Back east, where the family all lives, Cheryl Carlesimo was
talking, lovingly, about her brother. "His was a life of such
great satisfaction," she said. But then, as she thought of what
had happened to him, the distress was suddenly evident on her
face, and she turned, looking out the window. "Oh, god," she
sighed, "what really worries me is that this is all they'll
remember P.J. for."
"I know," P.J. says, sitting in his office in Oakland, just
upstairs from where Latrell Sprewell tried to strangle him at a
Warriors practice on Dec. 1, 1997. "I'm linked. We'll always be
linked." But he looks straight ahead when he says that, his
mother's Irish-blue eyes unblinking. "When coaching is your
profession, if you can't be a stoic, you're always going to be
challenging your sanity."
In fact, after Sprewell choked him, leaving his neck scratched
deep and rubbed red raw, Carlesimo had--well, he had taken a
deep breath, and then he had kept practice going. Isn't that
amazing? But: His team hadn't finished the day's session yet;
there were more drills to run. "The world didn't end," Carlesimo
says. "I'm a professional. I'm paid to coach. And the players
are paid to play." So that is why he was still standing on the
court 20 minutes later, when Sprewell returned to attack him
again. The coach had simply gone right back to coaching. "This
is what P.J. wants to do with his life--for as long as he can,"
says Jim Boeheim, his good friend, the Syracuse coach.
P.J. grew up the son of a coach, Pete Carlesimo, and coaching
was, it seems, about all he ever wanted for himself. The family
hoped he'd be respectable, a lawyer; they knew how hard a loaf
coaching could be. Well, P.J. knew too; two of his younger
brothers would also consider coaching, but he didn't want that
for them. "I'm not indicting the profession," he says. "It's
wonderful. But it's tough. And the average coach doesn't get to
coach in the Big East and the NBA and make millions. There's
something to be said for a job that lets you go home. The only
time I go home is to sleep. Most coaches can be obsessed, you
February 1, 1999
"Oh, yeah, I'm obsessed too."
As a kid he played everything, and won letters in four sports in
college, at Fordham. Coaches--like his father--were the men who
guided him, disciplined him, informed his ethic. "There were
even certain priestly qualities to being a coach then, weren't
there?" his sister muses. So it may not be so surprising,
really, that the other great influence in Carlesimo's life,
outside of family, were the priests who educated him: the
Jesuits. The father always coached for the Jesuits, and, past
grade school, the son was always schooled by them. The priests
even hung around the house, a familiar and avuncular presence.
"The Jesuit influence is still very strong in his life," Cheryl
says. "P.J. is a humanist. And he very much believes that acts
have their consequences and that work should pay off." In a way,
since he is unmarried and despairs of ever finding a love great
enough to alter that status, and since he is so devoted to his
vocation and to taking on assignments in the most hopeless
basketball dioceses, Carlesimo is a secular Jesuit.
"P.J. seems to care more about his work than about himself,"
says Golden State vice president Al Attles, the coach of the
Warriors' 1975 championship team, who serves this historically
tortured franchise as a sort of conscience-in-residence. "True
or not, that very impression says volumes about a person,
Oh, this is hardly to suggest that the coach's daily life is one
of worldly sacrifice. Carlesimo may be alone, but he is not
lonely. The hearty laughs and the tall tales and the fine red
wine flow deep into every night: the rich Continental dinners,
the camaraderie, Carlesimo surrounded at the table by his myriad
friends from a well-traveled life--Warriors assistants, visiting
coaches, old high school and college buddies and the odd
celebrity pal. The women fade in and out--"Recruits," says one
"He's like Sara Lee," Jim Valvano once observed. "Nobody doesn't
So, the horror of what happened to him only marginally exceeds
the irony that, of all people, the victim was Carlesimo, the
coach's son who has devoted his life, his being, so completely
to his calling. "I think that's the worst," says Chris Cohan,
the owner of the Warriors. A pause. "Well, at least that's the
worst of it in P.J.'s mind: that he was simply embarrassed--for
basketball. He, who loves the game so, who is so dedicated to
his profession--he was the one who was involved in this black
eye for basketball."
Linked. Ruefully, but not pitifully, Peter John Carlesimo
repeats that awful word.
Peter Anthony Carlesimo, a first-generation American, was
primarily a football coach, notably at the University of
Scranton, and then an athletic director, at Scranton and at
Fordham. P.J. was his oldest child, but there were nine to
follow him. "Half-Irish, half-Italians make the best-looking
children," Pete says. That's a good banquet line, but, truth be
told, it's his wife of 50 years, the former Lucy Rogan of
Scranton, who accounts for the looks in the family. In her
mid-70s, she is perfectly gorgeous. Also, everybody in
basketball knows Lucy. Even P.J.'s old girlfriends, the
erstwhile recruits, stay in touch with her. Charles Barkley
always screams, "Hi, Mom!" when he sees Lucy.
