P.J. Carlesimo's new chapter: 15 years after Latrell Sprewell choked him, coach has strong grip on Nets
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Fifteen seconds, 15 years ago.
Over the course of a 40-year coaching career, it is a minuscule fraction. Over the course of a 40-year coaching career, it shouldn't be what matters the most, the moment that is always the first sentence in P.J. Carlesimo's biography.
Yet try telling that to the fan behind the bench bellowing out "Latrell Sprewell!" when the Nets' interim coach is introduced.
Try telling that to sportswriter after sportswriter, looking to write another story about the legacy of what Carlesimo calls "the Spree thing" and how it supposedly caused him to mellow. (He really hasn't.)
Try to figure out how things got so turned around, how Carlesimo, the victim of a violent assault, somehow was made into a villain.
This is not something that Carlesimo would ever do. Because if there is one thing that he learned from those 15 seconds on Dec. 1, 1997 -- when Sprewell, then his star player with the Golden State Warriors, responded to criticism of his passing skills ("Put a little mustard on those passes!'') by dragging Carlesimo to the practice floor and wrapping his hands around his neck -- it is this:
"There are things in life you have no control over," Carlesimo said. "The way it evolved, the way it spun so big and so out of control, you just had to ride it out. It is what it is."
Until recently, it appeared as though Carlesimo, at age 63, would be riding it out for the rest of his career without another hope of rewriting his wobbly legacy. That all changed on Dec. 27 when the Nets, who went 3-10 after an 11-4 start, fired coach Avery Johnson and handed Carlesimo, his assistant, the interim title.
Though many thought he wouldn't make it to the end of the season -- given that the Nets have an ambitious billionaire owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, who was inclined to go after a marquee coach -- Carlesimo suddenly has become the league's leading feel-good story.
Turnaround under P.J.
The Nets have played 12 games under Carlesimo and have won 10 of them. In less than a month, they have gone from a puzzling disappointment to a team nipping at the heels of the Atlantic Division-leading Knicks. With a record of 24-16, they are only two games out of first place as they enter Monday's Martin Luther King Day matchup at Madison Square Garden.
And Carlesimo's legions of friends around the league couldn't be happier for him.
"Everyone who knows P.J. has this wry little smile going on and is saying, 'Wouldn't it be great?' " said former Celtics interim coach John Carroll, who has been a close friend of Carlesimo since he was an assistant on Carlesimo's Seton Hall staff in the early 1980s. "It's hard not to pull for him. This is a guy who took an incredible amount of crap for just talking like a coach. My guess would be that Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick have said plenty of things over their tenure as sharp and sarcastic as what P.J. has said."
Carlesimo left behind one of the most secure jobs in coaching in 1994 when he departed Seton Hall, which he coached to the 1989 NCAA final against Michigan, for the big money of the NBA. What he didn't leave behind was his demanding, high-volume and abrasive approach.
It worked for a while in Portland, though he was fired after failing to get out of the first round of the playoffs for the third straight season. With Golden State, however, things exploded.
It was the ultimate case of wrong place, wrong time. The Sprewell incident launched a national discussion on race and the relationship between coaches and athletes, with San Francisco mayor Willie Brown famously saying, "Maybe the coach deserved to be choked."
Though Sprewell was suspended for the remaining 68 games of the season by the NBA and lost $6.4 million in salary, he was able to recast himself only a year later as almost a counterculture folk hero when he helped the Knicks reach the 1999 NBA Finals.
Carlesimo, meanwhile, never enjoyed the success in the NBA that he did in college. Fired from Golden State after three seasons, he worked as a broadcaster and assistant coach before getting a third chance with Seattle/Oklahoma City. Fired again after a 1-12 start in 2008, Carlesimo figured he'd work a couple of years as an assistant or broadcaster before retiring.
Carolyn Carlesimo, a sports psychologist who met her husband shortly after the incident, said: "I think the great thing with P.J. is he's never let what happened with Sprewell define him. I have never met a person more comfortable in his own skin."
That includes being completely comfortable with never being a head coach again. But now this has dropped in his lap.
Maybe it's karmic payback. This time he's in the right place at the right time. The Nets are a young, talented team poised to head in the right direction.
Rewriting his own history
Carlesimo knows that the only way he can whack the name Sprewell from the first sentence of his biography is to do something that overshadows it. And what could be bigger than somehow holding on to this job and being the first coach to bring a professional title to Brooklyn since Walter Alston's Dodgers beat the Yankees in 1955?
"It really comes down to results. People's perceptions are still colored to a lot of degree by your success," Carlesimo said. "Bill Parcells was demanding but he got results, so he's a great communicator."
Carlesimo's preferred method of communication still includes a degree of yelling and screaming. Anyone who watches five minutes of a Nets game can see that.
Yet these Nets don't seem to mind all of that, not as long as he allows them to play their freewheeling style of offense.
"He's definitely not a mellow guy, but the stuff he says in practice, a lot of it is pretty funny," shooting guard Joe Johnson said. "The thing with P.J. is as long as we play hard on defense, he gives us a lot of freedom on offense."
And the team is giving Carlesimo what he wants, one last chance to build something big and be a part of something really special and push his 15 seconds of infamy to the bottom of the biography.
"It's a great story," Carroll said. "There's a lot of people in basketball right now who are Brooklyn Nets fans. We're all pulling for him."