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Presidential timber


Rick Carlisle approaches the offseason among the top candidates on the coaching market, along with his ESPN colleague Jeff Van Gundy. But Carlisle swears there is no hurry for a return to the NBA. He has been busy in front of the camera as a TV analyst, and even more so in front of his computer.

"I feel like a lawyer sometimes,'' he said.

As president of the coaches' union, Carlisle has helped improve relationships with the league and especially with the owners. The latter group voted in October for a 28 percent increase in the union's retirement, providing coaches, front-office executives and athletic trainers with a pension that graduates up to $160,000 annually for 15 or more years of NBA service.

"Through this process, the entire coaching fraternity has gained a much greater appreciation for the challenges NBA owners face,'' Carlisle said. "We're going to continue to commit the full weight of our association and its resources to try to improve the NBA game and protect the business of NBA basketball.''

It wasn't easy. Carlisle worked with Board of Governors chairman Micky Arison -- owner of the Miami Heat -- and other owners on compromises to make the increase reasonable for both sides.

The annual pension for coaches had been $125,000, which left the NBA far behind the coaches' pensions in football ($180,000) and baseball ($185,000). In 2005, the union had requested a pension increase to $150,000, but the proposal was tabled because owners had questions about the overall cost.

"It became increasingly clear through this process that the NBA business model was vastly different from baseball and football, and that our owners faced a host of unique challenges that the owners in those other two sports did not,'' Carlisle said. "The challenge for all of us to work together to build a model that is successful -- to the point of getting to that level with a pension -- is something that can happen down the road.''

Carlisle still isn't sure how he entered this mess. He was elected president of the association in 2005 to replace Lenny Wilkens, who had provided 18 years of union leadership.

"You talk about big shoes to fill -- this guy's a legend on many levels and one of the most respected men in the game,'' Carlisle said. "I was not at the meeting when it happened. I'm not even convinced I was the one elected.''

"That was funny,'' recalled Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who was at the meeting as one of three finalists for the presidency. "It was Rick, me and someone else -- and we voted for Rick.''

Carlisle spent the next two years investigating the pension with the help of Michael Goldberg, executive director of the coaches' association. An increase to $150,000 in 2005 would have cost the owners an average of $275,000 per year. Carlisle would ultimately rescale the pension plan so that a hike to $160,000 would cost the owners less than $150,000 annually.

The existing plan enabled coaches to claim the benefit at a younger age than federal law; Carlisle eliminated that perk. The coaches also agreed to a limit of four assistants per team on the plan (while grandfathering in coaches who remain with the same team), resulting in a savings to owners of almost $50,000 annually.

But the innovation that makes him proud was a donation on behalf of the coaches' association to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Each coach will donate a uniform percentage of his salary annually over the next 15 years, resulting in a total donation of $15 million to the charity.

"The agreement is that the Boys & Girls Clubs will have people in every NBA city who are going to work with the local franchise, and the money is going to go right back to the teams in the form of ticket revenue,'' Carlisle said. "It's going to go for tickets for kids that wouldn't have the chance to go to games otherwise.

"This does a couple of different things. For us in the association, we're getting involved in something good. We also saved operating costs, and a lot of the money is going to go back to the teams.''

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In collaboration with the league office, the coaches produced a union logo in the same font as NBA Cares, emphasizing their new charitable role. "That was important,'' Rivers said of the $15 million donation. "We've always asked to get our pension up to [the level of] football and baseball, but none of us was willing to give in; we just wanted the owners to give. By us putting in too, it showed that we wanted it bad enough.''

"The increase in the pension benefits was approved by the owners because they thought it was the right thing to do,'' said NBA president of league and basketball operations Joel Litvin, who helped rally support among the owners. "We all know that head coaches are very well compensated, but one of the significant driving factors for the board as they considered this was that 80 percent of the people benefiting from this increase were people other than head coaches or GMs. Assistant coaches, trainers, player personnel staff -- they all make far less money than head coaches and GMs, and stand to benefit much more so as a result.''

Apart from the pension increase, Carlisle has also formed a committee of coaches to propose rules changes to the league. Coaches had long complained that they had no input in the evolution of the game.

"There had been an adversarial feeling between the league office and the head coaches at times,'' Carlisle said. "I wasn't sure how this was going to go, but the first year the guys we had on the committee were all heavy hitters: Phil Jackson, [Gregg] Popovich, Larry Brown, who had just won the championship, Jerry Sloan, who's been everywhere and done everything, Bernie Bickerstaff, who was a widely respected guy, and Doc Rivers, who's a really visible guy.''

The committee members begin gathering ideas in December from colleagues around the league. By early January, the rules committee holds a conference call in which each member is asked to introduce five ideas nominated by fellow coaches.

"The list gets pared down to 30 things, and we put the high-frequency ones at the top,'' Carlisle said. "You end up with about 12 proposals, but it's pretty clear there are three or four of them that have been suggested by a lot of people.

"The reason for a committee format was to weed out any possible self-serving ideas that could come out of it. The committee has been pure about doing what's best for the game. That's been noticed by the league office, and I think that strengthens the relationship with the league.

"The coaches were offering themselves as an unconditional resource, and we knew it was very possible that the league may not agree to any of our ideas. The first year we had four changes, including the head coaches being able to call timeout. Which was a great thing. More than anything else, when the league gave their blessing on that one, that was something none of us ever thought they would do.''

The NBA has appreciated the new relationship with its coaches. "It's been a very positive experience,'' said Stu Jackson, the NBA's executive VP of basketball operations. "It gets the coaching body focused on improving the game in the best interests of the game; instead of giving any one team an advantage, they're discussing potential rule changes that would advantage the entire game.''

Though Carlisle hasn't been coaching this season, his term as president was recently extended for another two years into 2010. This summer figures to be provocative with several teams -- including the Bulls, Bucks and Hawks -- expected to hire new coaches. Carlisle should be at the top of anyone's list.

"There's no more accelerated program in every aspect of life and business than being a head coach in the NBA,'' he said. "You name it -- communication, crisis management, dealing with complacency, trying to fight through injury problems. It's one of the ultimate challenges in sports. When you have a chance to step away from it, you realize even more how unusual a position it is.''

In four unpredictable years with the Pacers, Carlisle saw his 61-win team undone by the brawl in Detroit, injuries to his best players and a variety of off-court problems that have turned Indiana into the league's least supported franchise with average attendance of 12,067 this season.

"As tough as it was, we had three great years,'' Carlisle said. "There are very few situations that I haven't experienced in some form and had the challenge of navigating through. So those are positive things.''

So will he be back next season?

"I'm having one of the greatest years of my life,'' Carlisle said. "Having said that, coaching is still what I want to do, but it's only going to happen when the time is right for me and for another franchise that has an interest. I'll know when that time is. It may be sooner, it may be a little later.''

I would bet on sooner.