Growing up, P.J. did not find his large family remarkable. Both
of his parents had come from families of 10 siblings--that last
dutiful generation of large Catholic families--and many of their
friends had children numbering around the double figures. (P.J.
refers to his youngest brothers and sisters as "the bottom
five," as if they were the second division of some league.)
Unashamedly Pete joined the neighborhood housewives in doing all
the shopping. That made an impression on P.J. "A lot of people
say they don't care what people think about them," he says.
"Well, my father really doesn't care what people think about
him." Lord knows where they got the time, but they had a lot of
fun, Pete and Lucy. More so the love.
"You know," P.J. continues, "it's funny, but so many people seem
to have had sad childhoods that I almost feel arrogant when I say
that I had--I have--great parents. It colors everything I do,
everything I am. Maybe there was some time when my parents did
what they wanted to, for themselves, but for most of their lives
they only did for us."
Wealthy from his work but with no acquisitive instincts--"He
probably still keeps it all in passbook savings," Cheryl says
laughing--P.J. is legendary for his generosity to his family. He
remains devoted to Pete and Lucy. Rarely does he go out to
dinner after a game without first calling them at home in New
Jersey to report in, and they visit him regularly. In 1994, when
he was offered the Portland Trail Blazers job, a continent away,
Lucy had to assure him that it was all right to accept it. None
of the tough guys in sports seem to find this sappy, either;
P.J. is not perceived as a mama's boy but is, rather, admired as
the mother's son all of us would like to be if we weren't so
damned distracted and self-centered.
Says Leslie Visser, the ABC sports announcer, who was a
(relatively) serious love interest of Carlesimo's years ago, "I
think P.J.'s parents were such a profound influence on his life
that he's scared to take a chance with a woman and get it wrong."
Anyway, within that happy home, a coach's philosophy prevailed.
Pete says, "With my teams I felt very strongly that if I was
going to make a mistake, it should be on the side of being too
severe. I was the same way at home. I ran a tight ship."
Pete himself had been a potentially fine athlete. He was a
stocky 195-pound tackle on the freshman team at Fordham in 1936,
when the varsity line was renowned as the Seven Blocks of
Granite. But then he injured a knee and had to have surgery, and
he was never much good again as a player. That was when he began
to consider coaching.
Pete was blessed with the gift of gab. He pursued the beautiful
Lucy relentlessly, finally convincing her to give up her dream
of a career in medicine to marry him. Then, over time, the
coach's extracurricular obligation to deliver a few gung ho
bromides at high school banquets grew into Pete's calling and
the source of his fame. He is 83 now and deaf in one ear, but in
his prime he delivered as many as 200 speeches a year, working
everything from Scranton communion breakfasts to the most
prestigious banquets in the land. Tip O'Neill, the late speaker
of the House of Representatives, who probably had to suffer
through more rubber-chicken evenings than any pol in history,
called Pete Carlesimo indisputably the best after-dinner speaker
in the world. Once Pete went on Johnny Carson for a three-minute
bit and was still sitting there, breaking Carson up, when the
show finished taping 20 minutes later.
Pete's charm was heightened by surprise, by the fact that almost
nobody had ever heard of him. He would eventually attain a
certain recognition in New York, where he finished his
administrative career with distinction as the executive director
of the NIT--effectively salvaging the postseason tournament
while creating the preseason version--but while P.J. was growing
up, Pete was basically a nobody with an Italian name that people
botched, hailing from Scranton, a backwater otherwise known for
anthracite and The Pennsylvania Polka. Then the baggy-eyed
who's-he would step to the podium and bring down the house.
From an early age the precocious P.J. accompanied Pete to his
speeches, a little grown-up in his Sunday suit. One time, even,
Pete looked down to where P.J. sat and noticed that, in a sea of
laughter, everybody at his table was only smiling, knowingly.
"The little son-of-a-gun had already told all my best stories,"
Pete says chortling.
In fact, all sorts of speakers tried to steal Pete's stuff, but
it was fool's gold they pilfered. The brilliance was in the
delivery, a Jack Benny deadpan with exquisite timing: long
pauses, affected stumbles, a pretense of losing his place, a
patter rich with what might be described as semi-non sequiturs.
If anybody almost caught the special rhythm, though, it was his
son, scouting his father over and over, in the same fashion as
he would someday revel in studying zone traps and high posts.
