P.J. Carlesimo draws inspiration from his father

Interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo of the Brooklyn Interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo of the Brooklyn Nets reacts during a game against the Charlotte Bobcats. (Dec. 28, 2012) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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P.J. Carlesimo has his hands full. The Nets' interim coach must deal with injuries and fragile psyches, egos and minutes. He has to keep the Nets relevant with the Knicks flourishing. He needs to make his players look good while making a case for himself to become the full-fledged coach, without appearing to be campaigning for the job.

Truth be told, though, those challenges are a piece of cake compared to raising 10 kids on a college coach's salary when coaches didn't make millions, or to saving the seemingly doomed NIT when a loyal constituency just didn't want the New York institution to die.

Those are the things that P.J., the oldest of those 10 children, saw from his late dad, Pete Carlesimo.

"Other than my mother, he has had more impact on me than anybody," said P.J., whose 5-1 record since replacing Avery Johnson is the second-best start ever for a Nets coach (Lawrence Frank was 13-0). "It was the type of individual he was, the work ethic, the way he cared about our family, the way he coached. He has had more of an influence on me than anybody else, and continues to."

If the younger Carlesimo really plays a role in the city's pro basketball renaissance, it will be fitting. His father was himself a Damon Runyonesque New York institution.

Pete Carlesimo, who died 10 years ago at 87, was a rough-and-tumble character who earned the admiration of tough men. He was a buddy of Fordham football teammate (and fellow Fordham Hall of Famer) Vince Lombardi. When he was the athletic director at his alma mater, Carlesimo became a mentor and close friend of Bob Knight.

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He also could be a genial soul and rollicking after-dinner speaker. He would tell the story about how people accused the Fordham football players of never having seen a classroom when they were at Rose Hill, to which he would reply, "We used to pass classrooms on the way to practice and we'd look in them frequently."

Despite coaching varsity football, basketball and cross-country at the University of Scranton, he needed extra income, so he accepted speaking engagements. He was so good that Johnny Carson gave him a spot on "The Tonight Show" (Sept. 8, 1970, on the couch alongside James Whitmore, B.J. Thomas and Julie Budd).

"The spot was supposed to be for two minutes, but he ended up being on for six or seven. It was phenomenal," said Frank McLaughlin, who was on the Fordham basketball team when the elder Carlesimo returned to be the school's athletic director in 1968. "I had him come speak to my team when I was the head basketball coach at Harvard. He was one of the great speakers of all time."

His gift of gab persuaded coaches to buy into holding early-round NIT games on campuses across the country, and in holding a preseason NIT -- preserving the tradition.

McLaughlin, who was P.J.'s teammate at Fordham and later had a long run as the university's athletic director, said the younger Carlesimo inherited his father's generous spirit, people skills and basketball knowledge.

"It's a tremendous, tremendous family," McLauglin said. "A lot of people are really happy he's doing well. More than he knows."

To keep doing well, Carlesimo will have to keep broadening the Nets' offensive sets; expanded pick-and-roll plays have worked. He also will have to find playing time for Mirza Teletovic and MarShon Brooks, who were stellar off the bench in a rout of the Kings Saturday night.

"It will probably be more challenging," the interim coach said. "But it's a good challenge."

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