from the rest. We’re a good team. I think we can be a better team.”

Carlesimo — who played at Fordham, coached at Wagner and Seton Hall for 19 years and spent 26 years living in the New York metropolitan area — was something between astounded and dumbfounded when he got the call from general manager Billy King, asking him to take over the head coaching reins from Johnson with the Nets at 14-14.

“We were 11-4 in November and Avery was (Eastern Conference) coach of the month,” Carlesimo says. “There were reasons we had a tough run in December. The schedule was much tougher, we had several back-to-backs and (center) Brook Lopez missed six games with injury.

“I didn’t see the move coming at all. It was a very uncomfortable situation. Avery hired me and brought me back to the New York/New Jersey area. I’d been on the other side of it. I was really disappointed at the circumstance.”

It’s Carlesimo’s fourth head coaching job. After Portland, he spent three years with Golden State (1997-2000), then served six seasons as Gregg Popovich’s right-hand man with San Antonio, winning three championship rings (2003, ‘05 and ‘07). Carlesimo coached the Sonics in 2007-08 and had the team briefly after its move to Oklahoma City, getting fired with the Thunder at 1-12.

Carlesimo, who turns 64 on May 30, wasn’t sure if he would get another head-coaching opportunity.

“I would have thought the most likely scenario if that were to happen is that it would be the result of success,” he says. “That maybe the Nets would have some success, and some jobs would come open. But not like this. No, not like this.”

The return to New York has been fun for Carlesimo, with his mother and eight siblings still residing in the area.

“From that standpoint, it’s been great,” he says. “And I love New York.”

To be part of the Nets’ transformation from New Jersey to Brooklyn has been, as Carlesimo’s describes it, “mind-boggling.” Oldtimers who still resent the Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles in the late ‘50s are thrilled to have a new professional team.

“I understand how they feel,” he says. “What I didn’t dream could occur has been the response of the other Brooklyn residents. It’s been a bit of magic. They’ve gone crazy for our team. (Barclays Center) is a sellout or a near-sellout every night. Our merchandising, which was near the bottom of the NBA a year ago, has been No. 1 in the league in 13 of the last 14 weeks. I can’t go anywhere without seeing people wearing Nets gear. We’re the ‘in’ thing in the city.

“You move six miles, change the name, change the colors and it’s like miraculous. It’s impossible to overstate the difference between the atmosphere of our games a year ago and the excitement of this season. If you’d told me this would happen, I’d have said you were out of your mind. It’s incredible for me to be coaching in Brooklyn right now.”

The Nets’ owner, 47-year-old Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, reminds Carlesimo of Portland owner Paul Allen.

“Like Paul, he has the resources, he wants to win a championship and he makes no bones about it,” Carlesimo says. “The tenet of all his questions is, ‘What can we do to win a championship?’ He’s an unusual guy, dynamic, a fun guy to talk to. We’re lucky to have him running the show.”

Carlesimo believes he is a better coach now than he was during his Portland tenure because of the years of NBA experience.

“My knowledge of the league is infinitely better,” he says. “I was lucky during my time in Portland to have a great staff. Dick Harter was as good as any assistant in the league. Rick Carlisle went on to win a championship in Dallas. Johnny Davis and Elston Turner are accomplished guys in our league. Of all the things I did in Portland, putting that staff together was maybe the best.”

The Nets are on what Carlesimo terms a “monster trip” because of a Barnum & Bailey circus run at Barclays Center.

“Other teams go through it, but the timing — this late in the season — is horrible,” he says. “We’d love to get the No. 2 seed in the East for the playoffs, but all of us except Miami are so closely bunched. If we can survive this trip, maybe we can get (the No. 2 seed).”

Has Carlesimo been given any indication about whether he will be retained for next season?

“Zero,” he says. “It’s never been discussed. We’re all in the last year of our contracts. It’s not ideal, but our players have been good. They’ve responded, they’re playing well. When the year is over, Billy and I will sit down, and he’ll do whatever he needs to do.”

Carlesimo isn’t sure he’d accept the position if offered. Basketball is important, but so is family. The oldest of 10 children to Pete and Lucy Carlesimo, P.J. now has a wife and two young boys to help raise. A career in broadcasting — he has done some work as an analyst in the past — would allow him to be home much more often.

Career coaches have a hard time saying good-bye, though. And there is no doubt P.J. Carlesimo — one of the true good guys in the profession — fits into that category.

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