At the end of Pete's speeches, when he had them laid out in the
aisles, he would suddenly switch gears and turn to a poem
entitled Rules for the Game of Life. It was moral and spiritual
advice for athletes. He never found out who the author was.
"Except I know it's not a Jesuit," Pete would crack, "because
any one of them would've taken credit for it." The Jesuit crack
would be the final humor in his speech, though. Rules for the
Game of Life is not Saint Paul. It's not Saint Ignatius. It's
not even Joyce Kilmer. But Pete would stun the crowd with the
dewy sentiment, so that, suddenly, there was not a sound in the
hall. Not a chair moving, not a coffee cup rattling. Maybe just
some gasps, some tears, choked back. And then the stunning
finish: "Here is the ball. It is your immortal soul." It was
always several seconds before the audience would catch its
breath, rise to its feet and applaud.
When P.J. graduated from Scranton Prep, he had to share his party
with the christening for Cory, the Carlesimos' 10th child, the
last of the bottom five. P.J. had an appointment to the Naval
Academy, but at the last moment he chose his father's alma mater
and more of the Jesuits. Pete cried for joy at the news. P.J.
played all sorts of sports at Fordham (baseball was his best),
earned fine grades and was tremendously popular. A year after he
arrived, his father followed him there as athletic director, and
then came Cheryl as a freshman. All 10 of the Carlesimo brood
would matriculate, one after the other, at Rose Hill.
But it was different now; the secure old ecosystem that P.J. had
been born into was starting to turn over. Pope John had opened up
the church, and Roman Catholics in the U.S. were making their own
new rules; they weren't having families any larger than the
heathen Protestants down the street. Nor could priests or even
coaches any longer count on getting yes for an answer.
Cheryl, like a lot of rebellious young Catholics, protested the
Vietnam War and everything else; she joined SDS, the subversive
Students for a Democratic Society. P.J.? He was marching too...
in the ROTC. "What can I say?" Cheryl asks. "He's just the
classic oldest son."
He was always so good, so dependable, so targeted, so moderate,
that everyone would have found him to be a goody-goody pain in
the ass if he hadn't also been obviously genuine. "I'll tell you
this," says Visser, "if P.J. ever does get married, she's going
to be the happiest woman in the world."
Carlesimo was also witty and full of fun, and no matter what he
achieved, he never put on airs. Paul Westhead, one of his Golden
State assistants, first met him 25 years ago, when they both
coached summer ball in Puerto Rico. "On the surface it was all
Primrose Lane for P.J.," Westhead says. "Life's a holiday. But
you see, there's no difference to the man now, except then he
was wearing sandals and no socks, and now it's Guccis and no
On the court, even with the snappy clothes and the uncoachlike
beard, Carlesimo is just an updated version of his father. Like
Pete, P.J. runs a tight ship and tends to err on the side of
severity. He is widely, and correctly, considered a
disciplinarian, often loud and profane, demanding and precise in
the manner of a football coach. "He's aggressive, he yells and
screams," says guard Brian Shaw, who played for him at Golden
State. Yet he is not considered as rough as, say, Pat Riley or
Chuck Daly. "P.J.'s never insulting," says Warriors assistant
Rod Higgins, who played for 13 years in the NBA. "I've had
coaches who were demeaning. And P.J. just isn't."
"My father and my brother illustrate--don't they?--the great
change in college sports," Cheryl says. "In one generation.
Daddy had to struggle to raise a family. P.J. has financial
security and fame." But mostly the differences are only those
that have been imposed by the society, and the players and the
games, that have changed so much around the father and the son.
"You can't separate your essence," P.J. says, "what you are, and
what you've been taught. And you can't be successful as a coach
if you don't have people who understand those cliches, those
values of sport that my father always talked about. The sharing.
The sacrifice. If your players can't buy into that, you're dead.
Because it's about them. And maybe people are different now.
Maybe circumstances. But not the things I heard my father say
over and over. That hasn't changed."
The Carlesimo men cry a lot, for joy. Pete wept so at his own
wedding that nobody could hear his blubbery "I will." At his
daughters' weddings he starts sobbing long before he arrives at
the church. P.J. cries just as easily. When he gave his parents
a 50th-anniversary party this summer, booking a cruise ship to
take hundreds of people around Manhattan, he told Cory that he
would have to handle the emcee honors, inasmuch as P.J. knew he
could not get through it himself without breaking down. In
college P.J. would invariably cry in the locker room after his
team's last game of the season. "Every year you bring a group
together... for a reason, for a purpose," he says. "And each
group has a different dynamic. And it's all accomplished in this
tremendously competitive environment--the excitement! The
energy! And now, all of a sudden, you realize this is the last
time you're ever going to be together."
