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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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"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' éminence 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."

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