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Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner?
Frank Deford
February 01, 1999
A year after being assaulted by one of his players, the Golden State Warriors' P.J. Carlesimo is the same obsessed, demanding, exuberant coach he's always been
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February 01, 1999

Guess Who's Not Coming To Dinner?

A year after being assaulted by one of his players, the Golden State Warriors' P.J. Carlesimo is the same obsessed, demanding, exuberant coach he's always been

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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 the ROTC. "What can I say?" Cheryl asks. "He's just the classic oldest son."

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