By contrast, Lucy, the stalwart Irish mother, is bemused by
these lugubrious Italian men of hers. The family joke is that
the only two times she ever cried were, first, when P.J.'s Seton
Hall team lost the national championship game by a point to
Michigan in 1989 and, second, when two of her grown children
announced that they were coming back home to live.
Yet for all that her eldest wears his heart on his sleeve, he
possesses a bifurcated character; there is a controlling,
rational side of the man that rules. His father's boy he may be,
but he has his mother's cool detachment. "Forget all this
Italian stuff," she's told him. "You're half Irish, too."
Higgins says, "Everybody knows what an engaging guy P.J. is, but
he is also so detail-oriented. It's really amazing that he can
do so many things at once: practice, concern himself with his
family, work with the other coaches...and, of course, arrange
his dinner party for that night." It's revealing that in the two
most crucial--and painful--moments of his life, Carlesimo was
almost eerily contained and focused.
First: that NCAA title game. In seven years Carlesimo had taken
Seton Hall, the laughingstock of the Big East, a school that had
never made the NCAA tournament before he arrived, to the brink
of a championship. Still, along the way, twice he had been all
but fired; he had been regularly vilified, hung in effigy. But
slowly he had built the team up, and now, vindicated, at the age
of 39, he stood on the verge of glory.
With five seconds left, Seton Hall held a one-point lead.
Michigan had the ball, sure, but it had to make a basket under
the most excruciating pressure. However, as Rumeal Robinson
dribbled across the half-court line, the referee, John
Clougherty, called a foul on the Seton Hall player guarding him.
Carlesimo is the first to admit that there was contact, but it
was only a smidgen, the classic no-harm, no-foul situation--and
with three seconds to go for the national title. Those around
Carlesimo heard him react instinctively. "No way, John!" he
wailed. "No way." And not one basketball expert in a hundred
disagreed with Carlesimo. Bad call.
But then the coach shut up and sat back down, watching as
Robinson sank both free throws to give Michigan the title.
Carlesimo led his team to the locker room. He did not cry this
time, this season's end. Nor did he whine. Instead, the coach
reminded the players of the opportunities they had not seized.
Cruel as the last call had been, they had let slip their own
destiny. The ball is your immortal soul. How many times had he
heard his father say that? Your life is in your hands. Nobody
ever said the rules in the game of life were soft.
Then, before the media throng, all of them panting for him to
pillory the ref, Carlesimo drew a breath. His players were at
his side, nodding, as he said, "John Clougherty is as good as
any referee in the country, and I can't imagine anyone else I'd
rather have make that call."
"Hey, that's just the way I was raised," he says now with a
shrug. After the title game he threw a huge dinner party. If you
can't be a stoic....
The Sprewell incident was different. Bad calls you can expect.
But there was no way that Carlesimo--that anybody--could have
anticipated what would happen at practice that dreadful
afternoon. To be sure, Sprewell was a wrathful person who had
been involved in two serious physical altercations with
teammates before that season. But when Carlesimo took over the
team in September 1997, Sprewell was accommodating and,
generally, pleasant. It was only after the season opened and the
losses began to pile up (by Dec. 1, the Warriors were 1-13) that
Sprewell's attitude turned sour. Still, even as he constantly
petitioned to be traded, he did nothing to suggest that the
volcano might explode.
Because Sprewell is appealing his punishment (he's also,
incredibly, suing his agent for, in effect, not having had the
foresight to include a clause in his contract that would protect
his salary should he attack his coach), no one involved can
speak directly to the details of the battery. But it is all
spelled out in wrenching detail in the voluminous March 1998
report of John Feerick, the Fordham Law School dean who became
the independent arbitrator when Sprewell and the players' union
challenged the Warriors' termination of his contract and his
suspension by the NBA. To wit:
"...the Head Coach...told the Grievant [Sprewell] to put more
speed on the ball when making a pass. The practice was
proceeding in a normal manner, and the Head Coach spoke in a low
tone and then raised his voice a bit louder, saying the words a
second time. The Grievant proceeded to slam the ball down and
express a number of expletives reasonably approximating 'get out
of my face, get the f--- out of here, and leave me the f---
alone.' The Head Coach responded: 'You're the f--- out of here.'
Thereupon, Grievant immediately either walked to or lunged at
the Head Coach, placing his two hands around his neck. With his
arms fully extended, the Grievant moved the Coach backwards
saying, 'I will kill you.'"
Astonishingly, Carlesimo retained his composure. He did not
believe that Sprewell meant to murder him, and anyway, he knew
there were about 20 people on the gymnasium floor who could
prevent that. Still, for perhaps as long as 10 seconds, Sprewell
choked Carlesimo, to the point where he found it difficult to
breathe. But, declared Feerick, "The Head Coach remained calm
and offered no resistance."
