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 am."
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 out."
In fact, though, Feerick's investigation condoned Carlesimo's demeanor vis-à-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 Grievant."
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."