Everyone in the place froze. Attles watched in horror from the
balcony that juts out from the Warriors' offices. On the court
Higgins, in shock, ran to where others were extricating
Carlesimo from Sprewell's grasp. "I put myself in that
position," Higgins says, "and I can't believe I could be that
calm. P.J. never retaliated. And then he just started talking to
the players: 'Wanna break?' They said no, so we just went back
to practicing." Sprewell returned about 20 minutes later to
attack Carlesimo once more, landing one punch before he was
Carlesimo has not taken any civil action against the man who
brutalized him. He has never really criticized Sprewell,
preferring instead to lavish praise on his team for not quitting
on the season--for, in fact, playing much better the rest of the
way, despite the suspension of its only star player. Says
Westhead, "Greg Bittner, who scouts for us, had come from
Portland with P.J., and he told me, 'P.J.'s very good at
end-of-the-game situations.' Well, I found out he is. And here
it was, that day, and he obviously fell back on the same
instincts--only now, he must have been thinking, I'm in a real
end-of-the-game this time. Within 30 seconds P.J. had regrouped
in his head, and he knew exactly how he had to be--and he did it
just that way."
When practice was finally over, Carlesimo called home. "Mom," he
said, "we had a little brouhaha here today. Sprewell tried to
Carlesimo resides in a stylish high-rise smack in downtown San
Francisco, with a gorgeous new custom floor just going in and,
as befits a man who says he eats out 365 nights a year, a
refrigerator featuring victuals that range all the way from
Evian to beer to Coke. Each day he trims his beard, dresses
stylishly casually, eschewing socks, then drives across the Bay
to the Golden State offices in Oakland. A CD of classical music
plays in his Cadillac, but P.J., at the controls, overrides it,
making continuous telephone calls hither and yon. In fact, once
he is encased in the Caddy, he is magically insulated, inasmuch
as time zones no longer exist anywhere in the world.
It is past 11 p.m., East Coast time, when P.J. decides to call a
woman friend who is coming to San Francisco. "She used to be
really mad at me," he declares. "See, I didn't call her back for
On the phone he seems to smooth things out with the woman,
arranging a rendezvous. "The worst thing in the world," he
explains woefully, "is having to call someone when she expects
you to. That's killed a lot of my relationships."
"Really, I just can't seem to go out with someone more than
three times. I've never been remotely close to marriage. But to
answer the question"--which hasn't been asked on this occasion,
but which Carlesimo is asked all the time, so, he figures, why
wait for the question?--"would I rather be married or single?
Well, I'd rather be married."
He moves on to answer the next unasked question. "I really
believe it's because I haven't found the right person."
The colloquy continues as he interrupts himself. "I know, I
know. Everybody says I'll always find an excuse. But I promise
you, that's not it. It's tough, though. And I know what she'll
have to be...."
The right woman?
"Yeah. What she'll have to be is [pause] a real beautiful
[pause], real intelligent [long pause] bitch. Now, wait a
minute: I mean that as a compliment. Because she's going to have
to be so independent to put up with me--and do things for
herself. Because I'm just too set. I mean, for 30 years I've
been selfish. I like being alone. In fact, I can't think unless
Nevertheless, the fancy empty apartment does not qualify as a
venue for cogitation. Carlesimo needs to be in the Warriors'
offices for rumination as well as fellowship. Of course, every
NBA office during the long lockout was a bit like The Truman
Show, with everyone acting, pretending to have a job to do.
Still, even when there are games to play, Carlesimo roams the
halls, teas ing, kibitzing, high-fiving, banging fists. This,
really, is his home. He knows all the dozens of people who are
here. Many he has endowed with nicknames. There's Boo, Fuji,
Tommy Loco, Mundo, the Legend. Most everybody else he addresses
in the diminutive. Hey, Higgy's over there. Say hello to Simmy.
Even Larry Bird is referred to as Birdy.
"It's almost like he's running for office, but he's not," says
Boeheim. "P.J.'s just that way, naturally. He treats everyone
like they're his best friend."
When Carlesimo first went to Portland, some people in the Trail
Blazers' office were suspicious of this great affability. The
big-shot head coach, hanging out with the hired help? He was
much too nice and accessible. "Hi, I'm P.J." is how he
introduces himself to everybody, bartenders and waiters and
caddies. And the rare Warriors fan.
Carlesimo grows especially close to his assistants. He has set
up a football-style departmentalization, with Westhead in charge
of the offense, Higgins the defense and Bob Staak the
preparation for the next opponent. "I delegate good, but not
great," Carlesimo says. "I mean, nothing like [Rick] Pitino. My
problem is, I just like tinkering. And, in the pros, if you're
obsessed, you can work pretty much every day from Labor Day to
Says Visser, "I sort of knew it wasn't going to work for us
when, one time, we flew back together from the Final Four and
P.J. spent the whole trip reading Dick Versace's book on the
But then, that's virtually all Carlesimo reads now: hoops
dissertations. The classicist who took several years of both
Greek and Latin has slowly whittled away his outside interests.
"I don't even read newspapers anymore," he volunteers somewhat
wistfully. Occasionally Carlesimo even descends into jock
grammar, saying "she don't" or "he played good" as, somewhere, a
Jesuit scholastic crosses himself in sorrowful prayer.
The West Coast time zone is a bonus. It allows Carlesimo to
start watching college games on ESPN in the late afternoon.
Then, when everybody else in the office has gone home to his
family but before Carlesimo congregates a group for his evening
repast, he does his best thinking. "I like working around the
office," he says. "I love working weekends and late at night.
Sure, I could do it at home, but I'd rather come into the
office. Then I need dead silence--nobody around--to get anything
Obviously Carlesimo has chosen this lonely-in-the-crowd life,
and anyway, he's found fame and fortune in the bargain. Still,
there is a certain perversity to the way he approaches his
vocation. Except for the Trail Blazers, who were hardly a
juggernaut, each team Carlesimo has taken over has been in
desperate straits. After four years as an assistant at Fordham
he literally found his first head job, at New Hampshire College,
through an ad in The New York Times. Next came Wagner, in New
York City, the height of hubris--a loser in Division II seeking
a coach to jump it to Division I. Carlesimo succeeded, and then
he went to Big East doormat Seton Hall. Finally, after being
fired by the Trail Blazers despite going 137-109 and making the
playoffs all three years, he chose woeful Golden State.
"I'm not afraid to lose," Carlesimo says. "That's how I got the
jobs I did. The Jesuits taught me that if you want to be good,
it's O.K. to strive. But it's O.K. to fail, too. What the
Jesuits don't want is laissez-faire stuff. I know. Some coaches
think about their winning percentage, and that's probably the
smarter way, but it isn't the way I've done it." A lot of people
say they don't care what anyone thinks about them. Well, my
father really doesn't care. "I grew up in a coaching
environment, so I think I have a pretty good understanding of
why it works. I think I have a good perspective. I mean, I
should have a good perspective."
Even more confounding is why he passed up the one plum job he
was offered: Kentucky. Carlesimo could have been the laird of
that noble basketball realm forever; he coulda been Dean Smith.
But, he explains, it seemed disloyal to abandon Seton Hall then,
in 1989, right after almost leading the Pirates to a national
title; also, for him it just wasn't the right time for a change.
Of course, if you listen carefully, the reasons why he's never
let himself fall in love, why he's never been able to commit to
a woman, seem to resonate here. Maybe it just would have been
too painless, too pat.
Bob Knight, who has known--and loved--Carlesimo since coaching
him as an eight-year-old basketball rat at a summer camp, was
one of the many coaches who pleaded with him to make it easy on
himself, commit to Kentucky. But Carlesimo kept coming up with
excuses. Maybe Kentuckians wouldn't like a Catholic coming out
from the East. Maybe they wouldn't take to an Italian. Maybe
they wouldn't accept a coach with a beard. "For crissake, P.J.,"
Knight cried out in exasperation, "they like Santa Claus in
Kentucky, too." To no avail. Carlesimo turned down Kentucky.
Pitino, a Catholic Italian from the East, took the job, became a
beloved Bluegrass icon and won a national championship.
Yet if Carlesimo has any regret about that choice not to stroll
down Easy Street, it is not evident. The essence of the game,
not the niceties of the job, is what consumes him. "You're never
bored," he says, and then, in rhapsody: "The crowd! The
competition, the intensity! There's instant feedback." He even
seems to find an element of chivalry in coaching. "There's such
purity to the game, and I love matching wits with the other
coach. I always liked it, in college, when you shook hands with
the other coach. I miss that in the NBA. Sometimes, after a good
game, if I catch the other coach's eye, I wave to him."
Already, too, as casually as someone else talking about vacation
plans, he says, "The next time I'm fired, I wanna go coach in
Italy." He shrugs at the inevitability of that dismissal. Neither
does he much let criticism bother him. "Look, I've been called a
genius and I've been called an idiot by the same people," he
says, "and you can't like a guy when he says something nice and
then dislike him when he says something bad."
Cheryl says, "As much as everyone in the family wanted him not to
go into coaching, P.J.'s probably the best equipped person in the
world for it. There are these blinders he could always put on,
and he just doesn't take things personally."
But then there was Sprewell, that afternoon. "P.J.'s wiped it
out," his mother says. "We don't even talk about it with him
anymore." Unfortunately it's not so easy in the world at large.
When Lucy and Pete Carlesimo went out to San Francisco last fall
and rode in the Columbus Day parade with P.J., who was the grand
marshal, they could hear the wiseasses along the route
screaming, "Hey, P.J., where's Spre?"
Probably, too, it's more difficult for Carlesimo to deal with
the reaction to the Sprewell assault than with being choked.
Despite being so prepared--so born and bred--to accept the
slings and arrows that are often capriciously aimed at coaches,
he found that this time nothing normal, nothing right seemed to
apply. It was quickly granted broad currency that Carlesimo must
have been a coaching ogre whose actions had driven poor Sprewell
to his fits of brutality. Somehow the victim became the villain:
Hey, isn't Sprewell the one suing everybody? Why isn't Carlesimo
suing? That's the American way, isn't it?
Carlesimo went to Attles, who so often had watched the
practices, seeking from him, the Warriors' eminence grise, some
kind of comprehension. "P.J. was rattled," Attles says. "I told
him that, no, I never saw him provoke Sprewell but that
somewhere along the line, players and coaches have gotten so
much more alienated from each other." It is revealing that,
prominently on Attles's office wall, is a photo of his '75
championship team. Meanwhile, on his desk, he is putting a
savings bond into an envelope, a present for the child of one of
those players from a quarter century ago. Attles stays in touch
with most of them, but, no, he can't imagine today's players and
coaches retaining that sort of affection. The beloved old coach
sighs. "The best I could tell P.J. was that all he could do was
just keep on being who he was."
Of course, it is an exaggeration of who he is that has accounted
for the glib misrepresentation of Carlesimo's style. He embraces
his reputation as a disciplinarian, as did his father before
him. In the Jesuit mold he also tends to demand more of those
with the most talent. "P.J. is a coach who will scream and get
after his players," Sacramento Kings guard Terry Dehere, who
played for Carlesimo at Seton Hall, said after the assault, "and
he always tries to make his best player, which Sprewell was,
drive the team."
But none of this particularly sets Carlesimo apart. Even in
college he was never rated an extreme taskmaster.
Notwithstanding, in all sports, coaches are neatly divided into
two camps: 1) the in-your-face guy, or 2) the players' coach.
There's no Mr. In-Between. Life is so much easier for general
managers if they can simply go back and forth between column A
and column B, alternating too hard with too soft.
By coincidence, at both Portland and Golden State, Carlesimo
followed Rick Adelman, the prototype of the players' coach. This
contrast heightened Carlesimo's reputation for being demanding.
Besides, one of the great shibboleths in sports is that all
coaches coming to the pros from college are dim, unregenerate
martinets who take years to learn how to deal with men. "I'm
typecast," Carlesimo says.
At Portland these hackneyed assumptions were dumped upon
Carlesimo partly because he experienced difficulty dealing with
J.R. Rider and former Trail Blazer Rod Strickland. ("Carlesimo
is annoying, that's the bottom line," Strickland said after the
Sprewell incident. "There were times when I felt like choking
him.") Never mind that those players have been trouble for
almost every coach, to say nothing of other authority figures,
including the police. So too Sprewell. Perhaps the biggest irony
is that Carlesimo tended to back off and treat the hard cases
more gingerly, going against the grain of his reputation.
Indeed, in Portland, Carlesimo had been criticized for not being
tough enough. "If I have one regret," he says, "it's that I
tippy-toed around the 'challenges' and didn't just treat them
like everybody else. I mean, if they're going to call me a
motherf-----, then I wish I'd been the motherf----- they say I
Dick Harter, his chief assistant at Portland, observed that
Carlesimo was easier on his players than any coach he'd ever
worked with, including Jack Ramsay, Daly and Riley. Carlesimo
even gained regard as a coach who could maintain control of his
emotions--he was not whistled for a single technical in his
whole first season with the Blazers--and he was especially
admired for never embarrassing his players in public; in fact,
one of his most publicized blowups with Strickland came when
Carlesimo privately upbraided the guard for having been so
insensitive as to criticize a teammate on the court.
However, in the Feerick report Carlesimo took another glancing
blow. The arbitrator made headlines for sharply reducing the
penalties that had been assessed on Sprewell, arguing that it
was double jeopardy for both the league and the team to have
punished him. Feerick courted considerably more controversy by
concluding that even though Sprewell left the gymnasium floor
for as long as 20 minutes before returning to assault the coach
again, the two attacks were continuous, one incident of "anger
and passion... not the result of premeditation and deliberation."
So, while these technicalities did not address Carlesimo's role
in the affair, the headlines served to advance the perception
that, since Sprewell was upheld in some fashion, Carlesimo had
been at fault. As recently as last Thursday, New York Times
sports columnist William Rhoden not only blamed P.J. but also
dragged old Pete into it: "Carlesimo, whose father, Peter Sr.,
is an important figure in college basketball...learned how to
maneuver early in his career. He could disrespect players and
get away with it because his daddy, or some facsimile thereof
(athletic director, team president) was standing by to bail him
In fact, though, Feerick's investigation condoned Carlesimo's
demeanor vis-a-vis Sprewell. The arbitrator wrote that while the
coach's "screaming and profanity in general were not infrequent
...the record reveals that the Grievant engaged in some acts of
defiance.... Coaches and players testified in the hearings
before me that the Head Coach was not abusive toward the
While, typically, Carlesimo still guards his own feelings, he
offers an interesting analysis of the defensive position in which
he finds himself. "There are a lot of people who understand the
situation," he says, "who point out that there's an analogy here
with me and a rape victim."
Specifically, in the annals of sports, the most apt comparison
to Carlesimo would be Nancy Kerrigan, who has so often been
blithely tied to Tonya Harding simply because she was the one
whom Harding's goons bludgeoned. Nancy and Tonya. P.J. and Spre.
But, resigned, Carlesimo goes on: "If I can't sway some of the
public, some of the media...." He turns his palms upward in
exasperation. "Look, it's the players and the coaches--they're
the people who matter. And they know what I'm like, who I am."
In Carlesimo's first year coaching in the NBA, his star was
Portland's Clyde Drexler, who is now a coach, at the University
of Houston. Drexler says, "I'd be proud if I could be the same
kind of coach as P.J. He has a way of commanding respect. And
he's basically just a real good guy. The first time I met him
was when he was an assistant [to Daly] on the Dream Team. I
liked him right away. Everybody did. Believe me, what happened
with Sprewell had nothing to do with what sort of a person P.J.
After the "unfortunate incident," as Carlesimo refers to it
whenever he must, as the Warriors traveled to play around the
league, a number of the top stars--including Karl Malone,
Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan--went out of their way to
stroll up to Carlesimo before games, to chat and laugh with him,
lending him their goodwill, making a sort of tacit public
Still, the stain on his character remains, and for all his
bonhomie, for all that he puts on the blinders and keeps up the
stolid front, people close to Carlesimo are not gulled. They
worry about him. Staak, his assistant and friend, says, "I'm
sure P.J.'s been hurt much more by the Spre situation than he's
ever let on. To anyone." Carlesimo periodically makes the
pragmatic point that it's been much easier for him to suffer
this indignity alone than it would have been if he had been
married, with a wife's feelings to worry about. But this time,
surely, it must have been the other way around, harder without
anyone at home to love and comfort him. This time he must have
been alone and lonely alike.
Now, at least, there's a new season, sullied and truncated
though it may be. The Warriors still don't have enough good
players, but at least Sprewell is gone for good, traded to New
York. Carlesimo can start anew. The Jesuits' motto at Scranton
Prep was Ad altiora nautus. "I still remember that," Carlesimo
says. "It means, basically, 'born for better things.'" It seems
apt right now.
He strokes his beard. Oddly, for a guy with a beard, he doesn't
do much beard-stroking. "You know," he says, "like in
everything, there's a best and a worst. But the thing is, those
two extremes are so close in coaching. The worst is that your
livelihood depends on other people. The best is that your
existence is so enriched by your relationships with those same
He pauses, pondering it all. "I still think this is a good job,"
he declares. Ultimately, what coaching is for him is a
beautiful, intelligent bitch of a life.
The phone rings. It's all set. His dinner for a party of 10 is on
"The world didn't end," Carlesimo says of Sprewell's assault.
"I'm a professional. I'm paid to coach. And the players are paid
"P.J. will scream at his players," said Dehere, "and he always
tries to make his best player, which Sprewell was, drive the
"P.J. seems to care more about his work than about himself,"
says Attles. "True or not, that impression says volumes about a
"So many people seem to have had sad childhoods that I feel
almost arrogant when I say I had great parents," Carlesimo says.
Growing up, he played everything. Coaches--like his father--were
the men who guided him, disciplined him, informed his ethic.
"I'd be proud to be the same kind of coach as P.J.," says
Drexler. "He has a way of commanding respect. And he's a real